Nazis, Émigrés, and Abstract Mathematics: The Strange Story of Pascual Jordan’s Eponymous Algebra, 1933–1939

Lunchtime Lectures
Friday, November 8, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk by Ryan Dahn, fellow in residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.

While quantum mechanics continues to beguile scholars and the public alike, one of the major architects of this famous theory remains practically unknown: the brilliant German mathematical physicist Pascual Jordan (1902–1980). Despite his crucial Nobel Prize–worthy contributions to 20th-century physics, Jordan is largely remembered today, if at all, for his Nazi-era writings that praised Hitler’s regime. In this talk Dahn will analyze Jordan’s Nazism along with his relationship with Jewish émigrés by reconstructing a paper coauthored by Jordan in collaboration with two Jewish colleagues, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann. This “three-man paper,” drafted in the fateful year of 1933, introduced a new type of nonassociative algebras later termed “Jordan algebras.” Amazingly, neither Jordan’s decision to join the Nazi Party that spring nor Wigner’s and von Neumann’s emigration from Germany that fall prevented this intensive collaborative effort. Through the remarkable tale of Jordan’s eponymous algebra, Dahn will draw conclusions from his life relevant for both historians of science and historians of modern Germany.

About the Speaker

Ryan Dahn is a fellow in residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. He completed a PhD in conceptual and historical studies of science at the University of Chicago in June 2019. He is interested in the relationship between science, fascism, and the state, and recently published an article in Isis on German efforts to “Nazify” big science during World War II. Currently he is working on his book project, Nazi Entanglement: Pascual Jordan, Quantum Mechanics, and the Legacy of the Third Reich, the first-ever biographical study of German physicist Pascual Jordan.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.