Grant-in-Aid Research Experience at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives

By Peter Susalla, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Wisconsin


I visited the Niels Bohr Library & Archives (NBLA) in February on a Grant-in-Aid to conduct research for my dissertation on the history of modern cosmology. My project describes how cosmology, which intellectuals circa 1900 understood as part of metaphysics (and so part of philosophy), developed into a major branch of physics and astronomy research by the end of the century. As it did so, cosmology remained a field at the boundaries of acceptable research, as scientists, philosophers, religious thinkers, and educators all asked: “is cosmology even science?”

Cosmology did become part of science: about 20% of all astronomy graduate students in the 1980s worked in cosmology and cosmology-related research, based on data compiled by the AIP and available at the NBLA. These kinds of materials on scientific training and pedagogy are especially valuable to my project, as Thomas Kuhn and many historians since have emphasized that the techniques of the classroom are just as important in the formation and propagation of a new discipline as are the techniques of the laboratory.

Among the material housed at the NBLA, in addition to the AIP’s statistical information on graduate programs and original promotional materials from the individual programs themselves, the records of the Education Office of the American Astronomical Society were particularly important in helping me to understand how astronomers thought about science education in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period when cosmology began to enter science curricula at all levels of education, and I was able to see how the AAS and its Committee for Education in Astronomy began to consider the place of cosmology in its education reform efforts.

However, one of my favorite “finds” at the NBLA relating to the development of cosmology pedagogy dates from an earlier time: a series of lecture notes taken by Lorenz Huff, a student in Richard C. Tolman’s course in general relativity at Caltech in 1929. Through Huff’s notes, we see Tolman and his class working through a variety of early cosmological models, including those of Albert Einstein, Willem de Sitter, and Georges Lemaitre, and wondering about the implications of Edwin Hubble’s recently published discovery of a linear relationship between the redshifts and distances of extragalactic nebulae. That Tolman was aware of the work of his colleague at the nearby Mt. Wilson Observatory is not very surprising, but it was quite exciting to see this mixture of cosmological theory and observation brought into the classroom at such an early date.

A final word about the NBLA’s collection of oral history interviews: thanks to the amazing work of the NBLA staff, more and more of these interviews are now available online, yet a number are only accessible as typed transcripts or as physical audio recordings. Having electronic versions of interviews is a great help in searching for names or keywords, but working at the NBLA and listening to some of these recordings— such as a lecture series on cosmology by George Gamow in the final year of his life, or astronomer Jesse Greenstein’s frank opinions on the psychological attractions of cosmology research—was itself a remarkable experience for me.

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