AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXIX, No. 2, Fall 1997


Niels Bohr Library Celebrates 35th Anniversary

We meet on an occasion of particular sweetness at the home and center of a constellation of enterprises in which all of us have deep hope and deep interest.

The occasion referred to by J. Robert Oppenheimer was the dedication of the Niels Bohr Library at the American Institute of Physics on 26 September 1962. The "constellation of enterprises" encompassed three efforts: a Project on Recent Physics in the United States, funded in 1961 by the National Science Foundation; the Niels Bohr Library, funded in part by Dannie Heineman and now inaugurated in the presence of Oppenheimer and other dignitaries; and a committment by the AIP to play a leadership role in addressing the grave obstacles to documenting the history of modern physics and allied sciences. The AIP's committment would later be formalized in 1965 when the Project and Library were joined under a new line division of the Institute, the Center for History of Physics. 1997 marks the 35th anniversary of the dedication of the Niels Bohr Library--a time to celebrate the efforts of its staff and the scholars who have used its rich resources over the years.

Click here to see a photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer giving his speech.

Oppenheimer gave the keynote address at the dedication of the Niels Bohr Library. Today his remarks are poignant and constructive reminders of the contributions of historical scholarship based on documentary resources. Here are some excerpts:

...let me address myself to the undertakings of which this new library will be the home, to the attempt--with all due caution as to the fallibility of memory--to preserve the recollections of the great actors in recent physics and the wonderful sources of letters, of first drafts of papers, of lecture notes. These are all the things which time erodes; they give to the past a luminous, but often misleading quality of simplicity. Now we have an opportunity to make them available to scholars in their richness, so that it will be possible to discover of this time not only what we all know--that it was a heroic time--but that it had its share of crooks and robbers and fools, as well as its great and noble men.
The times we have lived through are, I believe, truly heroic times. They are certainly times of great change, and--just like intellectual history--the achievements in physics in this century seem to me to stand with the high points of the whole history of human knowledge in the quality of the insight and in the beauty of the work that was done.
We are so engulfed by the changes, the massiveness, the ferocity, the brashness, the virtuosity, the confusion of the current scene in physics, that we do not understand it very well, and it may not be possible for us to understand it. The enterprises which are now under way, and for which this room will serve as hearth, should make it possible--if there are serious students of the human predicament in the future--to know very much more about what has befallen us than we who are acting and living in it. And they will see both good and bad things, and they will see them in a wiser and deeper perspective than we who act in it.
This heroic story is, I think, among one of the records that will really be studied and read. And perhaps not least for something which is not part of the history of physics, but will intrude into these collections and these reminiscences, and that is the historically hardly paralleled dedication and responsibility of physicists to the great, dark, tangled, ununderstood cause of a peaceful world.

J. Robert Oppenheimer
Niels Bohr Library
26 September 1962

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