Whither the Center for History of Physics?
Whither, indeed? The Center for History of Physics has been around since the mid-1960s. In that time, it has been led by three directors. In January, the long-term director (since 1974) of the Center, Spencer Weart, retired. Under Weart, the Center built its reputation for preserving and making known the history of physics and allied sciences. He did this by building an unparalleled library of classic physics publications, organizing the collection of hundreds of oral history interviews with physicists and closely allied scientists such as astronomers and geoscientists, and making sure that archival collections of scientists’ private papers found “appropriate homes.” That is, the Center did not accept archival collections unless a better home could not be found.
These activities produced two great outcomes: the Center connected to both scientists and historians of science by promoting historical writing and, second, it connected to other libraries and archives and helped them promote the Center’s preservation goals. Indeed, the library and archival programs succeeded so well that this part of the Center’s activities was renamed the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Archivist Joan Warnow-Blewett certainly was a power behind that growing importance. In 2006 the Center and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives became separate divisions of AIP, providing flexibility and an opportunity for both to grow and develop complementary programs. The Niels Bohr Library & Archives is now directed by Joe Anderson, who is also associate director of the Center.
The new kid on the block is me, Greg Good. I became director of the Center at the start of 2009. I come off of a stint of almost 30 years teaching history of science: as a graduate teaching assistant at the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, Canada; a year as a faculty member at the University of Winnipeg; and then 26 years at West Virginia University. My first contact with the Center was through its newsletter, which I started reading in the 1970s, scanning it for tales of historical discovery, new oral histories, new archives. In the 1980s I graduated to visiting the Center and Library in New York, applying for grants-in-aid, and conducting oral history interviews. In 2004 Spencer asked me to chair the Center’s Advisory Committee. I felt honored and challenged. But I persevered, learned ever more about the professionalism of the staff, and now, here I am, taking over the helm.
Spencer Weart’s accomplishments over his 34 years as director have put me in a wonderful position. Beyond the strength of the Niels Bohr Library, the Center has built some of the best “web exhibits” online on topics in history of science. Last year these web exhibits registered over 39 million page views! Moreover, through Weart’s own books, articles, and conference presentations, he has built the Center’s scholarly reputation. Through the post-doctoral fellowship for “Associate Historians,” the Center has helped form a generation of younger historians of physics: Ron Doel, Patrick McCray, Alexei Kojevnikov, Babak Ashrafi, and Will Thomas, the current post-doc. To recognize Weart’s contributions to the history of physics, the Avenir Foundation announced in early 2008 its endowment of the Spencer Weart Directorship of the Center for History of Physics with a bequest of $3,000,000. The income from this endowment is designated to support the activities of the Center, beyond the Center’s support from AIP. Hence the question I started with, “Whither the Center?”
I guess I don’t have to mention today’s economic problems and their inevitable effect on endowments, but even before that series of unfortunate events began to unfold, Spencer and I agreed that a conservative course of expenditure was the best plan. I only budgeted to use part of the income in 2009. That seems prescient now! So 2009 is mainly a year for reflection, planning, and conversation. No big new programs will begin this year. As a friend of mine in local government says, a town gets in trouble by over-committing in good times to things that can’t be sustained in bad times.
So here, in general language, is what I am thinking about this year. I want the Center for History of Physics to become more of a physical meeting place for historians of science, as a balance to our exemplary web presence. I hope to do this in several ways. The Niels Bohr Library & Archives has long hosted undergraduate and graduate interns in library science and archives management. The Center should also host interns from science and humanities programs to promote the humanistic study of science, and not incidently, to spur some young people to move into history of physics or to incorporate history in their physics activities. We take our first step in this direction this summer with one intern from AIP’s program for members of the Society of Physics Students. The intern will research and build a mini-web exhibit, “Physics at the Edge of Space: Exploration of the Magnetosphere,” based on photos, oral history interviews, and other materials in the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. As the economy bounces back and the endowment grows, the summer internship program should grow into a group workshop, perhaps involving K–12 teachers or faculty of universities and liberal arts colleges, along with the undergraduate students.
Another dream of mine is to have a better-funded, broader fellowship program replace or supplement the current grants-in-aid program. This broader program would maintain the goal of preserving and making known the history of physics and allied sciences, through oral history interviews, bringing scholars to the Center, etc. An equally important goal, though, is to work towards bringing a critical mass of scholars and scientists here for thematic conferences and workshops. By promoting meetings at the Center, we can foster a stronger sense of community, something the internet can’t fully accomplish.
Lastly, public outreach is important, too, if the Center for History of Physics is to become a physical meeting place. In the last few years journalists, historians of physics, and historians of science more broadly have presented their work to the public here: Walter Isaacson, Dan Kevles, John Heilbron, Nancy Greenspan, and more. I intend to continue this and, if possible, to expand the offerings.
For now, though, it’s time to go slowly. As the Zen master says, don’t just do something, sit there. It’s time to reflect to assure that the action can be sustained and that it takes the Center for History of Physics in an interesting and useful direction.
This piece was taken from Einstein’s Apple, the new blog of the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. The blog can be found online at einsteinsapple.blogspot.com.