Instruments for Natural Philosophy

Bernard H. Porter's 1939 Map of PhysicsThomas B. Greenslade, emeritus physics professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, USA, has amassed (both physically and virtually) a fascinating and expertly curated collection of old physics teaching equipment.   Among my favorite items are Bernard H. Porter’s 1939 map depicting Physics as a continent, with rivers corresponding to its principal branches.

16 Replies to “Instruments for Natural Philosophy”

    1. The original belongs to Tom Greenslade at Kenyon College, but I doubt he knows where to get any more copies of it. -Charles H. Bennett

    2. Write to the Colby College Archives, where Porter’s papers are deposited. They have, at least, a 8.5 x 11 copy and might be able to scan it for you (probably for a nominal fee)

  1. I really love this map, but I think it needs an update! All of the exciting developments of quantum mechanics are left at the end, near the mouth of the river, expanding into an ocean of unknown. I think that instead of “here be dragons” we can fill in some of this landscape. Is this a task for xkcd?

    1. I agree that someone should produce an updated 21st Century Map of Physics. Frank Jacobs, a connoisseur of maps, has commented on Porter’s map in his Strange Maps blog. There he points out that like geographic place names, some scientists become more famous as time goes on, while others fade into obscurity, and quotes his colleague Jelmer Renema, on the aptness of using merging rivers to illustrate the unifications of seemingly diverse subjects which have occurred throughout the history of physics.

  2. Making a new map of physics sounds like a fun project! I’ve had plenty of comments from my colleagues here in the building (I am a Phd student at Leiden University) who were saying that the map should be updated; preferably with their research topics 🙂
    It’s interesting to think about what should go on there: the ‘radioactivity’ stream (let’s rename that ‘particle physics’) should be much bigger, as well as the astrophysics stream. But there are also things that are completely unrepresented on this map, like soft condensed matter and quantum information theory.
    Also, it’s interesting to think about the fact that there are sometimes cross-connections between fields that don’t easily fall into the rivers analogy. Should we represent those as roads between the villages, perhaps?

  3. If the map is indeed from 1939, it *may* be out of copyright and thus in the public domain. In which case you could just print a poster version from the image. (1939 is a little tricky since copyright in the USA generally is life of the author + 70 years & I don’t know when this Bernard Porter died, or what the copyright status was at his death. There are also odd rules of registration that exist for things made before 1978.)

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  5. Nice. Incorporated most of the branches. However new latest fields should be added to make it more interesting and informative.

  6. Bern Porter’s map got cited and reproduced in the January 2019 issue of Physics Today (p. 30-37), as representing an outmoded view of physics, before the advent and rise of condensed matter physics (via solid state physics).
    The map was also printed as a frontispiece to one of the bestselling physics textbooks co-authored by Marsh White (College Technical Physics, i believe). If you read the fine print, it says it is copyrighted by Central Scientific Company.
    Bern Porter had quite a history, particularly in the arts. During World War II he had a small role in the Manhattan Project (he found out what it was for the day after the bomb was used on Hiroshima) and later in the Apollo Project. Meanwhile he claimed to have invented mail art, hung out in Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris, befriended and then published Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and went on to a long career as an avant garde artist with “found poems” and many other projects.
    and more if you search.
    I also found an attempt at a new map here:
    It may be more up to date, but less detailed.

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