Thinking Like a Center for History of Physics

By Greg Good, Center Director

AIP’s Niels Bohr Library & Archives preserves the heritage of the physical sciences, while the purpose of the Center for History of Physics is to make this heritage known. This year the Center includes Will Thomas, Ph.D. — a historian of science who studied at Harvard — here on the third year of a post-doctoral position, Orv Butler, Ph.D. — associate historian who worked with Joe Anderson on the History of Physicists in Industry (HoPI) project and who with Joe is now starting the three-year History of Physicist Entrepreneurs (HoPE) project, Ada Uzoma — who designs and builds the new elements of our web presence, Stephanie Jankowski — who manages the office and especially keeps the oral history program on track, and me.

Of course, the separation of activity is not that simple. All of us work constantly back and forth, as do Joe Anderson and the Library staff. I help the Library in selecting books that will fill the needs of researchers. Joe keeps me in tune with our collections policies for manuscripts, policies that have worked well for decades. Ada and Steph work with Library staff to place their resources effectively on the web and to keep projects flowing.

Will’s "Array of Contemporary American Physicists" project will ultimately become a web-based research tool that complements our Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, the International Catalog of Sources and the on-line Physics History Finding Aids. The Library & Archives also undertake research related to archival issues — documentation research — such as that on physicist entrepreneurs and their records.

So there is no black-and-white separation of functions between the Center and the Library & Archives. There are, however, some things that the Center focuses on that stand apart. While the Library & Archives maintains the standards and goals of a 21st-century digital repository, including clarity on scope of collections, preservation requirements, and cataloging and data standards, the Center should keep the active creation and propagation of history of physics and allied sciences foremost.

That is, the Center should provide a place where historians, scientists, and other scholars gather to talk about “the next new thing” in history of the physical sciences, broadly conceived, as well as to do research in our extraordinarily rich collections. It should encourage new scholarship, new areas of investigation, new questions. The Grants-in-Aid program does this and, as the economy recovers, will do more of this. Even before the recovery, though, in tough times with a tightened budget, the Center has allocated 50% more for 2010 to the Grants-in-Aid program so that we can bring more scholars to College Park.

History of physics and allied sciences — it’s the phrase the Center and the Library have long used to declare our subject. This includes classical physics, quantum and relativistic physics, astrophysics, astronomy, physics in medicine, industrial physics, geophysics, and many more areas. We need to encourage all of these areas of research among younger historians of science.

Given the rise in prominence of biomedical topics — among historians and among the general society — we must be proactive or levels of interest in history of the physical sciences will not be sustained. I think it is critical that historians of the physical sciences revive a graduate student conference inclusive of all of these topic areas and more at the earliest possible date. I gladly volunteer to coordinate this conference. I need half a dozen colleagues — including graduate students — to help. Will you join me?

The Center also should work to bring the history of the physical sciences to the broadest audience possible. Our web exhibits on Einstein, Curie, the history of scientific cosmology, etc., were conceived for this sort of educational outreach. We will continue to add to these, with Spencer Weart’s new exhibit on the history of the laser and an exhibit on “Physics at the Edge of Space: Early Exploration of the Magnetosphere”, both going live in 2010.

More can be done in educational outreach. This summer the Center shared in supporting an undergraduate intern, Mary Mills (B.S., Wooster College, 2009), who conducted background research for the "Edge of Space" exhibit. She also shared her perspective as a physics-education major. More interns will follow in Mary’s footsteps each summer. The Center also started participating in the informal "Physics Education Roundtable," which brings together educational staff of the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and other member societies. Historians and science educators need to communicate better everywhere.

For an academic historian like me who has spent his career teaching in a university history department, this brings new questions forward. The interests and needs of scientists, educators, and historians don’t always match, but there is considerable opportunity to collaborate. A simple example: I learned from Bo Hammer (AAPT) and Bruce Mason (APS ComPADRE project) that teachers of introductory physics courses, who cannot get very far into 20th-century physics, could use more historical web exhibits on earlier topics.

What did Galileo, Newton, Laplace, and Gauss (for example) research in mechanics? Cavendish, Coulomb, Faraday, Oersted, and Ampere in electricity and magnetism? Huygens, Young, Fresnel, and Biot in light? Maxwell, Hertz, and Helmholtz in electromagnetic theory and experiment? The Center can certainly begin working toward helping science students and teachers in these directions. Of course this will take time; the current exhibits were developed over 25 or more years. This will require sustained collaboration.

One of the ways to promote the broadest public awareness of the history of the physical sciences is well illustrated by two recent Grants-in-Aid. Peter Byrne reports in this newsletter on how he turned a Grant-in-Aid into a BBC-NOVA biographical film on the physicist who introduced the idea of infinitely many universes, Hugh Everett III. We have also supported the science writer Amir Aczel, well known for his books Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, Uranium Wars: The Scientific Rivalry that Created the Nuclear Age, Entanglement, and more. But of course, we are also glad to support scholars whose writings may never reach as broad an audience, but whose careful work lays the basis for a deeper understanding of the history of physical science.

The Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives continue to work together and to be closely entwined. Our goals and our methods complement each other. Together the two have accomplished much in the past, and we will continue to "preserve and make known the history of physics and allied sciences."

Photos:

« Back to Table of Contents