AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXX, No. 1, Spring 1998

 

Internet History of Science Service Celebrates First Birthday with Online Symposium

by Harry M. Marks

Many scholars in the humanities are only beginning to exploit the possibilities for scholarly exchange offered by the Internet. Earlier this decade a group of scholars based at the University of Illinois launched H-NET, a consortium of discussion lists to enable humanities scholars to communicate more frequently than in their annual meetings and more directly than through journal publication. Currently based at Michigan State University, H-NET sponsors over 80 discussion lists on subjects ranging from the Spanish writer Cervantes (H-Cervantes) to women and the military (H-Minerva). A recent addition is H-SCI-MED-TECH, a discussion list for historians of science, medicine and technology. In early 1998 the list celebrated its first birthday with an online discussion of a recently published book, Peter Galison's Image and Logic. A Material Culture of Microphysics.

The editors of H-SCI-MED-TECH (Nina Lerman, Whitman College; Iwan Morus, Queens University, Belfast; Harry M. Marks, The Johns Hopkins University) founded the list to encourage interdisciplinary conversations on matters of common interest to historians who work on the physical and biological sciences, technology, and medicine and the medical sciences. One area of emerging common interest which inspired the editors to plan a symposium is the study of experimental practices and instrumentation. Galison's analysis of the history of experimental practices in modern particle physics seemed to have implications far beyond the history of physics. Five scholars from different disciplines were invited to offer opening commentaries on such topics as the value of Galison's notions of a "trading zone" and of "pidgin" and "creole" languages as mediums for exchange between experimentalists and theorists, the impact of post-World War II industrial technologies on the development of physics, and the accuracy of Galison's accounts of the divide between the "logic" and "image" traditions within modern experimental physics. More broadly, commentators asked whether Galison's account of experimental and instrumental traditions provides a new model for studying the history of physics in other times and areas, as well as the histories of other disciplines.

The symposium demonstrated both the opportunities and the frustrations of this new medium for scholarly exchange. It was hoped that the invited (and excellent) commentaries would open a wide-ranging discussion. Some such discussion did take place, but relatively little. Possible impediments were the heft and substance of Galison's work; the impressive and perhaps intimidating quality of the initial commentaries; the press of the seemingly endless other commitments that scholars face; and the reluctance of scholars to commit themselves in a medium which, while less formal than print, is more public than the seminar room or even the conference. Whatever the reason, it appears that on this list, as on others, the ratio of subscribers to participants is large.

Despite these limitations, in its first year H-SCI-MED-TECH has fostered several discussions of interest to historians of physics: about the historiography of contemporary science, and the current role of the traditional disciplines; a survey of works on Cold War science; a discussion of John Horgan's recent book on the "end of science"; and inquiries about the place "heroic" accounts have in the history of science. A discussion of the difficulties of writing about transnational scientific developments in an era when most historians are trained to write only national histories brought in comments from scholars in Britain, Russia and Israel, including a lively debate about the linguistic shortcomings of U.S. trained scholars. These and other exchanges are stored at the list's World Wide Web site: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~smt/.

In addition to subscriber-initiated discussions, H-SCI-MED-TECH offers a convenient forum for teachers and researchers who want to orient themselves to the literature in a new area. Planning an innovative course? Seeking to verify a famous quote or anecdote? Your colleagues will direct you to readings and sources. Such subscriber queries account for about one-third of the list's traffic, while professional news of conferences and jobs account for another third.

H-SCI-MED-TECH has more than 1100 subscribers from over 40 countries and a wealth of disciplines, ranging from history to biology to engineering. You are invited to join, not just to listen but to talk. The editors are especially eager to have more participation from scholars interested in the history of the physical sciences, to help break down disciplinary walls. The electronic mode provides an opportunity for rapid and informal exchange lacking in print media. This is a "moderated" list, steering clear of the competitive ego displays sometimes found on open lists (editors can block intemperate submissions). To subscribe, simply send the following message to listserv@h-net.msu.edu: "Subscribe H-SCI-MED-TECH Your name, your institution". You can also sign onto the list at the World Wide Web page of H-NET, http://www.h-net.msu.edu/lists/.


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