Mary Jo Nye

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Mina Carson

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Mary Jo Nye by David Zierler on June 19, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44811

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Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Mary Jo Nye, Professor of History Emerita, and former Horning Professor of Humanities at Oregon State University. Nye recounts her childhood in Nashville and she discusses her developing dual interests in science and history. She discusses her undergraduate work at Vanderbilt and then at the University of Wisconsin, where she decided to focus on history for graduate work. Nye describes her graduate work in the History of Science department at Wisconsin where she worked with Erwin Hiebert, and she explains the various challenges of navigating career opportunities as one-half of an academic couple. Nye describes her formative time doing postdoctoral research in France, and describes her career at the University of Oklahoma prior to joining the faculty at Oregon State. The bulk of the interview covers Nye’s contributions to the history of physics, including her work on Big Science, theoretical chemistry, Polanyi, modernization, Pauling, among other diverse topics. Nye discusses her contributions to history of physics as a teacher and graduate student mentor, and she describes how the field has changed over the course of her career. At the end of the interview Nye discusses her current interest in the history quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry. 

Transcript

Zierler:

This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 19, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Professor Mary Jo Nye. Mary Jo, thank you so much for being with me today.

Nye:

Well, thank you for asking to set this up and have this conversation. I’m glad to do it.

Zierler:

Alright. So, to start, please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.

Nye:

My title is Professor of History Emerita, and former Horning Professor of the Humanities at Oregon State University.

Zierler:

Now, does that locate you in one particular department, or are you sort of minister without portfolio for the whole school?

Nye:

No. In fact, I’m hesitating a little bit, because when I came here, and my husband came here as well, we came into what was then a history department. So, we were housed in the History Department, whereas previously, when I had been at the University of Oklahoma, and he had too, I was in the History of Science department, and he was in a separate History Department. So, coming here to Oregon State in ’94, I was in the History Department. But then after I retired in 2008 as part of — I don’t know what you would call it -- I would call it partially budgetary measures -- various departments were conglomerated into so-called “schools.” So, there is now a School of History, Philosophy, and Religion that is somewhat modeled on what happened at Arizona State University and a few other universities that did this kind of thing.

Zierler:

I was looking —

Nye:

There’s no longer an independent History Department at my university.

Zierler:

That’s funny, because I was looking at the title, and it’s a very grandiose-looking title, because —

Nye:

It’s very grandiose. I mean, there are the historians. There are philosophers, including a couple of quite good philosophers of science. Most of them are doing ethics, but some of them do philosophy of science, and some of them do traditional moral philosophy that’s not ethics. And there had been a program in religion at this university — I don’t know, four decades or so ago — that got eliminated in another budget measure. So, when the School was set up, because there was, by this time, someone in the History Department who was doing religious history, and there were several people in philosophy who were interested in religion, and ethics has a sometimes strong religious component, they decided to reintroduce religion back into the academic programs. So, it became this School.

Zierler:

So really, what we’re talking about — it’s the larger issue of the defunding of the humanities in America, is what we’re really talking about. [laughs]

Nye:

Yeah. You’re exactly right. That’s what we’re talking about. And this institution, Oregon State University, used to be known as the ag and engineering institution in Oregon. The University of Oregon in Eugene is the institution that was known as the fundamental science and humanities school. And because there’d been so much competition for funding in the Oregon system, it’s hard to have — there’s been an argument against duplicate programs at the two universities. But then in the meantime, Portland State University in Portland, which is an urban campus, has become a much bigger university than it used to be. So, there is a little bit more duplication than there used to be. But yeah, it’s still the defunding of the humanities.

Zierler:

Well, let’s take it right back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents. Where are your parents from?

Nye:

I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. My father was in the Marine Corps at the time. He was stationed — at the time I was born -- he was in Hawaii. He originally is from Tennessee, although his father moved to Alabama about the time — a little bit after I was born. And my mother is originally from Alabama. And when I was born, as I say, my father had been at Guadalcanal, where he was wounded during the war. And then he had been brought back to the States, first to the West Coast to be in hospitals, and then he was sent down to the Pensacola Marine Corps base. Then at that point, because he could no longer do active military duty in the field, he ended up being sent to Hawaii, where he had a position as a major in the Marine Corps, where he was directing people and doing that kind of thing. My mother was born in Piper, Alabama. They met at the University of Alabama, my mother and father. She was from Alabama, from a small rural town originally. In fact, her father, my grandfather on my mother’s side, when he was young, was a coal miner. And for various reasons, as it turned out, she got a scholarship to the University of Alabama, and she met my father, who was in school there.

Zierler:

And at what point in their professional careers were they in Tennessee, when you were born?

Nye:

They never left, except for vacations, after I was born. So, I was born in Nashville. My father came back from the Marine Corps when I was about a year old. And my mother, before I was born, was teaching school. She was teaching English literature in high school in Alabama. But she ended up coming to Nashville, because that’s where his family was, and he wanted her to be in Nashville near his sister. And in fact, she and I lived with his sister when I was born. His sister’s husband was in the Coast Guard, so he was stationed off the coast of the United States. My father was in Hawaii. And I lived with my mother and my aunt until the men all came home. [laughs] Then, we moved out.

Zierler:

Where to?

Nye:

Just, you know, somewhere else nearby in Nashville. [laughs] We lived in two neighborhoods on the southwest side of Nashville, and I was in public schools when I was a child. I had an excellent education. I was very lucky. These were, of course, completely segregated schools.

Zierler:

Yeah, I was going to ask.

Nye:

And I went to an elementary school that was grades 1 through 8, and then I went to Hillsboro High School, which is four years of high school. And I was one of those people who went to a public school that had teachers who had master’s degrees, who were dedicated teachers — as they are now, too — but who were more highly respected than a lot of teachers are now. It was a school that was very traditional. For example, I had four years of Latin. It was traditional in that sense, which was not unusual in the ’50s. What was this? This was ’58 to ’62 that I was in high school. So, I had four years of Latin. I had wonderful English teachers. I was involved in forensics and debate. I became editor of the high school newspaper and got very good training there in terms of writing and thinking about politics and thinking about how things work. And in terms of my studies, I got involved a little bit in drama. I had a wonderful algebra teacher, a woman who taught me freshman and sophomore algebra, and then a not so good geometry teacher. And we didn’t do precalculus at that time, so I didn’t have precalculus. And what made a big difference for me in high school was that Sputnik, of course, was launched in ’57. And so, my class and the ones directly after me, really benefited from the huge funding of public education that was part of the post-Sputnik era. And you know, some of the — I don’t know what the finances were -- but my impression was that, for example, that my chemistry lab was very well equipped, and that we were encouraged to do experiments and do things that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected at some schools.

Zierler:

Now, through high school, it was entirely segregated? There was no integration, no busing?

Nye:

No. This was — as I say, I graduated in ’62. There was no busing. The Civil Rights Movement was really just beginning to get rolling at the point that I was in high school. I very seldom actually saw African-Americans, except people who were coming into our neighborhoods. There were maids and people who were doing yard work. And then going downtown, when I went downtown, I’d finally see African-Americans in the city. And I didn’t go downtown very often. At one point, we were just a one-car family. My mother used to go take me down — we would go together to the library. We went to the public library once a week from the time I was in elementary school. I mean, we didn’t have books in the house very much that we owned, but we were reading books, my mother and I, all the time, and then my sister, after she was born. And I’m very grateful to my mother for that, because she really introduced me to the pleasure of browsing library book shelves and thinking of myself as being sort of independent, just leaving me off in the children’s room initially, and then later more on my own.

And then eventually, I began taking buses downtown by myself to go to the library. And again, there were segregated buses. And starting out, there wouldn’t be any Black people on the bus unless they were coming back from doing work in the neighborhood to go somewhere else. So, it was a very segregated life. And my sister, who’s 8 years younger than I — I’ve been floored, as so many people are my age, at how hard it is to believe that this country was the apartheid country that it was for so very long, and with segregated swimming pools, segregated schools. And the movie theaters, the separate galleries for the African-Americans, so they didn’t sit with the white people, and of course, the bathrooms, the water fountains, all of it labeled. And it gradually became rather horrifying to me. I mean, initially I sort of accepted it when I was 5 or 6 or 7 years old. But then as the years passed by, it really did bother me a great deal. And I spent my first two years of college at Vanderbilt University, and I don’t remember very many Black people there at Vanderbilt University. Of course, there weren’t very many women, either. There was a quota on the number of females who were admitted to Vanderbilt when I started there. I was told it was 20 percent.

Zierler:

When you were thinking about college, was it science that you were focused on, in terms of what your course of study was going to be, or you were open-minded at the beginning?

Nye:

I was intending to do science, really. But on the other hand — and this is why, I guess you would say, I became a historian — I really did want to spend a lot of time reading literature. Some history. More literature than history, actually, at the time. But as I’ve told a couple of other people who have asked me about this, I had a teacher my junior year in high school. I was in, I think, a chemistry honors class, and she was phenomenal. She was a tall, very attractive woman. And as I was thinking back on this too, I began to realize that most of the teachers from high school, whom I really thought were my best teachers, were all women. The people whom I thought were failures were men, including the fellow who taught me physics. I didn’t think I was learning much from him. And the fellow who was teaching biology was just ghastly, as was the guy who was teaching geometry, as was the person who was teaching American History. But you know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just had a prejudice somehow. I didn’t feel at ease with the men, whereas my algebra teacher was female. My English teacher, who was fantastic, was a woman. My Latin teacher, with whom I spent four years, was fabulous. Everybody loved her. But then Jacqueline Turner was the chemistry teacher, but she was also the women’s basketball coach. And I don’t know how much you might know about Tennessee and basketball—

Zierler:

It’s a big deal.

