Conference: The Next Generation
of Historians of Physical Science

Early-career historians of the physical sciences converged on the American Center for Physics at the end of July for a four-day conference, sponsored by AIP's Center for History of Physics. The conference theme was 'Continuity and Discontinuity in the Physical Sciences since the Enlightenment'. In the 1970s and 80s, a grad student conference was held each year—the Joint Atlantic Seminar in History of the Physical Sciences (JASHoPS); it drew mainly from the eastern US. This meeting attracted speakers from around the world. Fifty-four participants came from fifteen countries, including China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, nine European countries, and the US.

The unique feature of the conference was the way it was organized. This meeting was by and for early-career historians of physics. The organizing committee was chaired by 2010 CHP intern Amy Fisher, who recently defended her dissertation. Amy's committee members included Fábio Freitas (Brazil), Anna Holterhoff and Christian Joas (Germany), Joe Martin and Ann Robinson (US), Pierre Teissier (France), and Xiaodong Yin (China). They wrote the call for papers, selected the papers to be presented, and developed the program. The Center’s goal is to reinvigorate the community of historians of physics and to make this a broadly international community.

The presentations covered a wide range of topics from physics in Latin America and the development of the Geiger-Müller counter to interactions of the medical and physics communities in the early-20th century over control of X-ray diagnostics and treatments. There was a session on instrumentation, one on earth and space sciences, and another on theory and experiment. The topic attracting the most attention was the history of quantum mechanics, with papers on Louis de Broglie, quantum optics, quantum measurement in the 1960s, and more.

Conference attendees broke into small groups for tours provided by Joe Anderson and the staff of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. Although they had heard of NBLA's collections before, many attendees did not realize just how rich the collections are. Indeed, altogether 23 researchers worked in NBLA before and after the conference. We hope that by introducing young historians to NBLA in person, we will transform them into long-term users and supporters of the library.

Two keynote talks were given. Jaume Navarro (MPI for History of Science, Berlin) spoke on transformations in how physics was taught in England in the 19th century. Michel Janssen (University of Minnesota) discussed 'arcs and scaffoldings' in the history of relativity and quantum theory. The Center for History of Physics also sponsored the first in a new series of Science Heritage Public Lectures. David DeVorkin, senior curator of astronomy and space science at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gave a lively talk on how the Cold War changed the Smithsonian's Astro-physical Observatory.

Our thanks go out to long-term supporters of CHP who accepted invitations to comment on papers presented: Dieter Hoffman, Richard Staley, Alexei Kojevnikov, Michel Janssen, Roger Launius, Christoph Lehner, and Joan Bromberg. Their presence made this an intergenerational conference, too, and provided some extra continuity in scholarship.

The energy levels of the young historians were wonderful to witness. Discussions were lively and cheerful, both during and outside of sessions. Almost half of the participants attended a baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the NY Mets, proving that some things are even more mysterious to the Brazilians and Europeans than Max Planck’s feelings about the quantum. The conference closed with a round-table discussion of publication of some of the talks and with great hopes for more such meetings in the future.

After the conference closed, an international soccer match started at noon in the AIP oval and didn't finish until after 6pm! All our visitors went home with a warm remembrance of AIP. Several said this was the best conference they had yet attended. The next one will be even better!

Photos:

« Back to Table of Contents