Physical Sciences and Mathematics: One Half of Advances in Science!

Advances in Science: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants has two focuses: the natural sciences and the physical sciences and mathematics. This post details items in the the physical sciences/mathematics part.



It is commonly accepted that the mathematical sciences begin with Euclid (323 BCE – 285 BCE). While not much is known about the life of Euclid, we have him to thank for the foundations of our modern mathematics. Known as the “Father of Geometry”, Euclid wrote The Elements, the first large-scale treatise to address the issue of Mathematical theorems, and his most famous book. It was instrumental in the development of logic and modern science, and its logical rigor was not surpassed until the 19th century. Below is a 1627 printing of Elements and some other mathematics volumes.

Euclidis Elementorum Libri XV [Euclid’s Elements of Mathematics Book 15]. Euclid, 1620  QA3 .S8708 1627. Special Collections Research Center George Mason University Libraries

Detail from Euclidis Elementorum Libri XV
Euclid, 1620.  QA3 .S8708 1627. Special Collections Research Center
George Mason University Libraries


Petri Rami Arithmetices Libri duo et Algebrae Totidem, a Lazaro Schonero emendati and explicati [Petrus Ramus’ Two Books on Arithmetic, and the same number on Algebra, having been amended and explicated by Lazarus Schoner]. Petrus Ramus, Frankfurt, 1586
QA33 .R26 1586. Special Collections Research Center
George Mason University Libraries

Apollonii Pergaei Lococrum Planorum Libri II
[A Collection of Planes, Book II]. Apollonius of Perga, Glasgow, 1749. QA3 .S8707 1749
Special Collections Research Center George Mason University Libraries

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering encompasses the study and application of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. Electricity, which has its roots in the study of physics, has been a subject of scientific interest since at least the early 17th century. Electrical engineering became a recognizable occupation in the latter half of the 19th century after commercialization of the electric telegraph, the telephone, and electric power distribution and use. Later, radio and television broadcasting made electronics part of daily life. The invention of the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor contributed directly to the rise of computers as well as electronic circuits that could be made small enough to be used in almost any household object.

The end of World War II ushered in a flowering of scientific achievement in America. One of the many scientific pioneers to emerge during this era was Dr. John Nelson Warfield. Like many of his generation, he was called to serve in the military during World War II. But the war shaped Warfield in a unique manner, putting him on the path to a career in engineering and academia. He did pioneering work on early computers, both as a college professor and as a top-secret military researcher. Below is an accepted patent application for an electronic goniometer, a device used in aerospace and naval navigation.


U.S. Patent Application for an Electronic Goniometer
June 12, 1967. John N. Warfield Collection #C0016.
Special Collections Research Center George Mason University Libraries


Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is the application of physical and scientific principles to create roads, bridges, dams, buildings and other types of structures. The discipline is linked to advances in the understanding of physics and mathematics throughout history.

William Lee Mertz (1920-1993) started his career as a highway engineer with the Bureau of Public Roads. As a field engineer, Mertz worked on several significant transportation projects. He took part in the 1955 Road Test in Ottawa, Illinois, where the basic pavement designs for the Interstate Highway System were developed.  Mertz moved to the Bureau of Standards to develop standards for computer software for use in highway engineering applications. He later served as an administrator in the planning of the Interstate Highway System, including the Washington Beltway, I-95 in Maryland, and the Washington Metrorail System. In 1969 Mertz returned to the Federal Highway Administration as Chief of the Urban Planning Division, where he developed transportation planning studies in all 213 metropolitan areas of the nation. Below is a report from a highway engineering test that Mertz participated in early in his career.


The Western Association of Highway Officials (WASHO) Road Test Report, 1955.  William L. Mertz Transportaiton Collection #C0050.. Special Collections Research Center George Mason University Libraries

Early Computers

Computers are machines that can be instructed to do many complex mathematical or logic operations in a short amount of time. Computing devices were critical in military applications, beginning with World War II. While the early computers were slow mechanical devices, developments in the electrical engineering field helped computer technology advance by leaps and bounds during the second half of the twentieth century.   While the military continued to refine and improve computers, large university engineering departments began to develop computers, as well.

One such University was Pennsylvania State University.  During the early 1950s very few universities had done significant research or development in the construction of computers. In 1953 Penn State began work on its first digital computer PENNSTAC (Penn State Automatic Computer). John N. Warfield, a Penn State Electrical Engineering faculty member, was one of the early driving forces behind the development and creation of PENNSTAC. PENNSTAC was completed by 1956, and aided the university in a number of ways. One project worked with Pennsylvania farmers to determine crop yields. It was in service for much of the 1960s, and was finally retired in 1968.

Dr. John N. Warfield with the PENNSTAC Computer, March 1973.
John N. Warfield Collection #C0016. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries


Dr. Eugenie V. Mielczarek: George Mason University Physics Pioneer

Dr. Eugenie V. Mielczarek was the founding professor of the George Mason University Physics Department.  After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from Queens College NY, she studied solid state metals at the National Bureau of Standards.  She earned a Doctor of Physics degree from Catholic University in 1963 and joined George Mason in 1964, where she taught for 35 years before retiring.  Her main area of research was in solid state and biological physics.  She was the co-author of the book Iron, Nature’s Universal Element.  A well-respected and serious faculty member, Dr. Mielczarek chaired and served on numerous university committees and was active in scientific professional organizations.  Below are items from the Eugenie V.Mielczarek Collection.

Physics Research Notes, Dr. Eugenie V. Mielczarek, Eugenie V. Mielczarek Papers #C0059 . Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries


Science Futures for Girls [pamphlet] Please click title to view item

Science Futures for Girls. U.S. Department of Labor, 1959.
Eugenie V. Mielczarek Papers #C0059 . Special Collections Research Center,
George Mason University Libraries


Astrophysics and Astronomy

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of the fathers of modern astronomy with his observations of the Moon, phases of Venus, moons around Jupiter, sunspots, and that the Milky Way Galaxy is made up of a countless amount of stars. In 1609 he built an improved version of an early telescope and became the first person to record observations of space. Galileo initially studied the moon. At that time, most scientists believed that the Moon was a smooth sphere, but Galileo discovered that the Moon has mountains, pits, and other features, just like the Earth. He created drawings of the moon based on his observations. The telescope also helped Galileo confirm that the planets Mercury and Venus pass through phases just like the Moon.  The only way they could do this would be if they circled the Sun, and not the Earth as most scientists and religious scholars believed.

Nearly 350 years later, humans were still interested in exploring the moon. United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA on July 29, 1958. Though adopted as a necessity – initially its adoption was a response to the Soviet Union’s successful satellite launch in 1957 – the agency became a prominent vehicle for scientific discovery.  NASA’s signature program, the Apollo missions (1961-1972) set major milestones in space exploration. Twelve men were landed on the moon during this period. The program spurred advances in many areas of technology pertaining to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.

Handbook to the Special Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus.
South Kensington Museum, London, 1876. Q185 .V54 1876a
Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries


EVA Suit/Glove Development [videotape], National Aeronautics and Space Administration 1986. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries


EVA Suit/Glove Development [still from the videotape], National Aeronautics and Space Administration 1986. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Please click on the image to view a short segment from the film.