Nye:

But women’s basketball, girls’ basketball, is a very big deal. And I assume it still is, in Middle Tennessee. And Miss Turner, Jacqueline Turner, was the coach of the girls' basketball team. And she was our chemistry teacher. And when I was taking chemistry from her, she had spent the previous summer working on a master’s degree at Vanderbilt and taking some graduate courses in chemistry. And she brought back into the chemistry class some of the new theories about the valence bond and electron theories in chemistry. And she brought a theoretical structure into our classroom that was not in the textbook. It was not in the high school textbook. And in fact, I think I remember that she had notes that she was using that had been her college notes from the class she was taking, that she was using to tell us about how better to understand the Periodic Table in terms of electron structure and telling theories about the atomic nucleus. I just found it fascinating.

So, I decided I would go into chemistry. My father very much encouraged me in this, because he had a friend — I think he might have been a golfing buddy — who was the brother of someone at Vanderbilt University who, in fact, was a really good, if not distinguished, chemist named Donald Pearson, who taught organic — he was an organic chemist. And my father also knew that this guy at Vanderbilt who was teaching consulted for DuPont. And this sounded good. This sounded like a secure — but it’s interesting. What my father did was think in terms of my having a career as, I don’t know, a backup to getting married. I mean, he expected me to get married and have kids, and that kind of thing. But he, at the same time, was thinking that I should have a way of making a living if I needed to. So, he supported the idea of my — and it was always assumed, for both my sister and I, that we would go to college, because my parents were college educated, and they understood the importance of it.

Zierler:

Why the transfer halfway through undergraduate?

Nye:

It was very good to leave Vanderbilt, and I had actually — without going into too many details about it — I wasn’t so keen on going to Vanderbilt. It was expected of me, and it was expected that I would stay home rather than going away to college.

Zierler:

“Stay home,” meaning, also living at home…

Nye:

That’s what I ended up doing.

Zierler:

…not just being close.

Nye:

Yeah. And I did that, but then it just worked out that I was able to transfer, get into Wisconsin, and I got a scholarship there. But on the other hand, I also was going on a fast schedule, because I started taking college classes the summer before the fall of the college career. Anyway, I finished school in three years. I was two years at Vanderbilt, and I was one year at Wisconsin, and then I was done. But what I had done was to go through too quickly, because I found when I graduated, I really wasn’t quite ready to give up on going to school. I wanted to continue. I’d gone through too fast.

Zierler:

Now, you finished with a bachelor’s in chemistry, but at what point do you realize that you want to switch focus to history?

Nye:

What happened was that, as I mentioned, I had always enjoyed writing. I’d been editor of my high school newspaper, and when I was studying chemistry, I think that I intended to become a chemist. I probably didn’t quite understand what that might mean. I didn’t quite see myself working in industry. I didn’t have any models for doing that — women who went into industry as chemists. That was something completely just way beyond any kind of experience I’d even heard about. But I think it also occurred to me that I could become a science journalist, that I could write about science. And with some knowledge of chemistry and physics and mathematics, I could do that.

But at the same time, I was being encouraged to go into graduate school in chemistry by Paul Bender, who was a physical chemist at University of Wisconsin. And I worked for him during the summer after I graduated, running a mass spectrometer. And I had taken the GREs, I’m pretty sure, so that I could go into the chemistry department. He told me, even though I had not applied, that I could get in. But what happened was that during that summer, on campus at the University of Wisconsin, when I was working in the chemistry lab, I ran into Bob Siegfried, who was a historian of science. Now, there were two people in the History of Science Department in Wisconsin who taught a class that counted as chemistry credit, even though they were History of Chemistry classes. And my last semester, my senior year, I decided that instead of — I had a very heavy schedule – taking a course in — I can’t remember. It was advanced analytic chemistry, or something like that. I noticed there was a course in the history of chemistry, and I thought: well, that’ll be easy. That won’t take as much time, which is a typical kind of attitude, and probably right, because it didn’t involve a lab.

So, I took this course with Bob Siegfried, and I really enjoyed it. It was just a sort of introduction to the history of chemistry. Then, that summer after I’d taken that class, I ran into him on campus, and he asked me what I was doing, and I told him. And I told him that I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to go into graduate school in chemistry, and that I had gone down to the Madison — what is it called? The Capital Journal? The Madison Capital Journal? The Madison newspaper. The Wisconsin State Journal — to ask them if I could apply for a position at the newspaper. And I had been given a rather negative answer, because I didn’t seem to have any qualifications in journalism. And then Bob Siegfried said to me — he knew Paul Bender, for whom I was working — and he said, well, if I was at odds about what I wanted to do next, then why didn’t I apply to the History of Science graduate program and think about taking a master’s degree?

Zierler:

Were you even aware that this program existed before this suggestion?

Nye:

I don’t think so. No. I probably didn’t know it was a separate department or anything, and I talked with him about it. And as it turned out, the department had an extra one-year scholarship, because someone they had thought would be coming in the fall had not come. He was going somewhere else. So, Bob Siegfried suggested that I apply, and then they’d see if I might be eligible for the scholarship. So, I thought about it, and I decided that maybe this made sense, because what I could do is to enter the History of Science program, get a master’s degree, and take courses in the English department, actually, and sit in on classes in history. Now, the thing that you might or might not be surprised about is that at Wisconsin at that time, the History of Science Department was a separate department. History of Science at Wisconsin is one of the oldest programs in the country.

Zierler:

Right.

Nye:

It was founded before the war, I think. Anyway, maybe it was around 1941 that it was founded. Harvard had the first program that offered academic degrees. But Wisconsin was the second one. And it was entirely separate from the History department from the very beginning. And in fact, very few people in the History of Science Department took history courses. Nearly everybody minored in — or either did a double degree, a master’s or a Ph.D. -- in history of science and usually physics, or they were taking a minor in some other field, usually philosophy. So, I decided that what I would do was to take a minor in English literature, which I did, because there seemed a sort of hostility towards the History Department. There really seemed to be some bad feelings. It was sort of strange. But the thing about the History of Science Department at Wisconsin at the time is that almost everybody who was admitted into the History of Science master’s or Ph.D. program had an undergraduate science degree and were expected to have a strong background. Now, someone like Roger Stuewer, who was just a little bit ahead of me, was doing his Ph.D. in physics at the same time he was doing History of Science. Anyway, I entered the program, and I thought: well, this will give me a chance to see if this interests me at all. And in any case, it could work out that with this degree, maybe I could become a science writer. So, then — I’m still not really thinking of becoming a historian, as you can tell. I mean, it’s more about writing about science and thinking about science. And I really enjoyed the program a lot, and I did well enough that I was told I didn’t have to formally stop with the master’s degree or write a master’s thesis, that if I wanted, I could just continue on for the Ph.D. without formally taking a master’s degree, which is what I did. Which, I guess, was kind of chancy. But if I had somehow dropped out, I think they would have given me a master’s. At this point, I really began enjoying reading about the science, and also beginning to think more and more about the history. And it also was at this point that I began studying with Erwin Hiebert. I don’t know if you know Erwin Hiebert’s name.

Zierler:

No.

Nye:

Erwin was a remarkable man in so very many ways, as was his wife, and as is his family. And he had worked in the Manhattan Project in Chicago as a physical chemist and then got his Ph.D. after that at Wisconsin in History of Science and Physical Chemistry. He taught briefly at Harvard, then came to Wisconsin and was teaching History of Science there. Didn’t have a joint appointment, but it was just in the History of Science. And then at the time I was finishing my degree and writing my dissertation with him, he had gone away to the Institute for Advanced Study, and the following year, he moved from Wisconsin to Harvard. And one of the things that was remarkable about him intellectually is his wide range of interests. There were many of us who were doing seminars with him who ended up writing our dissertations out of topics in his seminar. And his approach — he was a physical chemist who was more on the physics side than the chemistry side. So, for example, we weren’t learning much at all about organic chemistry, or natural products chemistry. It was more physical chemistry, thermodynamics, the application of — well, atomic theory, not nuclear theory. Atomic and molecular theory. And a wide range, from the early 19th century through about the mid-20th century. Although actually, he also had written on the impact of atomic energy as his very first book. And a lot of — a number of the dissertations that he directed had to do with the conservation of energy and thermodynamics. But he also had strong interest in music and in religion and in literature. And so, there was a great deal of leeway with Erwin. He also was remarkable for the number of women that he took on as students, first at Madison and then at Harvard.

Zierler:

Self-consciously, as in, a deliberate thing that he wanted to do.

