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Interview of Jed Buchwald by David Zierler on 2020 July 29,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Jed Buchwald, Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History of Caltech, discusses his life and career. He recounts: his upbringing on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; undergraduate experience at Princeton, where his initial plan was to study physics, until he met Thomas Kuhn whose influence compelled him to switch to history of science; involvement in student protests at Princeton in the late 1960s; decision to move to Harvard for graduate school where he worked with Erwin Hiebert on the history of electrodynamics in the late 19th century; his first academic appointment at the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, and the different standards applied to the tenure process then compared to now; how the field of history of physics started to trend away from a technical to a more cultural and social perspective in the mid-1980s; his work as director of the Institute; his contribution to the Einstein Papers project during his time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he served as inaugural director of the Dibner Institute; his opposition to the rise of postmodernism as a scholarly approach to history of science, and the absence of evidentiary and logical reasoning that permeates postmodern jargon; his scholarship on Heinrich Hertz; the writing process and inspiration for Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Histories of the Electron, and Zodiac of Paris; the personal and professional considerations that led to his faculty appointment at Caltech; his longtime collaboration with Allan Franklin. At the end of the interview Buchwald reflects on the common themes that connect his body of scholarship, and in particular, his interest in focusing on historical subjects who were themselves deeply invested in their work.
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 29th, 2020. I’m so happy to be here with Professor Jed Zachary Buchwald. Jed, thank you so much for joining me today.
A pleasure to be here.
OK, Jed, so to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History at Caltech.
And did you have or is your position in any way specifically connected with the Dreyfuss family?
Yes, it was originally funded by the Dreyfuss people in honor of Henry Dreyfuss, one of the great mid-century designers of locomotives and cars. He designed the round thermostat, the one-piece dial telephone, for instance.
Did he have a physics connection or it was more from an engineering perspective?
Engineering. It’s one of Caltech’s chairs.
Well Jed, let’s take it back to the beginning. Let’s start origins, let’s start with your parents and where they’re from. Tell me a little bit about them.
Well, my father grew up in New York city. He was born in 1915. He died in 2009 at the age of 95. And his father — whom I never knew since he died in the 1930s — was a kosher butcher up in Harlem. He had an older sister — my father did — she contracted TB in the 30s, passed away, so I never knew her. And a young brother, uncle Marsh, whom I knew very well. And my grandmother lived a long time. My mother was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, went to Weequahic High School, which is where Phillip Roth went, and her family was from there.
They met after the war. My uncle enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, my father two days later. My uncle landed at Anzio and fought up through Italy and my father came in on D Day plus six and fought through the Battle of the Bulge. And after the war, he was stationed for six months in Kitzbuhel as part of deNazification.
Did he get his law degree before the war?
Yes. At CCNY.
Did he ever talk about his experiences during the war?
Almost never. I grew up in New York in the 50s, and nearly every one of my friends’ fathers had been in the war. None of them ever wanted to talk about it. I would occasionally hear stories when I would creep out at night and my father would have some of his war buddies around, but I wasn’t supposed to hear them. I would ask Dad, “So how many Nazis did you kill?” Didn’t want to talk about it.
Didn’t wanna go there.
None of them did. But that was a very different era. So for example, I went at first to PS6 in New York in the mid to late 50s, and in those days the classrooms were packed. It was the baby boom, there were 36 kids in my class. We had show and tell and were supposed to bring in something of course that our fathers — never our mothers — had done. And so my best friend had a father who’d been at Okinawa and as I said, my father had been in Germany.
Well, my father had a Luger he’d taken off some German soldier, sealed with lead, while my best friend’s father had taken a Samurai sword. We, two 10 year olds, brought in a Samurai sword and a Luger for show and tell. Now just imagine what would happen to you today if you showed up in class with a Luger and a Samurai sword. It’s a very different era.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
I grew up mostly on the upper east side. My father was a reasonably successful lawyer, at least for a fair number of years, and we lived at 90th and Madison and then 93rd and Park. And then after PS6, in 1959, I went to a private school called Collegiate on the west side. Collegiate is actually the oldest school in America. It’s older than Harvard and was founded by the Dutch when New York was New Amsterdam.
