History on Physics in Spain: CEHIC Group
Builds Ground for Historical Research

By Xavier Roqué (CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
and Néstor Herran (IRIST, Université de Strasbourg)

In 2006, historians of the Centre for the History of Science (CEHIC) at the Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona, Spain, launched a research project to establish the basis for a history of physics in twentieth-century Spain. Led by historian of physics Xavier Roqué, the project has recently received an extension of its funding by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, and has also been supported by the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

In brief, the CEHIC project aims at laying the foundations for a systematic study of the History of Physics in Spain in the 20th century through the preservation of scientific archives, the compilation of secondary literature and the support of new case studies based on our pioneering Masters and PhD program in history of science. This is the first history of science program in Spain and has been awarded the so-called Mención de Calidad of the Ministry of Education—a distinction that has allowed the centre to invite up to eight visiting lecturers each year and has helped reinforce the international outlook of the programme. In relation to the preservation of physics’ heritage, the project aims to contribute to the identification of archival sources pertaining to the History of Physics in Spain, to the creation of new sources via oral history, and to the integration of the information gathered in the International Catalog of Sources (ICOS) at the American Institute of Physics.

At the moment, the centre has already catalogued two main collections of archives, the personal archives of physicist Pere Pasqual and the institutional archives of the Synchrotron facilities at the UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). In both cases, the catalogues have been integrated into the platform Servei d’Arxius de Ciència (SAC, Science Archives Service), an initiative run by the CEHIC which has the support of three leading institutions in the area of scientific research and heritage in Catalonia: the Department of Culture and Media of the Catalan government, the Institute for Catalan Studies, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. In relation to the oral sources, members of the centre have performed oral interviews, including physicists Pere Pasqual, Xavier Campí, Oriol Bohigas, Ramon Pascual, Alberto Galindo, Manuel Asorey, Eduard de Rafael, Josep Maria Vidal, Rafael Márquez Delgado, and Piedad de la Cierva. Information about these and other oral history projects is also available through the SAC webpage, http://www.sac.cat/home.php.

A second objective, related to the mapping of research in this domain, aims to establish an online database of literature on twentieth-century physics in Spain, which would be the basis of a guide and review essay on this topic. At the moment, the database counts about 500 references, most of them published in Spanish, and the group foresees making it available to the public in late 2010. Indeed, an essay-review and guide of this literature will be published this same year to provide an assessment of the state-of-the-art of the literature on the history of physics in Spain, to identify gaps in literature and key issues for future research and, in general, to provide an introduction to new researchers in this topic.

Last, but not least, the project also fosters research among students and scholars on the History of Physics in Spain in the 20th century, dealing with the history of institutions devoted to physics, the interplay between physics and the biomedical sciences, the evolution of physics teaching, or the development of instrumentation. Some examples of this research are: Carles Gámez’ study of the Interuniversity Group of Theoretical Physics (Grupo Interuniversitario de Física Teòrica, GIFT), which had an important role in the growth of this subdiscipline of physics in Spain in the 1960s and 1970s; Alfonso Carpio’s research on the training of Catalan physicists in France during Francoism as part of a program of “brain drain” by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the cooperation of the nuclear establishment; Néstor Herran’s history of the Institute of Radioactivity at the University of Madrid and of the radium industry in Spain in the early 20th century; Xavier Mañes’ research on the introduction of X-ray crystallography in Spain before and after the Spanish Civil War; Miquel Terreu’s study of the introduction of electron microscopy in Spain; and Cristina Vergara’s research (in progress) on the Spanish contribution to MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov), a giant gamma-ray telescope in the Canary Islands.

Some of these studies have been recently published in Spanish or Catalan and will also be published in English to make them available to the international community of historians of science.

The studies produced in the framework of the project tend to stress the close relationship between physics and the cultural, political, industrial, and economic domains, as well as to improve the connection between Spanish developments and trends found in other national contexts.

As it is proving the case, the systematic study of the Spanish case will be of much help to integrate these studies in both the Spanish and the international historiographies and to draw comparative conclusions about the development of physics in the twentieth century.


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