Nye:

Well, you know, he had a very talented wife. He had no prejudices. I mean, the ’60s, I was there when the Vietnam War was really ramping up, and he was one of the people who signed an ad that appeared in the New York Times against the Vietnam War. I remember that. And he also — and his wife — were Mennonites, and it was the Mennonite faith that was a very practical faith, and a faith that was very much oriented towards human values and doing good work, I guess you would say. He was mainly a German historian of science, although again, his interests were widespread. I mean, one of the things that happened with me was that in working with him — again, I always felt like I was working with someone who had high expectations, which was good, but who at the same time was generous and kind, and who was very patient, but also a really good critic. I mean, someone who — I remember we did a Festschrift symposium for Erwin. There were a couple of — several Festschrifts for him, but we did one, and we were giving various talks, and after we had all given these talks, Erwin stood up. He just — I wouldn’t say he lit into us, but you know, he was right there, having paid attention, asking us questions, all that kind of thing. And that’s what he was like. His students all adored him. In any case, one of the things that happened working with him is that I found myself increasingly — my interest — I could sort of go different ways. At one point, I thought I would write a dissertation that had to do with thermodynamics and literature, and the use of science in fiction and literature. But I did a seminar with Erwin. That was the physical science seminar. And out of that, I developed three different ideas for a dissertation project.

Zierler:

So, Mary Jo, I want to stop at this point here, because this is really the point where you’re developing your professional identity as a historian.

Nye:

Yeah.

Zierler:

And so, I want to ask. It was probably a subtle change, and you probably didn’t wake up one day and realize that it happened, but at a certain point, whatever concerns you felt about — you know, I should get a degree in chemistry because that’s a good fallback, because there’s a degree at the end of that process, right? Surely, you must have realized at some point that guaranteed employment at the end of a history Ph.D. is not necessarily a done deal. And yet, you were in your element. You were in love with what you were doing, and the concerns about your financial future probably took a back seat as you were more fully interested in your scholarly endeavors. I assume that must have happened at some point. Do you have any idea when?

Nye:

I mean, various things happened. Things in graduate school were very complicated, and while I was in graduate school, I met Bob, my husband. And he is a historian. He was in the History Department. And at this time in Madison, within the History Department, there were many good professors, but there were two professors who had particular reputations. One was Harvey Goldberg, who styled himself as a Marxist, but he did French social history. The other is George Mosse, who was a German immigrant who taught all kinds of history. In fact, he initially came here and taught American history, but then —

Zierler:

It was as a result of the Mosse conference at Wisconsin that I decided to become a historian, actually.

Nye:

Really?!

Zierler:

Yeah. Yeah.

Nye:

You were there at the —

Zierler:

This would have been in — oh, gosh. Let’s see. 2000? ’98? ’99? Around there. The big Mosse conference.

Nye:

Well, Bob was one of the speakers at that conference, and we were there. No, that conference, the one I’m thinking of, it was right before 9/11, so that was 2001.

Zierler:

That must have been it.

Nye:

We came back from that conference the night before 9/11.

Zierler:

I went to NYU undergraduate, and the Hillel there, the Jewish student organization, they gave me a scholarship to go there.

Nye:

Really?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Nye:

Oh!

Zierler:

I stayed at the — I don’t know if you know this — the Lothlorien House. Do you know the Lothlorien House, one of the — I don’t know. At Princeton, they call them “eating clubs.” It struck me as an eating club. I don’t know what they call them at Wisconsin, but I stayed at the Lothlorien, and I went to the Mosse conference, and I said, “This is it. I’m going to become a historian.”

Nye:

This is quite remarkable. My husband Bob is a historian of — he started out as a French historian who did history of the behavioral sciences. His dissertation was on Gustave LeBon. Mosse was on his committee. Mosse, over the years, became a friend of ours. He was so kind to us. We’d see him in Paris. We’d see him in Madison. We saw him in London. In any case, Bob gradually developed this interest in the history of sexuality, as did George.

So, they had that particular interest in common later in George’s life, and Bob gave a paper there that had to do with the development of George’s interest in the history of sexuality and masculinity. Some of George’s famous lectures had to do with the German soldiers and the cult of masculinity and all that kind of thing. He was a great guy. And I formally audited one of his classes. I didn’t take it for grade credit, but I went to every single class and listened to George. And I went to a few of the Harvey Goldberg classes, but I sort of dropped out of them quickly. So anyway, I fell in love with Bob, who was a historian, and —

Zierler:

And you accepted upon yourself the two-body problem, right then and there.

Nye:

Well, we were just naïve. And again, at this time that this is going on, and we’re taking the classes — and I mentioned the seminar -- I decided, because Bob was a French historian, that I would do a French topic. I originally had thought that I would do something on J.J. Thomson and the electron, and at that time, there had not been much published about him, so I thought — and Erwin thought that would be good, too. And then I had a German idea in mind, and then I thought — okay. And one of the things that we had done in Erwin’s seminar was to look at — we were looking at the development of electron theory and X-rays and all those developments in the 1890s. And I noticed the work of Jean Perrin, who was a French physicist. And I got the idea that I could do a dissertation on him, and then Bob and I would go to France. Well, we decided — we went to France in May of 1968, but what I was going to say is that earlier that year in Madison, everything had come into strife. The Dow — I don’t know if you know about the Dow demonstrations at Madison.

Zierler:

I wrote about them extensively.

Nye:

Okay. [laughs] So, 1967.

Zierler:

Yeah. Sure.

Nye:

We were there. So, those demonstrations took place, and then there was a decision about whether or not to strike. And we were — I wasn’t a teaching assistant, but Bob was a teaching assistant, so there was a great deal of discussion, as there always was — about strikes, whether to participate, or how you manage it, and that sort of thing. I do remember. I think he wore an armband. He met his class, but didn’t require the students to come, that kind of thing. And at the same time, I was getting ready to take my preliminary examinations. Bob had already done his, and we were making these plans to go to France. I had National Science Foundation funding. I was really lucky, because I had funding all the way through graduate school. But we were going to go to France. We decided we would go in May. And I remember we had no money, except what would come in monthly from our — we each had a fellowship. And we had never been to France. We had never been out of the country. So, we were going off to do our dissertations. We stayed with a friend in New York before flying out of — I don’t know what it was called then. It probably wasn’t called JFK then.

Zierler:

Idlewild.

Nye:

I guess it was. It was still Idlewild, you think, in ’68? [The name change occurred on Christmas Eve, 1963]

Zierler:

I don’t know when they changed, but that was the old name for JFK, I believe.

Nye:

Anyway, we were staying with a friend, and his father had a copy of The New York Times that we looked at, at breakfast. And we read these headlines about strife in Paris. Strikes, student protests. And we thought: well, that sounds familiar. But then I remember looking at this map on the front page of The New York Times, showing an area. And I thought: but that’s exactly where we’re going to be, where all this is going on. But we still thought: okay. You know, we know all about protests. This won’t be bad. But we got there, and the day after we got there, the subway shut down. Within two weeks, all the archives and libraries had shut down. So, there we were in France, to do our dissertation research, with no resources. But we were incredibly lucky, because Bob had this project on Gustave LeBon, and I had this project on Jean Perrin. Jean Perrin’s son, Francis Perrin, was then head of the French Atomic Energy Commission, and he was a professor at the Collège de France. And he was so nice to me, and his family were so nice to me. I had written him ahead of time, but at this point, we had just arrived. My French was absolutely terrible. But he spoke English, so that was okay.

And when he learned that I couldn’t pursue my research, he arranged for some documents from the family to be brought to the hotel where we were staying, so that I could actually work in my room on these documents, this correspondence of his father’s that was privately held. It wasn’t in any library. And Bob similarly got cooperation from a niece of LeBon, who met with us and who just turned over all this stuff to us to study. And so, we managed to do that until the libraries reopened again after about five weeks, and then we really had to put a push on, because we had lost so much time. But I guess what I would say is that I became — I mean, I was really caught up in the historical moment of the ’60s, and I became ever more conscious of the political milieu in which we all live that sometimes impacts us directly, and other times does not. And more and more curious about how this milieu was affecting the scientist whom I was interested in studying.

And I ended up doing my dissertation on Perrin, and the dissertation was sort of — it had a philosophical component to it, and then it had a very strong experimental component to it, where I was studying how Perrin did his work, and then the reception of it, and his arguments from Brownian motion for what he called the reality of molecules. And at the same time, I was very aware that Jean Perrin became a political figure in the ’20s and ’30s and had been very political as a young man during the Dreyfus period. So, as soon as I finished my dissertation, the first — I think the first article, maybe the second article I wrote — was on Perrin’s political career. But you see, I had mainly separated them out at that point, which was not uncommon. Then, one of the things that happened over time for me is bringing all that together into studies that really tried to situate scientists, not just simply experiments and ideas, but also to situate them institutionally and politically in a larger history. So, in that way, I became a historian.

Zierler:

Did your politics change as a result of being in France?

Nye:

That’s an interesting question. No, I don’t think my politics changed as a consequence of being in France. I mean, I — no, I certainly — I’m not sure quite what you mean. Did it radicalize me? No. Did it make me more conservative? No, I don’t think so. I became better informed, and I became more interested in international issues, and not just American issues, than I had been before, and really understanding about France, which I spent some time doing, and how it works, so to speak, and how it had worked in the past. And then gradually, in my interests, I spread out from my — I moved out from a focus on France almost alone to England, and then to Germany and to other countries, as well as the United States. Because originally, I didn’t do anything that had to do with the United States.

Zierler:

It’s a common theme when Americans go to Europe that the political identities and affiliations that we’re comfortable with in the States mean quite different things and connote quite different things in Europe.