Oh, wow. What were your strongest subjects in middle school and high school? Did you think of yourself more as a liberal arts person or a math and science person?
Math and science, pretty much. I was terrible at Latin and Greek, although I did pretty well with history. Physics and chemistry in high school.
When you were thinking about college, were you thinking about specific majors or you were looking to pursue a more liberal arts education?
I had applied to a lot of places, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT and Caltech. And I got into all of them in those days. It was competitive, but not as much as it is now. I thought about it and decided not to go, for instance, to Caltech where I’m now a professor because I wanted a broader background with good science, so I went to Princeton, which I thought could cover both humanities and science.
And when you got there, how did you go about determining what you wanted to specialize in? How did that come about?
I started figuring that I would major in physics. In those days you could take so-called advanced placement exams, so I jumped up a year, which was bad news because when I started taking advanced physics courses I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I told them, “I want to go back as just a freshman,” which I did. I took a good deal of physics over the next several years, but that freshman year I noticed there was a course in the history of science taught by a Professor Kuhn, which I took. His tutorial assistants were Mike Mahoney and Ted Brown who had both just gotten their PhDs.
That summer, the summer of my freshman year, I was Mahoney’s research assistant. I stayed around the area. Over the next few years, I became Kuhn’s research assistant. I stayed in physics, taking graduate courses, but actually majored in history. By the end of my senior year I’ld to go into history of science.
And were you specifically most interested in history of physics at that point or you would develop that specialty later on?
No, no. I was interested in history of physics.
And what was Kuhn working on when you were helping him with his research?
He was had just finished a long article on the Bohr atom with John Heilbron, who had been one of his first PhD students. John eventually became a major historian of science. He’s 86 and is with us here at Caltech six months of the year now. John was writing his first big book on the history of electricity, and Tom would have me read the chapters that Heilbron was sending him. At the same time, Tom was beginning to think about writing what became his major work on the origins of the quantum discontinuity.
I had graduate classes with Tom (though I was 30 before I called him Tom instead of Professor Kuhn), but I would also meet with him a couple times a week as he had me do various things. I think at one point he had me translate Descartes’ book Le Monde into English, really lousy translation I did for him, but he didn’t read French very well. Working for him was certainly an experience. He was not an easy man to be with, judging from what I saw of his interactions with graduate students. He treated me very well, but then I was a kid.
In my senior year I was still not sure what I wanted to do after college. I ran into a friend of mine, Schulman I think was his name, who became an art historian. He told me “Hey Jed, did you know the NSF is giving fellowships in history of science?” So I applied and was given one. Which meant I had to decide where to go. I know from conversations with him years later that Tom wanted me to stay there, but I wanted other experiences.
Tom would have accepted you on right through the PhD was your sense?
Yes. I think he was disappointed I didn’t stay, but I also saw how he worked with graduate students, and I didn’t think it was a good idea. I was pretty stubborn myself and didn’t think that that would be a good working relationship.
So your sense is, with undergraduates, he kept the kid gloves on?
Somewhat more. I mean, I had plenty of arguments with him. Don’t forget this is the late sixties — the campus was generally in an uproar. And in those days, not only did I have hair, I had hair down to my shoulders and looked like a hippie. Still, Tom was pretty calm with most of that. But in the end I left and went to Harvard.
Now before we get to your Harvard years, on the political and social scene, how active were you with some of the major political movements that were going on at the time?
I was pretty active. I was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was a pretty radical group. I was at many protests, went down to Washington, DC for one of them. Got tear gassed. And so on. At Princeton we protested against the so-called Institute for Defense Analyses, which had a major computer. That got sticky because some guys went too far and poured concrete into the building, or at least tried to.
My roommates were mostly not very political, we had a suite, but one guy was totally nonpolitical, sort of a hippie type. He got very upset after the Kent State Massacre. One evening he went out with some friends, got a jerrycan of gasoline and burned down the ROTC building on campus. As a result of that we were all interrogated by the FBI.
