AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV , No. 2, Fall 2002

 

The Many Faces of the Friends of the Center

Love of history, a sense of responsibility and stewardship, and a sense of fun help define donors to the Center for History of Physics. While the common thread of a scientific career in physics, astronomy or associated sciences runs through the most dedicated Friends, each has their own story of why and when they realized they were interested in science history.

Melba Phillips
Melba Phillips

Because of the repeal of the estate tax, Melba Phillips had decided to send in her bequest earlier, while still living, to gain the full benefit of income tax deductions. "I have always been interested in the history of physics," Melba commented in a recent telephone conversation. She explained that while she could not give a precise date when her interest became strong, she associated her love of history with the writing of Classical Electricity and Magnetism, the classic textbook that she co-authored with W. K. H. Panofsky and published in 1955. While writing about the discoveries that led up to Maxwell's discovery of his equations, Melba was struck by the unique and beautiful way these laws were derived.

Frank Edmondson decided to provide a generous donation to the Center's endowment campaign, History that Matters, through a bequest. Frank and his wife Margaret Russell Edmondson have also provided a yearly gift to the Center for the past twelve years. The project responsible for triggering Frank's active involvement in preserving and documenting the history of astronomy had its origins in a letter written to him in 1964 by David L. Crawford, suggesting that the history of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and Kitt Peak National Observatory be recorded. About ten years later Arne Slettebak and W.A. Hiltner, AURA board members, approached Frank repeatedly, saying, "Frank, you've been in this from the beginning, so why don't you write down your recollections of the early history before you lose your memory."

Although Frank's original plan was to simply organize archival files and write commentaries, he quickly saw that more was necessary. "Also, it soon became clear to me that I had a moral obligation to do this. The story was much too important, interesting, and complicated to put back in the files to gather more dust," Frank noted in the preface to his book, AURA and Its US National Observatories, published in 1997. Frank recently recounted in a telephone interview, "I realized that I was the only living person left who could write this history in detail."

John Armstrong
John Armstrong

John Armstrong became more aware of the Center while serving as Chair of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics. He has generously donated leadership gifts each year to the Center for the past few years. He attributes his interest in the history of physics to a specific teacher while he was at Harvard. "The history of physics is a key part of the history of modern civilization," John comments. "Those who know it best have a special responsibility to preserve it, and to help make it known. My own conviction on this point goes back to a course at Harvard taught by Phillip Franck, which dealt with the history of relativity."

D. Allan Bromley, Virginia Trimble, and Frank Edmondson
Left to right: D. Allan Bromley, Virginia Trimble, and Frank K. Edmondson, at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Niels Bohr Library. See more photos of the reception.

Virginia Trimble, at a recent meeting and tour of the Center, mentioned that she regretted she did not have a tape-recording of any interview with her late husband, physicist Joseph Weber. She said that if the Center could find such an interview, she would give enough money to support a full interview with someone elsea not insignificant sum. The staff were able to search the Web-based catalog on the spot, and found among the Niels Bohr Library's holdings a tape of an interview on Weber's contributions to the discovery of masers and quantum electronics. Although the tape was short and did not cover Weber's pioneering work on gravitational radiation, Virginia paid with a flourish.

Virginia says that she gradually and accidentally began to read, write, and give talks on history of science after she made the somewhat unhappy discovery that many things she had thought of as "current events" had become history, including the discoveries of quasars, pulsars, and the cosmic microwave background. She has reached that even more senior point described by David Dewhirst (of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge UK) as, "You know you're getting old when the apparatus you used for your PhD dissertation research turns up in a museum." It was a spectrograph in his case, and a 40-pound photographic plate holder in hers.


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