Nye:

Well, yeah. That’s certainly true. But I will say that our experiences in — well, that’s not true, either. I was about to say that the experience in Europe made me feel like a real outsider, but that actually happened to me when I first went to Wisconsin, because — I felt like an outsider because I was a southerner when I first went to Wisconsin. And then when I went to France, I felt like an outsider because, of course, I was not French. And not only was I not French, I was an American, an American student, at a time when the United States was in Vietnam, and there was a great deal of protest in France — as there was elsewhere — against the American presence in Vietnam. So, I was very self-conscious, and that continued. I mean, when we were there in 1970, we were quite loath to go into Vietnamese restaurants, for example, because we knew that our American accent would be there, and we felt that we would be intruders, and we didn’t want to take a chance on being considered to be the ugly Americans by going into — a Vietnamese restaurant. But the same thing happened just with French people, I mean, because they all wanted to know where we stood on the Vietnam War.

Zierler:

Of course, France did not have such a spectacular history with regard to Vietnamese people, either.

Nye:

They laid the ground for us, didn’t they? Exactly. But again, too, the political time, as it is now, was really fraught. We had — right before we left, Martin Luther King was killed, and then while we were in France, Bobby Kennedy was killed. And while we were in France, the suppression of the Czech — Prague Spring occurred, and we were part of a sort of international circle of students, which included some Czechs. So yeah, the France experience certainly changed us a lot. And I — let’s say it probably helped me develop politically. It helped me develop more knowledge, — but on the other hand, the experience in France strengthened, I guess you would say, as well some of my views on American military presence, global domination, that kind of thing. Plus, the Civil Rights issue was also very much in our mind, obviously, then — with Martin Luther King having been killed and with the Civil Rights going on. And this was a period too, in which the women’s movement was really getting going, as well as, you were just saying, the environmental movement. So, those were things that were forming my political point of view and then informing some of the ways I wanted to look at scientific developments within those larger frameworks. Although, I still had a commitment to looking at not only the politics of science, but the work within science.

Zierler:

Was it time to come home when your research was done, when the funding was done, when the affiliation was done? How did you know: time to come back to the States?

Nye:

I didn’t have any more money. [laughs]

Zierler:

That’ll do it every time.

Nye:

No, I mean, we had to get back. We had to write up whatever we had as the dissertation. We didn’t write anything until we came back, and we both wrote really, really quickly. We came back in late November of 1968, and we finished the dissertations that summer.

Zierler:

Was there a competitive element to it at all?

Nye:

I mean, who would — oh, I don’t think so. I mean, we both really wanted each of us to finish. We wanted to finish at the same time, because we wanted to leave at the same time. We didn’t know where we were going, and this was just the point at which the job market fell apart in the historical profession. In the previous couple of years, people were getting jobs. They were having trouble getting jobs. And when we came out, Bob interviewed, I guess, at the AHA meeting. I guess it would have been in January, after we got back to the country. And I think he had a few interviews there. And then he interviewed on campus at the University of Utah, and the University of Oklahoma. And I can’t remember if we actually had an offer, but it looked like we could get positions at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. But we were a little hesitant about that, [laughs] given that the riots were going on.

Zierler:

Right.

Nye:

And in the end, I got a postdoc — again, National Science Foundation came through — and I had a postdoc, and I had intended to take it to Berkeley, because we thought that we would — somehow or other, we thought we’d go to California, but he got the job at Oklahoma, and I took my postdoc to Oklahoma. So, I had that the first year we were there. And I naively assumed that they’d hire me if I was around for a year. But of course, that didn’t happen. I did teach part-time, and then eventually I was hired in Oklahoma, but it wasn’t immediate.

Zierler:

What about Bob? What did he have?

Nye:

He had a tenure-track position at the University of Oklahoma in the History Department, and Oklahoma was — we knew nothing about Oklahoma. It was just, take the job you can get. But, one of the advantages of Oklahoma for me is that they have — they still have a very strong History of Science Collections, and the History of Science has a presence in the university, which is quite respected, first and foremost because of the History of Science Collections in the library, which was initially the gift of a Texas oil man named DeGolyer. And he gave many very old and valuable books to the University of Oklahoma. It’s the core of the collection. And then the university hired Duane H.D. Roller, who was the son of the physicist Duane Roller, to be head of the Collections, and then Duane H.D. Roller started a history of science program that initially was in the History Department. And when Bob and I first arrived at Oklahoma, Duane and Tom Smith were in the History Department, teaching history of science. David Kitts, who became a very close friend of ours, was also teaching philosophy of science. He was a geologist. And Ken Taylor was there as a historian. He had gotten his degree at Harvard and is a historian of geosciences. And David Wilson was hired about that time as the historian of physics. And they broke off from the History Department and became a separate department. So, when I came in, it was not yet a separate department. But it was, as I say, had a strong presence in the university, and I realized that this was a Collection that was very valuable, although it was particularly weak in the [laughs] modern period. So, I still needed to go away to do research, because it didn’t have all the periodicals I needed, much less the archival material that I wanted for the late 19th and early 20th century.

Zierler:

And you couldn’t log into JSTOR in those days.

Nye:

No, no. You couldn’t do that.

Zierler:

Had the protest movements — was your sense that the protest movements — had they reached Norman in the 1960s?

Nye:

Yes, and in fact, when we were — the first year we were there was 1969-1970, and there were protest movements on campus during the academic year. And it must have been in the spring of 1970 that there was a student-led protest against ROTC. I’m trying to remember exactly what precipitated it, if it was just generally anti-war, and ROTC was going to be marching on the football field, and there was a protest against it. And it got potentially very ugly, and it looked like the National Guard might be called in. But it was contained. The president of the university then, Herbert Hollomon, managed to work with the governor and then managed to work with faculty and students and tamp it down, so that the worst thing that happened was there was a lot of spitting, but there wasn’t anything thrown, and there weren’t any guns drawn. But yes. After that happened though, in the spring of 1970, the state legislature became very suspicious, as had happened at Wisconsin, of outsiders, and wanted to decrease the number of students who were not Oklahoma residents, and decrease — so what they did, which is typical, is to increase non-resident tuition in order to get rid of the troublemakers, as they put it. Which is what happened with Wisconsin legislature. The Wisconsin legislature — I don’t know if I should say it — is a disaster. But the legislators also were, of course, extremely upset about the protests in the ’60s, and they blamed it on East Coast people and raised the tuition. And of course, that’s a terrible thing for universities to do, just like the current discussion over international students in American universities, because when you lose those different points of view from people who are different than you are, nothing good can come of it. So, yes. There was some student unrest at Oklahoma, but not like Berkeley or Wisconsin.

Zierler:

Was it dicey for you professionally for those first few years before you secured a tenure-line position?

Nye:

Yes. I mean, what I did — I was working part-time, and our daughter Lesley was born in 1971, but I — I’ve said this to a couple of people before. I’ve told this story. There was a point early on at which the fellow who’s a friend, who had been teaching history of physics at Oklahoma, was offered another job and was going to take it, and he was leaving. And I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to get a full-time position. This was while I was doing research on my postdoc and revising my dissertation for my first book, and I was optimistic, and I had a discussion with the person who was head of the program about my interest in being hired full-time and getting this position. And he told me, “We’re not going to hire you, Mary Jo.” And I said, “Why not?” And of course, I have never forgotten this. He said to me, “We’ll never hire you because your first loyalty will always be to your husband, not to the institution, and we want to build a program here.” And I was dumbfounded.

Zierler:

Not angry? You were dumbfounded before you were angry?

Nye:

Oh, I was angry. But I think I was surprised, and then angry.

Zierler:

Surprised at how blunt he was?

Nye:

I was certainly surprised at how blunt he was, but I think I also was just a little surprised because I thought I had been acting professionally, and I had been proving myself. And it seemed to me that made me a good candidate, at least, for this job. And to be told that I had no chance of ever being hired — so, that was my first experience of out-and-out discrimination on the basis of being a woman. Never had happened to me before, that I was aware of. And as I mentioned to you earlier, my mentor at Wisconsin, Erwin, was someone who always showed the utmost respect for all the women students, and I think we thought we could do just fine because of the way he had treated us with such respect. And this was new to me. I just thought: well, okay. I have to keep on publishing, and Bob and I have to leave Oklahoma. But as it turned out, it didn’t quite work out that way, and there were other people within the department who wanted to hire me, particularly when it looked like we might leave. And so, I was offered a tenure-track full-time position in ’75, I think it was, which is five years after we came.

Zierler:

Were you keeping up with research and writing during those early years?

Nye:

Yeah. Now, I was publishing — I don’t know. I don’t — guess I was doing an article a year, but it averages out to that. And as I say, I published that first book, and I began a second project, and I was active — I started becoming active on a wider scale professionally about the mid-’70s. Again, when I was a student, and a graduate student, I didn’t have the sort of acculturation into networking that is now typically part of graduate school and became so even, what, 25 years ago. And it may have been my personality too, initially. I didn’t understand networking. And in that way, I didn’t feel prejudice, but on the other hand, I wasn’t initially part of the old boys’ network, or the boys’ network. Everything was fine in class, but it’s that outside of class thing, where you feel, again, a little bit like an outsider. But that all began to change for me by the late ’70s.

Zierler:

I’m curious, Mary Jo, if we can just foreshadow to assess the full body of your scholarly output, which is remarkably diverse, both in style, in terms of the time periods and the geographic regions, subfields. And I’m curious if — I don’t want to sound grandiose, if there was some sort of grand plan that you laid out from the beginning, but I am curious if you self-consciously determined early on in your professorial career that you wanted to be diverse in the kinds of projects that you were taking on, that you did not want to specifically focus on a relatively narrow field of study.

