Building the Community of Historians of Physics

By Greg Good

Community organization is an important function of the Center for History of Physics. Forty or fifty years ago, when history of physics played a much larger role within history of science, coordination and communication among concerned scholars was rather easier. As the numbers of historians of science increased, however, and as more scholars migrated off to new topics like the Cold War, the national security state, or areas in biophysics and geophysics, holding the community together has become a distinct challenge. The spread of history of science beyond a handful of European and US institutions has multiplied this challenge.

Traditional ways of sustaining a community will continue at AIP. We will continue to publish this newsletter and to provide grants-in-aid to bring scholars to the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Staff members will continue to research and write. We realize, however, that more steps are needed. Toward this end, the Center is hybridizing new and old approaches to increase communication and interaction among historians of physics and allied sciences.

First, we are building a list-serve of all known, publishing historians of physics, geophysics, astrophysics, etc. The edges of this list are rather fuzzy, of course, but its center is robust. Later this summer, all the people on this list will receive an email inviting them to register on a secure part of the Center’s website to produce a directory of historians of the physical sciences. If you want to make sure that you are on this email list and later in the directory, send me a note at . It is perhaps a little surprising that such a directory does not already exist. There is one for historians of geology and another for historians of meteorology and climatology. How has this never happened for historians of physics?

I see a rustling of hands at the back of the room. No, I am not forgetting the Forum for the History of Physics of the American Physical Society. This group is an essential and very lively part of the community. The Forum includes about 3,700 members, representing a very healthy interest in history of physics. The members of the Forum, however, are joined by many like-minded people in the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Committee on History and Philosophy of Physics, the over 1,700 members of the American Geophysical Union who have donated to a scholarship fund to support Ph.D. students researching dissertations in the history of geophysics, the many members of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, as well as those in AVS, IEEE, and other societies. Nearly all of the AIP member societies support history of physics in some way. (See “History of Physics at AIP Member and Affiliated Societies”).

Maybe the lack of a directory is partly due to this diversity of interests. The Center for History of Physics intends to provide means for these various scholars to find common ground. Our future, password-protected web page is only one tool for this. The Center is now experimenting with two Facebook pages — The New Atlanteans (aimed mainly at students in history of science) and an eponymous Center fan page aimed at a broader audience. We also now have a Twitter account @HistoryPhysics, which aims at a broader audience yet.

We are under no illusions. Some serious historians and scientists of a certain age or demeanor likely will never register with Facebook, Twitter, or even on our web site. We will continue to reach these people via the newsletter, mail, telephone, and regular email. But if history of physics is to have a future, we must reach out to younger scholars and use every innovative means at our disposal to do so.

A directory of historians of physical science is a tool. Newsletters, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds are also tools.The most important question is what are the purposes of wielding these tools? First and foremost, historians of physics need to have means to find each other. Once communication is easier, they can discuss collaborative research, conference sessions, and benefit from knowing who is working on which related topics. I have faith that vibrant individuals will undertake interesting projects when communication means are available.

Our community includes trained historians, Ph.D. physicists, science writers, archivists and librarians, and so many more. Not surprisingly, we come to history of physics with different expectations. A critical role of the Center for History of Physics is to bridge these complexities, to connect members of the History of Science Society with those who belong to APS, AGU, AAPT, and the other AIP member and affiliate societies.

The Center also needs to bridge geographical gaps. Groups working in history of physics are active from Berlin and Paris to Barcelona, Oslo, Aarhus, Salvador (Brazil), and numerous universities in the United States and Canada. Other research and educational groups likely exist in other countries around the world. The directory of historians of physics will help us to link these groups together.

This newsletter includes a first step in this direction, an article by Xavier Roqué (CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Néstor Herran (IRIST, Université de Strasbourg) on the current state of history of physics in Spain. The Winter 2010 newsletter will include an article on the Commission on the History of Modern Physics (CHMP), and I look forward to articles on developments in other countries and organizations.

These networking tools will help the Center to effect its mission: To preserve and make known the history of physics and allied sciences. But these tools will only work if scholars embrace them. Please do.

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