Disciplinary History Centers' Success
in Capturing the History of Science
The AIP Center for History of Physics (CHP) and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives (NBL&A) are the world’s premier institutions dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of physics history. Together, these two AIP programs constitute a "disciplinary history center." In fact, we were the first such center in history of science when the CHP and the NBL&A were created in the 1960s. Since then, disciplinary history centers have formed that focus on other areas such as chemistry, computing, and electrical engineering.
I recently visited two such disciplinary history centers that promote the history of sciences closely related to physics. The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia focuses not only on chemistry, obviously, but also medical chemistry and nuclear science—topics that clearly overlap some of CHP’s interests. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) in Minneapolis serves a similar purpose for the history of computing. CHP, CHF, CBI, and the IEEE History Center all help scholars and others to explore histories clustered around their core disciplines, but all of them are also very conscious that disciplinary boundaries are not fixed. Much of the best science crosses boundaries and always has. This does not mean that disciplinary history centers are outdated. They serve the critical need for enhancing the visibility of history of science. Working together, these diverse centers cover much more history and many more sciences than their names imply.
This summer, the Center for History of Physics undertook a new initiative by hosting a conference for early-career historians of science, "Continuity and Discontinuity in the Physical Sciences Since the Enlightenment." The most important goal of the conference was to bring together the rising generation of historians of the physical sciences so they can begin to build the next active community of historians of physics. It's their community to build, and both the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives need a strong community of researchers to augment the written history of physics. The early-career historians chose the conference theme, conducted the call for abstracts, and presented most of the more than 30 papers at the conference. Their topics ranged from investigations of the Geiger-Müller counter and controversies over quantum gravity and statistical mechanics to the history of auroral physics and the prediction of the positron. The conference also featured a public lecture by David DeVorkin, Senior Curator of History of Astronomy and the Space Sciences at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. On the evening of Friday, July 29, DeVorkin delivered a talk entitled "How the Cold War Changed the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory." The conference began on July 28 with a full day of sessions and closed July 31 with a look toward the future of the history of physics.
Although the conference was by and for the young historians of physics, registration was open to everyone interested in the history of physics and allied sciences.