Nye:

That’s a very good question to ask, and I think that the answer is that I didn’t want to become an expert in one small subject, and also I was teaching. At this time, I was teaching the broad survey classes, the “Plato to NATO” sort of thing, and then developing specialized classes as well. And I found myself interested — at that time, when I’d pick up a journal, I’d read every article in the journal, whereas over time, I became — well, there were more journals to read, I guess. But you know, I became a little bit more focused on what I would pick up to read within a journal. But I would read stuff on ancient science, medieval science, France, Germany, whatever it was. And I was focused initially on France, but after I did the Perrin project, I did two articles that had to do with research and physics in France that in each case turned out to be failed work. Bob was working on Gustave LeBon. We had all this stuff available to us from the LeBon papers that were in this little private library in Burgundy, in Nolay. And of course, it is pleasant to work in France. But anyway, LeBon had done some experiments in which he claimed he had discovered a new radiation.

So, I thought: well, I have access to LeBon’s papers and correspondence, so why don’t I look at this more carefully? And there was correspondence with Albert Einstein, and with Henri Poincaré, and some of the major figures in French physics at the time. And I did that, and LeBon announced a discovery of a light called “black light” that turned out not to be the case. But then, I was asking myself: how is it not just that he made this mistake, in the sense that he was reporting things that were erroneous, and that he didn’t understand what he was doing? He didn’t understand infrared effects, and he was ignoring what other people were telling him. But then what I asked myself is how these people around him of great repute, with solid reputations, like Poincaré, were interested in what he was doing and encouraged him. And so, that again was involving me in trying to flesh out this milieu in France and how it worked, how it operated. Who had power? Who didn’t have power? How the academies worked — who were going to dinner parties with whom? What were these social circles that operated outside of the formal network and that were the informal networks?

When I started — I was asked to do a dictionary article on a chemist named Sabatier, and I noticed when I agreed to do the article that he was someone who got a Nobel Prize, but who wasn’t in Paris. And I thought: that’s unusual. Now, how is that the case? Why is someone — and then I realized that he shared the Nobel Prize with Victor Grignard, who also was not in Paris. He was in Lyon. So, you had one person in Toulouse, one in Lyon. They shared the Nobel Prize in 1912. They were among the few French people to get a Nobel Prize in any field in the sciences. So, I began this project. It became the Science in the Provinces book. But then, I was looking at these different faculties, and again, I was trying to understand how these university institutions, research centers, evolved. What made it possible financially, politically, institutionally, in terms of the geography of the region? And there was, at the time I was doing that book, an argument that was a standard sociological argument that what’s important are the centers, and that every — that it’s the centers of scientific work or intellectual work in general that are the most important part of any network, and that innovation occurs in the centers, where you have the really bright people congregated together.

And then, things begin to happen out on the periphery. So, I began asking why it is that you have these places outside of Paris that are doing very good science, and how did that come about? And why were these people in the provinces rather than in Paris in the first place? So, again, I was doing something that was looking at experimental work, looking at the technical work and the appreciation for it, but then trying to understand it in this broader framework of institutions and power relationships and that kind of thing. So, that took me away from Paris and put me in the wider circle. And then after that, I did the book on theoretical chemistry, which was coming back to this question that, in a sense, is in my first book, and that is: what’s the difference between physics and chemistry? How did people set up these boundaries? What do disciplines mean? And that then became something that I wanted to do that could not be just a national study, but became an international study.

Zierler:

Now, Mary Jo, are you asking these questions, and that’s informing the way you’re doing these book projects, or are you wrestling with these questions in the books themselves?

Nye:

I’m not sure about the answer to that. I would say sort of both, because I would become interested in a particular person or particular set of experiments or theory. I mean, I was always looking into theories that were developed, and how that came to be, and how the evidence for that theory was accumulated and assessed, and what changes had to be made, how that fits into epistemologies and the philosophy of science. So, I had that interest. But then on the other hand, something would strike me as peculiar. And I was reading sociological literature as well as historical literature, and so aware of these questions. At this time too — of course, France is a particular example of a powerful center and then peripheral institutions. And those discussions about the relationship between Paris and the other parts of France were going on in current French politics at the time I was doing this work, in terms of student demands, in terms of the development of various industries, particularly science-related industries. So, that fit in kind of naturally with what I was asking.

But the Science in the Provinces book definitely — after I began work on it and decided to do this larger study rather than just focusing on a single person like Sabatier, or like Pierre Duhem -- became something where I had some overarching questions that were not only relevant to the past, but also to the current development of science and scientific institutions, the multiple scientific centers in France currently, like Toulouse or Grenoble, places like this. And from there, I did the theoretical chemistry book, as I mentioned, and that was meant to really think about how scientific disciplines develop. And when I was doing this — I mean, I was responding partly to what’s going on in the scientific literature, because about this time, there was a lot of interest in research schools. And Gerry Geison had written an article on research schools, and the question was: do you make a distinction between a research school — is there such a — you know, it’s a school, or is it just a group, and are there national styles in the science? This was a question that a lot of people were asking. There also was a question that was in the literature at the time about not only national styles but about the so-called decline of French science, that what happened was French science was so great in the 18th century and the early 19th century, and then there seemed to have been a decline. And by the time of the development of quantum physics and the new theories — the 20th century scientific revolution, so to speak — France doesn’t really seem to be a part of it. So, isn’t this a real picture of decline? And is this because there’s a national style in France that’s distinct from the German style of, say, the 1920s? If you compare France and Germany in the 1920s, can you say there are these different research schools, and they have different styles, and those styles represent different national traditions? So, I wasn’t making up these questions. They are already there, in what I was reading, and in people who I was talking with and collaborating with, and that kind of thing.

Zierler:

To what extent, particularly with the theoretical chemistry book, did you feel a need to familiarize yourself with the science behind the narrative? How important is it to gain a fluency in the work of the scientists on a technical level, for what you’re trying to accomplish?

Nye:

Well, I try to read the original papers. I mean, I read the original papers. I make sure that I understand the basic arguments and the basic techniques, in many cases. Not every single case, because as you say, I’ve ranged fairly widely in what I do. So, I am not a physicist. I’m not a chemist. I don’t have that kind of — and of course, there are different kinds of chemists and physicists. It’s not as if someone who’s a natural products chemist is going to understand what a physical chemist is doing. So, there are expertises in these different disciplines, so I want to familiarize myself with what I’m talking about and make sure I understand it, and at the same time discuss it with some colleagues and friends if I have questions. But yes, I think that the technical results are very important, and the instrumentation is very important. In the case of Blackett’s work, he was a master experimentalist, and I really wanted to understand some of the instruments he was using at the time I was writing about them, to make sure I really did understand the fundamental principles of what he was doing and why he might doubt his own results — why he, for example, would insist on doing more and more experiments rather than announcing right away that he discovered a positive electron.

He put it off,— and then on the other hand, he just does this crazy thing not too many years later -- maybe because he had made that mistake -- of announcing that he has this new theory that unifies gravitational theory with electrodynamics. And it was wrong, and he was a little quick off the handle to make this announcement. And then, he ends up disproving it. I mean, one of his great triumphs, in my view, is having announced that he has this new, revised theory that Earth’s magnetism, and the Sun’s, and others, is simply due to the rotation of the mass of the body, an idea that other people had engaged earlier, but he says he’s got a new interpretation, a new equation, and then he tries to detect the effect. And it turns out, he can’t detect it, but he improves the magnetometer, and then it turns out that he is able to take this magnetometer and turn it to this new use of detecting reversals of magnetisms in rocks. And this becomes important for the theory of continental drift. And I guess I should say, come to think of it, that I have tended to be interested in scientists who themselves have multiple interests. So, that has made what I do — has really spread the focus out broadly for what I’m doing.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Nye:

So, in the case of Blackett, for example — I mean, I’m not a master of any of these branches of physics, but I was reading and trying to learn what he was doing, and he was doing all these different things. But that was part of the fascination with him, how his own mind worked and how he would move from one set of problems to another, depending on what had happened. Which shows, I should think, in his case, a kind of open mind about reaction to new experiments. In the case of the Polanyi book, there it was mastering on the one hand — or at least being able to explain and understand work on adsorption and kinetics and dynamics, but on the other hand, to go into an entirely new area about which I know relatively little, namely Hungarian history — and furthermore, its economics. I mean, to try to grapple with Polanyi’s theories of economics and his brother’s theories of economics, and how this was part of his everyday life. So, you have these people — sort of like Blackett who have their everyday technical scientific work, and at the same time, they have these other interests that take a great deal of time, and yet they’re able to juggle it all in a way that’s quite fascinating, I find.

Zierler:

Perhaps not even juggle at all, but they’re self-consciously aware that their technical expertise gives them a platform and a voice in other areas, and they take advantage of that.

Nye:

That’s true. That’s true. That’s another way of putting it. Exactly. And in many of these cases, it’s precisely what you’re saying. It’s their technical expertise as a scientist that gives them a voice and a certain confidence that they’ll be listened to, which doesn’t always turn out to be the case.

Zierler:

Now, in the theoretical chemistry book, you’re charting the evolution of theory over this 150-year period. It’s quite expansive. Right? To what extent can you extrapolate the rise of theory in chemistry to the rise of theory in science generally?