Though I hadn’t been involved at all in that – I was just out protesting Kent State – the FBI wanted to talk to all of us in the suite. So I wrote up a moment-by-moment account of where I was at the time. Anyway my father, as I said, was a lawyer in New York, and he had a lot of friends. I told him what had happened. First thing he said to me was, “You idiot. I hope you didn’t do anything.” I said, “No, I didn’t.” He said, “All right. Here’s what’s going to happen. The FBI is going to send a couple guys to talk to you. They’re probably going to be stupid, big guys.” Who went to Fordham University - my father had the unfortunate opinion that only stupid people went to Fordham. “And when they do, they’re going to act tough at first, but before they do anything, after they tell you to sit down, ask if you can make a phone call. They’re going to have to say, ‘Yes.’” So I thought, “OK, dad.” And he gave me a number to call.
And indeed it happened. I was called in to meet the FBI. They looked at me like something had crawled that had crawled out of the gutter. I sat down and they certainly were very intimidating: big, beefy white guys. I quickly said, “Can I make a phone call?” They looked at me sideways, but finally said “Yes.” So I called. Someone picked up on the other end and asked, “Is this Jed?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Hand the phone to the FBI.” So I handed it to the biggest one of the two. He grabs the phone and looks like he’s going to say something but doesn’t as he listens. Then he starts nodding his head, and he keeps repeating, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” Puts down the phone, looks at me, smiles and says, “So what are you doing for your summer vacation?”
My father had called Louis Lefkowitz, a friend who was attorney general of New York State at the time. Luckily none of my other friends got in trouble except for the guy who burned down the building. He certainly did.
But you really didn’t do anything wrong except exercise your first amendment rights.
David, that’s the FBI.
If you’re under some illusion as to what rights you really have when they want to go for you, the last few years, especially with Trump, should have told us otherwise.
Although these days, the FBI are the good guys.
Was the draft ever a concern for you?
Of course. For all of us, the draft was ongoing and we knew that the deferments for graduate school were ending. Then Nixon was elected because we were all really stupid and marched against LBJ, which was a huge mistake. LBJ withdraws, Nixon is elected, ends the draft and puts in the lottery, which ran by number. It was held in I think January and they would pull numbers out of an urn for each day of the year. And they were drafting, at that point, if your lottery number was lower than 140, you were certainly gonna get drafted at the peak.
So everybody would sit around, scared, waiting for this. My brother was born January 28th, I was born April 25th. So his number comes up first because they go through the year and he gets number 364. So I said jeez, the luck of the draw. He’s never gonna get drafted. They’d have to draft the whole country. Mine comes up, finally, it was 356. So I went into New York the next day and I handed in my deferment. That made me eligible for a year, but they would have had to have drafted practically the entire country first.
So should I ever run for office, I can say, “I was available. I didn’t get a deferment.”
Jed, looking back, did your politics inform your early development as a scholar? The things you were thinking about theoretically and historically in your studies?
No. Not at all.
You kept those worlds separate?
Well, they seemed separate to me. I was dealing with history of physics, I didn’t see, in the people I was dealing with, much that implicated other things besides technical and related issues. So no, I didn’t see much of a relationship there.
When you were thinking about graduate schools, it was specifically you were looking at history of science programs?
And based on your own research or the advice you were getting, what did you see as the best programs in the country for history of science?
The place I probably should have gone was Yale to work with Martin Klein, long dead now, who much later became a very good friend, but I couldn’t do that because Tom and Martin were kind of rivals. And so not staying at Princeton and going to Yale would have been a slap in the face to Tom. I wanted to go somewhere where they would leave me alone and the best place for that, as far as I could tell, where they would keep their hands off me was Harvard because there was nobody there in the kind of thing I wanted to do.
Although a wonderful man, Erwin Hiebert, had come from Wisconsin, but he was a historian of chemistry. He took me under his wing, becamse my supervisor but more or less left me. I took one course while I was there and left after three years. I didn’t like New England very much. I found it full of noblesse oblige, the attitude that aristocrats often have towards peasants, so to speak, and I did not like that at all. And I don’t like it to this day.
