Almost lost to history, these toys quite literally put quantum mechanics at one’s fingertips. In episode 35, Jean-François Gauvin from Université Laval in Canada discusses how he came to understand the purpose and value of unique toy blocks that ended up on his desk at Harvard University in 2014 as the director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI). His article “Playing with Quantum Toys: Julian Schwinger’s Measurement Algebra and the Material Culture of Quantum Mechanics Pedagogy at Harvard in the 1960s” was published in March 2018 in Physics in Perspective.



Websites and other resources

  • Interview with Costas Papaliolios (circa 1987):

  • Freeman Dyson – How difficult was it to understand Schwinger?


Press and blog coverage

IEEE Spectrum | The Reference Frame

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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Gauvin, J.-F.. (2018, October 30). Parsing Science – Playing with Science History. figshare.


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Quantum toys photo credit and copyright: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University

Jean-François Gauvin photo credit and copyright: Samantha van Gerbig


Jean-François Gauvin: The objects stored in museums are resources, the same way that manuscripts are books’ primary source.

Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins…

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. A package containing 21 aluminum boxes, forgotten for over 40 years, arrived on the desk of our guest, Jean-François Gauvin, at Harvard University’s collection of historical scientific instruments in 2014. With little more to go on than the cryptic symbols inscribed on them, he had to decide whether these objects warranted inclusion in the museum’s collection. Today on Parsing Science, Jean-François talks with us about his efforts to uncover the provenance, and use, of these objects in teaching students an important principle of quantum mechanics. Here’s Jean-François Gauvin.

Gauvin: Bonjour! I am Jean-François Gauvin. I am professor here at Université Laval in Quebec City, and I have a chair in Museum Studies. As you can hear, so I’m a French-Canadian. I grew up in Montreal and after that, I went to Harvard University, where I was able to do a PhD in history of science. And for basically the past 20 years, I had a foot in both the museum field and also in academia. And my specialty is the history of scientific instruments. At Harvard, I was the director of administration of the collection of scientific instruments over there for seven years, before coming back to my native country, and leading that chair position.

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