Nye:

Hmm.

Zierler:

In other words, were the trends you were looking at in chemistry — did you see them as a particularly unique story to chemistry, or was it what was going on in science writ large, and this was more, you wanted to focus particularly on the field of chemistry?

Nye:

I do think in chemistry that — as I’ve written elsewhere — there’s less of a — there has been, very often, less of a focus on unification and making everything self-consistent theoretically. For physicists, the theories are often not called theories at all, because they’re very pragmatic, and they make do with data that often seems to be inconsistent. Chemists made do with the interpretations that often seem to be inconsistent or contradictory, and yet the chemists have often been willing to leave it at that, if it works, at least in the short-term, whereas I think physicists have been less willing to do that. So, as I talk about in the theoretical chemistry book, you get these different representations of chemical molecules, and those different representations of chemical molecules correspond to the different functions that different kinds of substances — different molecules have. So, depending on the environment in which they’re in, molecules can do different things, and chemists are willing to live with that. Chemists also — I mean, one of the things I was interested in with Polanyi was his development of what came to be called semi-empirical theories, where you’re using empirical data in order to make an equation work, instead of insisting on building everything up from a more abstract basis. And for chemists, that works for now, and that’s basically sufficient, and you might even be willing to live with that in the long term. So, in that respect, I think that chemical theories are a little bit different from what one usually thinks of as the more mechanical approach of consistency in physics. Does that make sense to you?

Zierler:

Absolutely.

Nye:

And at the same time, I mean, chemists — one of the things I talk about in the theoretical chemistry book too is the way in which chemists on the one hand are working out of a natural history tradition, in which they talk about groups and species and use biological language of backbones and chains and side-chains and that kind of thing. But on the other hand, there also could be simultaneously an attempt to take these same substances and treat them in a more — to try to understand them dynamically rather than in terms of structure. So, there’s the structure on the one hand, but then there’s the dynamics on the other, which often turns out to be — since the late 19th century and early 20th century — electron theory, and understanding that, for all the fact that you represent a molecule with what appear to be discrete electrons, that’s not really what’s going on, and you’ve got to work out both of these images at the same time. One is an image. The other is a mathematical treatment. But you just live with them both, and you have to teach your students both, whether they’re undergraduate students or more sophisticated graduate students. And computer models make it a little bit easier to deal with both of these kinds of representation. But that’s one of the ways in which I think that chemistry, historically, has differed from a lot of physics, not all of physics.

Zierler:

I’m curious, Mary Jo, with the — Before Big Science book -- can you talk a little bit about how you conceptualized modernity, both as a theoretical concept and as a narrative transition? In other words, after 1940, World War II, we do have this concept of big science. Right? And yet, absent big science, the premise of the book is that chemistry and physics are looking to modernize themselves, absent those institutions. Right? So, how are they looking to modernize, absent those institutions? What are they trying to accomplish? How are they looking to create a modern physics, without the institutions that we now associate as absolutely integral to what modern science means?

Nye:

Do you mean, how could you have done physics without the big laboratories, without the support of —

Zierler:

How could you have aspirations to create a modern science in the way that — I’m really asking how you understand modernity as a theoretical concept, how you use that as a concept in the book to frame your argument.

Nye:

Well, let’s see.

Zierler:

Did you find chemists and physicists in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century who were self-consciously, not just looking to advance knowledge the way that science always has and always will, but that they were specifically pursuing a modernization of the field?

Nye:

I’m not so sure I’ve thought of it quite that way in terms of modernization of the field. A modernization of the field, I suppose, would mean increasing — I would think modernization of the field is increasing institutional — I mean, restructuring some institutional arrangements in order to, well, among other things, get more money, but also to — well, maybe to do more interdisciplinary work. I mean, modernization, I think, was partly seen as bringing in more different techniques and people with different kinds of expertise in order to work on a particular problem of interest. And so, modernization would mean developing the structures, or the laboratory structures, in which you could do that. I suppose some of the laboratories that were developed, of course, tried to do that with arrangements that were breaking down barriers and putting different kinds of scientists together in order to work. And that happened, I think, first in industry before it happened in the universities, where the structures tended to be more separate and disciplinary, with people protecting their own turf, whereas if you’re focusing on solving a problem, as would happen in industry, then — I mean, this is part of, I guess, what happened with the development of solid-state physics. I mean, you bring in people who are engineers and who are chemists and who are physicists, and they work together on something like the problem of the transistor, and that becomes a sort of modern way of doing things. It doesn’t mean that people from different fields didn’t do — well, it partly has to do with the fact that within modernization, there has been increasingly — in the course of the development of the sciences, there has been increasingly what we talked about before as specialization.

So, people become more specialized in their little niches of knowledge, whereas in the 19th century, someone might know everything. I mean, what was that quote — David Kaiser quotes Karl Darrow as saying that Helmholtz was the last scientist who knew everything. And in the 19th century, that could happen. But nowadays, that doesn’t happen. People don’t know everything, and as I said earlier, they can’t read each other’s work, because they don’t understand it, even if they’re all chemists or all physicists or all mathematicians. So, because modernization has involved those separate niches of knowledge, then in order to do something truly novel or to solve a pressing problem that’s really important, then you have to bring in those different expertises and see what happens. I guess that would be part of what I would think of as modernization.

Zierler:

I can’t help but notice that you go from two broadly conceived books that, you know, they’re spanning 150 years each, and then you go to sort of more narrowly focused studies of individuals. Did you see a transition in your career where you became more interested in intellectual biography or intellectual history? Did that happen consciously?

Nye:

I guess so, yeah. I mean, of course, the Perrin book was not a biography. It focused on an individual. In most of my writing, I’ve tried to, I guess you could say, flesh out the people who had the ideas or who were building the instruments in terms of their lives. The Before Big Science book really came out of a lecture course that I gave at the University of Oklahoma. So, it very much reflects what I did over the course of that lecture course — of that whole series, and often with — I guess we used overheads then rather than PowerPoint, but photographs of the scientists and instruments, and that sort of thing. But yes, I would say that you’re right. As I became older, I sort of moved — first, I had very focused studies. Then, I did some more generalized books over issues — say, the long-term. And then, I did two biographical studies. But in each of those biographical studies — and Linus Pauling is another interest I’ve had as a biographical subject, although I haven’t written a book on him -- I, as I’ve already said, sort of found myself interested in people who were interesting — I mean, really interesting — and were a little hard to explain in some ways, and who were, in all three of those cases — Blackett, Polanyi and Pauling, rather controversial, and some of whose scientific work, not all of it — was regarded as absolutely first-rate, and couldn’t be improved. Some of their other scientific work in each case was questioned and thought perhaps not to be at all what you would do.

With Blackett, you’ve got the geomagnetic theory that was questioned, and that he himself then helped to prove wrong. In Polanyi’s case, as he explains in his sociological/philosophical work, he felt that he had really been shortchanged and not appreciated in his work on adsorption and his work in X-ray crystallography, where he was proposing long-chain molecules. And he always felt through much of his career that he didn’t proper credit. And in Pauling’s case, he became regarded as a weirdo with the Vitamin C theory. And of course, also the work he was doing on radioactive isotopes and radiation, and the genetic effects of radiation. He was criticized over and over again for being completely outside of his field and doing work that had nothing to do with his expertise, and yet pontificating on it. So, in all three of these cases, I was looking at biographical subjects who were very first-rate scientists, but on the other hand, became criticized largely because of some work they did that just wasn’t up to snuff or was highly criticized, but also all that became involved with their political point of views and ways in which they were criticized politically. And I guess failures have always been of some interest to me, although they’re harder, in a certain way, to work with. I did the work on black light.

I did the work on N- rays, and both of those are failures, so to speak, and you try to understand why. And when I did the paper on N-rays, David Edge, who was one of the leaders in the Social Studies of Science movement, and who edited the journal — founded the journal with Roy MacLeod -- he wrote me a note, which I appreciated hearing from him, because it meant he’d read the paper. And he wondered why I hadn’t sent it to him instead of putting it in John Heilbron’s journal. And that really brought home to me, in that letter from him, what this sociology of science constructivist approach meant, namely that here — he said: here -- you’re using all this political, historical, philosophical milieu approach to explain this mistake that Blondlot made. But what you ought to be doing is using all of those factors in order to explain why a theory is successful, not just why it’s a failure. And I don’t think I had really understood until that point just what the sociologists of science were getting at. Although, I sat in one of Bruno Latour’s seminars in 1986 in Paris, and he was at that point doing his Science in Action book. He was beginning to work on it. So, I got a sense of what Bruno was about, and the sociology of science at that point, in terms of constructivism, and that you have to explain correct science, or accepted science, because it may not be correct. So, how did it get to be accepted? Not just explain failures in science that weren’t valid at the time. And of course, that’s become a hallmark of the history of science, including the history of physics ever since, that you have to explain success, not just failure.

Zierler:

Now, to the extent that you’re interested in physics, war, and politics in the early 20th century generally, right, there’s so many to choose from that you could use as a vehicle, so to speak, to explore these larger macroscopic issues, in such interesting and original interconnected ways. And so, that just begs the question: why Blackett? Was he a tragic figure to you?

