AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume 41, No. 1, Spring 2009
 

Under Construction: The Array of
Contemporary American Physicists

By Will Thomas

Last year the Center for History of Physics received a grant from the National Science Foundation to construct a web-based project that is currently being called the “Array of Contemporary American Physicists” (ACAP). The idea behind the project is to create a sort of “map” of the American physics community from 1945 to the present. We are doing this by collecting and interconnecting career data on approximately 800 physicists, chosen according to a preliminary set of selection criteria. These criteria include winners of major physics prizes, including several American Physical Society prizes; leaders of major organizations such as national laboratories and major physics departments; and high-level advisers. Limited time and resources, as well as the difficulty of fitting criteria across national borders, means that for the time being we are restricting ACAP to physicists who have worked in the United States, though we realize this is highly artificial in this age of extensive international collaboration.

We have chosen our criteria with an eye toward obtaining an outline of what kinds of careers it has been possible for talented physicists to lead, what kinds of institutions they can work for, and what kinds of research they might undertake in recent history. We do not imagine that we can derive any statistically meaningful conclusions or firm historical judgments about the physics community based on this sample. Rather, it is our hope that by expanding the scope of our historical palette from a few dozen “big names”, we can at least start to develop a sense of the ways in which we lack coherent understanding of the history of physics, taken holistically. ACAP is being designed in such a way that once we have developed this understanding, we can easily expand the resource in ways that make the most sense.

Once online, ACAP will be easily accessible via the History Center’s web site. It will be searchable, but perhaps the best way of using the resource will be by browsing through the three different kinds of pages we will have: biographies, institutions, and lines of research. The biographical pages will feature a photograph of the physicist, where available, as well as skeletal information sorted according to date, including date and place of birth, educational history, major appointments, and auxiliary posts such as service on committees or visiting professorships. Information has not been uniformly available, but we find that at least basic information is available for nearly everyone. Institutional pages will be constructed automatically from biographical entries, and will include information on institutional officers, people employed by the institution, and, in the case of academic departments, people who received PhDs there. Research line pages, which will feature major milestones and literature references, will be constructed manually based on extant historical and review literature as well as guidance from historians and physicists. Records will be fully interlinked so users can explore the community institutionally and intellectually in an intuitive and fluid way.

We imagine that ACAP will have different uses for different audiences. Primarily, we hope that professional historians of physics will be able to use the resource as a highly accessible source of information on people they might encounter in their research. In addition, we hope that the information in the resource will offer historians tantalizing hints of areas they can start unraveling but about which we still know remarkably little. We also hope that physics enthusiasts, physicists, and physics students will enjoy exploring the resource, and gain a keener appreciation for how all of physics has a history to which even the most recent work is connected. The idea is to communicate to this audience that history is not merely retrospective, but is being produced constantly. Finally, entries will have links to other resources held at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, meaning that ACAP can function as a promotional tool for those resources, and serve as a portal to guide users from the wider internet into them.

As the History Center’s postdoctoral historian, I originally conceived of this project as a way of using the information technology at our disposal to expand the ways that historians can understand history, and communicate their knowledge and understanding to others. Because conference talks, journal articles, and books can rarely be burdened by overwhelming detail, the background knowledge historians must collect to write intelligently is usually kept private. Yet, if a complex knowledge of history can be easily shared in public, I believe that entirely new possibilities for preserving, communicating, and analyzing history will surface.

As of March 1, I have assembled a reasonably complete list of physicists we wish to include, although information on who occupied departmental chairs since 1945 remains difficult to obtain remotely. The History Center has used grant money to hire a project assistant, University of Maryland history graduate student Christopher Donohue, to help gather biographical data and to input it into our database, which is being coded in XML. We are retrieving data primarily from physicists’ home pages, and from resources such as American Men and Women of Science and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives’ biographical dossiers. The History Center’s Web Specialist, Ada Uzoma, is designing the project’s interface, with an emphasis on attractiveness and navigability, and Assistant Archivist Meghan Petersen has been assisting us in finding more efficient ways to code. Thanks to the efforts of everyone working on this project, we hope to launch ACAP this spring, and to expand and improve it steadily thereafter.


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