Fame and the Forgotten Physicist
I recently did a little seat-of-the-pants research on Facebook. Thinking of Einstein and Bohr, Oppenheimer and Feynman, I asked all my friends: who is the current “face of physics?” The most common response—well, three people—suggested Stephen Hawking. One friend thought of Steven Chu, who has been in the news as President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Energy. No one suggested any of the last ten Nobel Laureates. Even Nobel Prize winners are forgotten.
This result does not surprise me. Physics and physicists do not appear much in the public eye these days. Fame tends to be tied to a small number of individual scientists, and then only for one idea or accomplishment. Newton is famous for gravity, Einstein for relativity, Bohr for his atom, Oppenheimer for the bomb, and Feynman for his diagrams. For most people—even for most educated people—knowledge of these scientists and their work goes no further. It’s an act of symbolic association, and I don’t deplore it. My knowledge of people in sports and economics is just as superficial.
Why am I bringing this up? I think to an extent we all do a disservice to physics by concentrating on heroic figures. Physics is more than Einstein, just as Einstein is more than relativity. Similarly, biology is more than Darwin and Darwin is more than evolution. If Einstein had been the only physicist and Darwin the only biologist, if there had not been many others, the world today would be much different than it is. To focus more closely: the forgotten physicist is legion. A goal of the Center and the Niels Bohr Library is to capture the stories of those forgotten physicists and make them known.
To document the history of physics broadly conceived requires imagination and cooperation. One project here at AIP in the 1970s and 80s documented the history of twentieth-century astrophysics. This project produced over one hundred oral history interviews, some with luminaries like S. Chandrasekhar and Martin Schwarzschild, but many with much less well-known astronomers. The project promoted the preservation and cataloging of historical records at Lick Observatory, Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, Lowell Observatory, and others.
Another Center and Library project around 1990, the Multi-Institutional Collaborations Study, concentrated on the question: How can we document the innovative, large-scale collaborations that characterize post-World War II science and technology? The study’s first phase examined experimental programs at five large accelerator labs, such as Brookhaven National Laboratory and the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). Project members interviewed over 300 scientists and surveyed record-keeping practices at the labs.
In a second phase of this project, the Center and Library worked in the early 1990s to preserve the records of twentieth-century geophysics and space science. Geophysicists submitted autobiographical memoirs, answered questionnaires, and allowed oral history interviews. During the project, researchers found homes for several geophysicists’ archival collections. The American Geophysical Union was a very helpful partner in this project. A final stage of the project studied documentation policies and practices in these sciences.
The Center and Library continue to seek out new opportunities to broaden their shared vision “to preserve and make known the historical record of modern physics and allied sciences.” The recently completed project “History of Physicists in Industry” is reported on elsewhere in this newsletter. Moreover, we anticipate beginning a new project “History of Physics Entrepreneurs” this year, which will delve into the documentation norms of start-up “dot coms” of recent decades.
Perhaps our single, most important project is the International Catalog of Sources (ICOS) (www.aip.org/history/icos) , which contains over 9,000 records of personal papers, oral histories, and other resources for both famous and less known physicists, astronomers, geophysicists, and industrial and government scientists. This started on index cards in the 1970s and has migrated ultimately to the web. Our newly re-designed web site calls it the “International Archival Catalog (ICOS),” because we didn’t think the original name was clear enough for the many new viewers who find us via Google and other search engines. We’ve kept the acronym since old-time users (like me) look for ICOS. The Library staff constantly reaches out to other institutions to make this catalog as comprehensive and global as possible.
Many similar, smaller scale projects are always on-going. The Center and Library collaborate with AIP’s member societies—the American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, Acoustical Society of America, and seven others—regarding records retention, oral history interviews, photograph preservation, and many other ways of preserving history of physics.
At last May’s symposium honoring Spencer Weart, historian of science John L. Heilbron called attention to the importance of “Biographies of People who were not Einsteins.” (The program of this symposium and several PowerPoint shows are at: www.aip.org/history/symp_program.html). Dr. Heilbron highlighted especially a forgotten ‘physicist’ of ca. 1800, Jean-André Deluc, but he made the point that much physics research is done by the broad base of physics.
The Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives will continue to “preserve and make known” the physics and lives of Einstein, Bohr, and other famous physicists. But we also encourage historians, archivists, and physicists to remember and to make known the “forgotten physicists”: in the early years, in multi-institutional laboratories, in the back rows of conference photos, in industry, in astronomy, geophysics, acoustics, medical physics, crystallography, optics, fluid flow, materials science, in classrooms—wherever physicists work, whatever their ethnicity or gender. They all participate in the fabric of history.