Nye:

Oh, no. No. I mean, I rather admired Blackett, although again, he was roundly criticized later. Well, first of all, his book was, I guess you know, the Fear, War, and the Bomb book.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Nye:

He laid out military, political consequences of the time, and that was roundly criticized. On the other hand —

Zierler:

You mean, across the board, it was criticized.

Nye:

Well, it was certainly — I mean, the American political establishment was furious about it.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Nye:

And the argument that the United States used the bomb in Japan because we were afraid of Soviet intervention in Asia was something that was not well received by lots of other people.

Zierler:

However, this is historical revisionism 101. Right? This is what Alperovitz in the mid-1960s is saying.

Nye:

Yeah, that’s right. But on the other hand, Blackett was — the way in which he revealed as well — I guess you would say — some of his own objections to British military strategy during the war, particularly the saturation bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and other German cities — civilian bombing, saturation civilian bombing. He made — and of course, he came out — although people in the establishment all knew about it — criticizing Lindemann for his opposition to the use of radar early in the war. Even before the war started, Blackett was arguing that radar needed to be further developed in order to — both for anti-aircraft fire and also to help get rid of some German submarines. And Lindemann had other various plans he wanted to use, including the civilian bombing. But right. And then Blackett, after he went to — he became more and more outspoken after he went to India about the differences between the rich and the poor and how this was all going to catch up with us, a point that C.P. Snow made in his The Two Cultures book, and his afterword to The Two Cultures book.

But these were controversial positions, and people — as I think I’ve said in the Blackett book — I can’t remember who it was — said that when Blackett gave one of his speeches at the BAAS, where he didn’t talk about his scientific work, but where he talked instead about politics, and about the scientists’ obligation to fellow citizens and to the rest of the world, and the scientists’ obligation to help relieve the burden of poverty in the developing countries, they said he was mad as a hatter. I mean, nobody wanted him saying these kind of things in this kind of public presence. But how did I become interested in him in the first place? I think it’s because I was interested in Polanyi, and I was looking at Polanyi and then realized he was a very close friend of Blackett’s. And I thought that was unusual. And then I started working more on Blackett instead of Polanyi, so that the Blackett book came out first instead of the — I mean, originally I was thinking of doing a parallel biography, the sort of thing that Sam Schweber liked to do, where he does parallel lives. And I was thinking I would do a kind of double biography of Polanyi and Blackett. But it just didn’t work. To me, they were just too big of figures to put it into a — they didn’t work as a parallel biography. And the Blackett book, I regret I didn’t spend more time on it and do a bigger biography. I think he merits a bigger biography than I did, and it still should be done.

Zierler:

I’m curious with the Polanyi book. Obviously, maybe it wasn’t called as such at the time, but in prior generations, certainly there is such a thing as social constructs as they apply to science. Right?

Nye:

Mm hmm.

Zierler:

So what exactly changed with regard to Polanyi and his generation?

Nye:

Well, I think that Polanyi was, as someone who — he came from Budapest to Berlin, and he then had to make his career in Berlin. And he struggled at first, and as I mentioned earlier, he was unhappy with the way in which some of his work was received and criticized. And I think that he was asking himself the question of, you know, why can’t this work get accepted? And his answer was partly: what I’m doing is against the grain. What I’m doing seems to be old-fashioned in comparison to the new electron theories, because I’m not using them, when he was working on adsorption. And this is one of the things that led him to think about how theories come to dominate certain periods of science, and that it’s very hard to break out of that theory or to accept a new point of view. And he was certainly interested in the notion of scientific creativity, and how creativity occurs, what makes a scientist a creative person, and not a creative person.

At the same time, he says himself that he was very upset, as so many people were, by what was going on in the Soviet Union. And I mean, he had very personal reasons to be upset there, because members of his family were in the Soviet Union, he visited there, that kind of thing. But he was upset that the ideas of Lysenko were being taken to be scientific ideas, and that genetic ideas were being rejected on what he saw as political grounds. But then that began, he says, making him think about what is it that then causes a theory to be legitimated. And he ends up with this whole argument to the effect that Lysenko was someone who never had actually become a scientist in the first place, because in order to become a scientist, you had to have the proper apprenticeship and proper kind of training from someone who was what he called a “master,” or an expert in the field. And if you didn’t have that, if you didn’t absorb those values and the rules and the fundamental what he called “dogmas” that are accepted scientific tradition, then you could never really break out of them in a way that’s effective or that’s meaningful. And so, he was talking about science. He didn’t talk about science as a social construction. That was not at all Polanyi’s point of view.

But he did, as I and others have mentioned, talk about science in the way in which Ludwik Fleck talked about it, as a kind of thought collective, that scientists, as various kinds of communities, have certain common -- what he called “beliefs” -- which is not at all a popular idea among scientists, to say that theories are “beliefs” — and that they have these common beliefs to which they are committed. Polanyi wrote that a tacit understanding develops of how to do things, what’s right and what’s wrong, what feels good, what your intuition tells you is correct, what is a proper experiment, what’s not, what the acceptable anomaly is, what is not an acceptable anomaly, and that you have to work within those constructs. But from time to time, something will happen. It was never very clear what exactly it is that happens that makes it necessary to make a leap out of this particular belief system and operate under another one, or suggest another one that involves a new language and new constructs. But he was not a constructivist, in the sense that he didn’t think that scientists are producing something that is an invention. I mean, he’s very insistent in thinking that scientists are after something that is what, in an old-fashioned way, you would call “scientific truth,” and an understanding of a reality, of what is really there, how things really work. So, he’s not himself what you would call a social constructionist.

Zierler:

I’d like to move to a different aspect of your career, which we haven’t touched on at all, and that’s your role as a teacher. And I’m curious — and this is a broadly retrospective question that would cover your career from Oklahoma to Oregon, and that is particularly with undergraduates, there’s always the unique opportunity there where you are exposing young people to ideas that they’ve probably never considered before. Right? It’s very different than graduate students, who have — you know, they’re there. They’re self-selected. They’ve done a lot of reading already. What are some of the big concepts in history of science that you want undergraduates to appreciate, regardless of the topic that you’re talking about, or the time frame. Thematically, what are some of the big ideas that undergraduates should appreciate about the value and the importance of the history of science?

Nye:

Well, I think that one thing that undergraduates need to appreciate and understand is that for most scientists, their work is investigation. It has to do with investigation. First of all, it does require learning certain techniques, skills, ways of doing things, ways of looking at the world, that are what you would call the “textbook tradition,” and the students need to understand this — and of course, some of them are reading textbooks as they’re taking science courses, and so they know what that is. That’s science. But on the other hand, that scientists investigate problems, that they have questions that they want to answer, that the questions they want to answer often come out of experiments that they themselves have done, or that they’ve read about, or that seem not to answer the question in the way that you would expect it. And so, when you get an unexpected result, you have to investigate it a little bit further. And the way in which scientists operate — I have taught students — is by arriving at consensus, that the scientific community is one of consensus in which there is open communication — and of course, this is something Polanyi said — there is, and there should be, open communication. There should be absolute honesty and integrity about results, that it’s a system which, in principle and most often in practice, operates as peer review where the work that one does is reviewed.

In the 17th century, the review system wasn’t exactly there, I would say in the early meetings of the Royal Society and the Academy of Sciences, but the papers were presented openly. The results were presented. They were duplicated. There were attempts at replication. And if the replication fails, then there were attempts to explain why that replication failed, whether there was a mistake, whether the design was different in two different cases, that kind of thing — whether there were impurities that were present, whether there was a problem with a lens or a focus. But that the aim is to do experimental work or to do observational work, and to better understand the natural world, the human body, animal bodies, and to arrive at results that can meet certain basic criteria of verifiability, rationality, and integration with what’s known already.

But besides, it’s also very often a quest that can become a rather consuming quest on the part of the scientist, and an all-consuming passion for doing the work that will get the result that you want to get, and that scientists also — as you were saying earlier in talking about physicists being concerned with their own identity as part of a chain of mentors in which scientists depend upon collaboration, that science is not — scientists, even in the very old days, were collaborative — that’s part of being open — that there certainly are geniuses, but again, I think Polanyi’s correct on this, that most scientists are not geniuses. They’re simply smart people, for the most part, who are very dedicated to getting certain results and who care about the results and who care about communicating them. They also care about priority and getting credit for them, and “credit” can mean all kinds of different things. But on the other hand, that they are people who try to guard — the integrity. And when that integrity is violated, then most usually, scientists gather together to do something about it and to out the person who is not being honest, to get rid of that person, or expose that person, and not put up with it. And I also, I suppose if I were teaching now, I would say to students that the current anti-scientific attitude of many people in this country is very damaging, not only to the — it’s very damaging in practical ways that have to do with global science change — with global climate change, with the —

Zierler:

Not wearing a mask.

