History of Astronomy at AIP


AIP supports two distinct history programs: the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (NBLA). Why two? Simply put, it’s because of the importance of history to scientists, including members of the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Among the many functions of NBLA is the preservation of all of AIP’s Member Societies’ important records. In the last year, the library has accepted a new batch of material from AAS related to society matters. We now have 168 linear feet of AAS records in the collection, along with 21 cassette tapes and 3 films.

The library is also an information clearinghouse and maintains and constantly expands the International Catalog of Sources (ICOS), a worldwide union catalog of individual scientists’ manuscript collections: their letters, notebooks, and other important papers. (Looking for Edwin Hubble’s letters to colleagues? Check ICOS: They’re at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.) NBLA does not usually accept the papers of individual astronomers (or physicists), but we do help to find an appropriate home for such collections. Some should go to a university archive, others to the relevant national archive, and still others – like Hubble’s – to a privately endowed institution.

In addition, the library cares for a growing collection of 18,000 titles, focused on the physical sciences—including astronomy—of the 19th and 20th centuries—as well as 30,000 photographs, more than 1,000 oral history interviews, a number of institutional histories, and more. For example, you can find photos of astronomers at http://photos.aip.org/ (try Eddington) or read the transcript of a 1977 oral history interview with Horace W. Babcock (http://www.aip.org/ history/ohilist/1038.html). This interview is part of the 400 hours of interviews in the Sources for the History of Modern Astrophysics Project.

In 2010, the Center for History of Physics online exhibits received more than 1,100,000 visits. The web exhibit “Cosmic Journey” (http://www.aip.org/history/ cosmology/) provides an expansive discussion of the history of scientific cosmology. The Center also organizes conferences and other programs. We worked with Ozzie Osborne and AAS on a workshop on preservation of astronomical glass-plate negatives, held in April. Three other societies (APS, AGU, and AAPT) have expressed interest in developing systematic, ongoing oral history programs. The Center for History of Physics will work with any Member Society to explore its ideas regarding activities and projects having to do with history.

That does not mean we can take on all ideas. Our staff is small. Historic preservation of old observatories is a good idea, but beyond our expertise. We won’t be taking thousands of glassplate negatives, either, since these will go elsewhere. We do address educational issues, for example posting syllabi of historical courses. We are remodeling this part of our web site in 2013, so wait a while before sending your syllabi to us!

In the fall of 2012, the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives will organize a oneday workshop for Member Society officers and volunteers interested in encouraging historical activities in their societies. To get on the workshop list, contact History Center Director Greg Good at ggood@aip.org.

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