Nye:

Yeah. I was going to say, dealing with our current pandemic. And that if facts and anomalies are ignored, there could be very big repercussions to that in the results, and that most scientists are people of integrity, but one of the things you have to be very careful of, and this is sort of what you were saying earlier, is that there are some scientists who are experts in certain areas, and when they get too far out of their areas, they shouldn’t be given the platform that they think they deserve. So, when you have a chemical engineer who’s claiming that models for climate change are wrong, that person has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Zierler:

I’ll share with you — I’d like to — I’m proud to say I’ve interviewed many Nobel Prize winners, and I’d like to ask — if you’ve won a Nobel Prize, you’ve already won most of the other major awards in science and in physics, and of course, the Nobel Prize is in its own category in terms of recognition and in terms of offering a platform. Right? So, I’d like to ask the question to the interviewee: to what extent do you appreciate that the Nobel Prize gives you a platform, gives you a voice, for you to talk about things that you care about, but have nothing to do with the research for which you were recognized? And basically, everybody has the same answer, which is — and I think it’s also a generational answer as well, that maybe in previous generations, there would not have been that hesitation. But for some reason — I don’t know. In the way that scientists who are educated in the second half of the 20th century, how they were brought up — that they’re very careful about that now, which I thought was very interesting, and I think there’s much historical import there to be mined about this interesting mindset where people say: I’ll put my name as a signatory to a particular thing, but I’m very careful not to abuse or overstep in ways that, just because I was recognized for this relatively narrow piece of research, I don’t know anything more about a particular topic just because I knew a lot about this other thing right here, which has been interesting to sort of see this trend line occurring.

Nye:

Yeah, I’ve found that quite intriguing. One of the things about Blackett is that he enraged a number of his colleagues by refusing to sign petitions and refusing to sign letters and that kind of thing, where there were many names on it. And I’m not sure why, but he said he just felt that he could be more influential on a personal basis than by signing a letter. He wouldn’t sign very important pieces, even though it was an issue that on the face of it, he felt strongly about. He wouldn’t just add his name to it.

Zierler:

So, I’m going to ask you a very broad question. It’s also a bit of a meta-question. It’s coming from Wisconsin, one of the oldest programs in history of science. So, I want to wrap that idea around the question of how you see your contributions to the history of science. Right? The field obviously has changed in the past two or even three generations. How do you see your own contributions as a part of that change, and then where do you think the field is, and should be headed next?

Nye:

I think that the work that I’ve done really does reflect some of the changes that have taken place overall in my field of the history of science since I’ve started. And on the other hand, I would say that when I did start, even as a graduate student and taking classes, from the very beginning, I was somewhat discontent with the history of ideas approach that really did ignore context and milieu entirely. And sometimes — I can remember actually for the first time reading Aristotle, and reading and reading and reading, week after week, and then thinking: nobody ever talks about Aristotle as a person. I mean, it’s just Aristotle’s ideas. Where exactly was Aristotle? Yes, I know that he was in Greece. I know he was in Athens. But give me a map of the city and show me where he was.

And I sort of had that attitude, and I think one of the reasons I didn’t become — although I read the philosophy of science, and I enjoy it — I didn’t become a philosopher of science is because so much of it seemed to me too divorced from just the sort of practical world, and the world we live in. But although I did ask those questions at the very beginning, I really followed through over the years, pretty much with trends that were going on in my field of study, because I kept up with the literature. I wasn’t working on my own. I was going to meetings. I was going to conferences. I was corresponding with people. I was reading. I was reviewing books. And again, that’s what keeps you alive and keeps you fresh and makes you enthusiastic about beginning something new and trying something new. So yes, I think that — I don’t think I’ve contributed anything particularly new. I think I’ve just done work that followed my own interests and followed trends in the field. In terms of where things are going, I think you’re probably aware that in the history of physics field, one of the things that has been happening — and I’ve written a little bit about this, because I was observing it — is a sort of new push to study very recent physics, and in particular, solid-state physics and materials science, to integrate that more thoroughly into the literature of the history of physics than has been done in the past. And I think that’s very good work and very interesting work.

For the history of science in general, I’m very much struck by the way in which there is a lot more scholarship that has to do with non-western science, and also with Asian science and South American science, both what had been done in the past there and then what’s been going on more recently in those countries. And I think that’s good. I’ve had a couple of graduate students myself who are Japanese, and who teach in Japan, and I’m very struck with the strength of work in the history of physics and chemistry and other fields among Japanese historians of science. It’s frustrating — and many of them are writing in English now. I was going to say, it’s frustrating that there’s a lot of good work that is in Japanese and not translated. But there are a lot of very good books and increasing publication of articles, because again, as Michael Gordon has argued, English has just become the common language for scientists and for so many others. So, that’s good. I think that the tendency in the history of science in general to focus on history of medicine and history of genetics will continue. These are fields in which a lot of work has been done, which has eclipsed to some extent some work in the history of physics and the history of physical science, including chemistry in general. And of course, the studies in genetics and molecular biology, they intersect a little bit more with chemistry than they do with physics, so you get a kind of chemical biology, molecular biology that’s part of those studies. But that’s the emphasis, rather than physical chemistry, per se, or natural products chemistry. I do think that the history of science has become definitely more international rather than having national differences in the last 10 years. And there’s more collaboration. And I think that there will be more and more. The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin has really encouraged a lot of collaborative work and collaborative studies. I think that will continue.

Zierler:

I’ll refer back to something remarkable you said when you were in high school: the best teachers were all women. Right? And so clearly, there was a role-model aspect to that as well. So, I don’t know if it exactly begs the question, but I’m curious. In terms of the historical subjects you’ve focused on, they certainly skew towards the men, and I wonder if you can comment on that, and if you’ve thought about that in any kind of sustained way.

Nye:

I’ve thought about it. When I was beginning — coming out of graduate school, of course I had worked on Jean Perrin. I was doing French men almost entirely. But on the other hand, because I was a woman, I was asked to do some things that had to do with the history of women in science. And I was active in the History of Science Women’s Caucus, and that kind of thing. And I wrote a couple of articles which sort of disappeared. One, I don’t even put on my vitae, because I can’t remember who I wrote it for. It was some popular journal. And this — my wanting to be a science journalist. They completely changed it. I mean, they just — they made it into something that looked like it should be read by first-graders. And so, as I say, I don’t remember where it was published or supposed to be published. It’s not on my vitae. And I think that I might have moved in that direction possibly, but ironically, I don’t remember exactly what the year was. It probably was — I don’t remember if it was before or after the Science in the Provinces book.

And I can’t remember how this happened exactly, but I had a friend at the University of Oklahoma who spent some time in England. And he mentioned to me that he knew Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and I knew her name. I knew she was a Nobel Prize winner. And I did a little background work on her, and I asked if I might use his name and write her a letter. And I wrote her a letter, and I wrote in the letter that I was thinking about the possibility, if she would cooperate — I didn’t put it quite that way -- but I was thinking of the possibility of writing about her work and her career, and would she be willing to meet with me, and did she have an archive of papers or correspondence, that, if I did this, might help me in understanding her research and her career. And she wrote me back, and she said: well, it was all very interesting, but she was thinking of writing an autobiography, or her own memoir, and so this was not a good time. So, I abandoned that, and then I went on to something else. Had she said “yes,” I might have turned in the direction of studying — again, she had interested me, because she not only was a great X-ray crystallographer, and someone who — and I was interested in molecular structure — who studied molecular structure and these huge compounds and made a huge difference -- but she was, of course, a pioneer as a woman scientist. She was politically left and had a very interesting family. And I thought she would be a really great subject. So, had she said “yes,” then I might have done a biography or something that’s clearly focused on her: her work, her career, her politics, and that kind of thing. As it turned out, there is a very good biography written about her now, but it only appeared, I guess, about 10 years ago. So, that was something that might have put me in a different direction. And I’ve written a little bit about women. Some women show up in what I do, but not as the biographical focus, it’s true.

Zierler:

Well, Mary Jo, I think now that we’ve brought the narrative right up to the present, I have one more question. It’s a forward-looking question. What excites you about the future, as a scholar, as somebody who’s interested in tracking the history of science as it plays out in real time? What are the kinds of projects that you want to work on in the future, and where do you see your scholarly interests taking you?

Nye:

I mentioned my Japanese students. Again, I’m going off in a slightly different direction, but not entirely, because we have here at the university the papers of Linus Pauling, and I was invited to give a talk, and I don’t know if this conference will take place, at an international chemistry meeting in Hawaii in December. And there’s a history of chemistry section, and the theme is supposed to be: collaborations and cooperation across the Pacific. I mean, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, the United States, all the countries that border — make up the Pacific rim. So, I’ve begun working on a project right now about Pauling’s first visit to Japan in 1955, and in order to do that, I’ve begun reading a great deal of literature on the development of quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry and physical chemistry and physics in Japan, from the 1920s to 1955. And I’m having a lot of fun with it. So this, I think, will probably just end up being a pretty big paper, not just a talk. But it’s just fun. So again, if something happens, and you ask me: how did you get interested? How did you get interested in that? I mean, people sometimes just ask you to do something.

Zierler:

Yeah. Right. I’ll be very interested to learn more about those early research years in Japan, because as you might know, many people believe that the future of high-energy physics is actually in Japan, now. Right? When we did not build the SSC in Texas, and when CERN can only do so much, some people are saying that Japan actually might be the place where physics in the 21st century might really be headed. So, it would be very interesting to draw some of those connections to the early 20th century.

Nye:

That’s very interesting. Yeah. I’ve been in touch recently, because of some circumstances, with Bernard Bigot, who is head of the international ITER fusion project, which apparently is a little bit behind schedule because of Covid. But that looks — it’ll be interesting to see how that turns out, the fusion project.

Zierler:

Mary Jo, it’s been a delight speaking with you today.

Nye:

Oh, I have enjoyed talking with you very much, and I can’t wait to tell Bob about you being at the Mosse conference.

Zierler:

There you go. So, I’ll cut the recording here.