But they were very good to me and there were excellent scholars there in addition to Hiebert. Bernard Cohen and Bashi Sabra and John Murdoch, all of whom became friends over the years.
Were you interested at all in continuing taking physics courses or you focused exclusively on history during your Harvard years?
Well, you do have to have enough training in scientific background to know how to think through a problem in physics or chemistry in the way that somebody working in that field and trained in it would do. I think people who are exclusively trained with almost no science in the liberal arts — and I’ve seen that with my students over the decades — never get the idea. It’s very, very hard.
But if you learn how to approach such problems, then at a certain point I don’t think you should keep doing too much in the way of contemporary physics because you can easily become saturated with modern ways of thinking. It’s much better, once you know what you’re doing, how to approach a problem, to go back and learn as best you can how it would have been done at the time.
Right. I’ve heard varying perspectives on this particular issue with regard to how close to the subject do you really want to be. So this worldview that you’re expressing now, did you develop this on your own? Was this advice that you got? Was this sort of the general mindset of the time? How did this come about, in your mind.
That was Tom Kuhn’s way. At one point in my third or fourth year at Princeton, I was taking graduate courses in general relativity and though to take further work, especially in quantum electrodynamics. Tom demurred. He said, “No, don’t do that. Stop. You know enough how to handle technical problems now, you don’t need to base yourself in modern ways of thinking,” which was ironic, because he of course was trained as a physicist by Van Vleck.
But that was view — and not only his. Mike Mahoney, at the time, rather thought like that as well. He was a historian of mathematics.
What about Hiebert? What were his views on this issue?
On that particular issue, I don’t think he had strong views, at least at the time, though in terms of grounding yourself in the technical material and figuring it out, he was very firm on that’s what you should do. He was my supervisor, but we did not much discuss what I was working on. At the beginning of my third year at Harvard I started to write, and nine months later handed Erwin the result.
Yeah. How did you go about developing your dissertation topic?
It fed off of the senior thesis at Princeton that I did for Tom on 19th century electrodynamics, I just carried it further.
Chronologically, you mean?
Yes, the one at Princeton was on the 1840s or thereabouts. It wasn’t very good in retrospect, but I carried it forward to the end of the 19th century. Let me put it this way; if some graduate student of mine handed me the dissertation that I wrote, I would have said, “What is this? Notes?” And they would never get away with it. But it was lucky that I did get away with it because it gave me plenty of time to learn what I really had to do later on.
And was your sense that this was the general approach toward graduate students at Harvard or this was a special relationship between you and Hiebert? You had an understanding, essentially?
I think it was due to the fact that Tom Kuhn called them and told them to leave me alone.
But it sounds like you don’t feel you were well served by his intervention in that regard?
In my case, I think I was because I don’t think there was anybody at Harvard who would have been able to do more. I had to learn a lot over the years later, but in my case I think it was better for me to learn what I needed to learn when I needed to learn it rather than to have gone through six years in graduate school. I would have done a better dissertation at Yale with Martin, but in the end would my work over the years have been better? I don’t think so. I think to have been thrown on my own later on and working with criticism as I tried to get things published was a better experience.
Jed, at what point did you settle on a career objective for becoming an academic historian? Was that right when you decided you wanted to pursue a PhD in history of science or did you keep your options open during graduate school?
It was still the late 60s, early 70s kind of hippieish era and free-flowing. I just wasn’t really thinking very much about what I was going to do after college. It’s so different from today. Jobs were easy to find in those days. There were plenty of things you could do.
You mean beyond academia?
Sure. I could have gone to business school or law school. I think I generally thought I would probably be an academic, but I didn’t really think seriously about it. And then in my third year at Harvard, a job turned up in Toronto and Everett Mendelsohn, one of the Harvard professors, knew people there. He and Erwin told me, “You’ll fit that job. Go up and interview.” So I did.
And this job is the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology University of Toronto.
And where does that institute fit within overall at the University of Toronto? Is it a department? It is a school?
In those days, it was purely a graduate institute. We did give extensive undergraduate courses, but it was formally just in the graduate school. Years later, after I left, it turned into a department, but in all the years I was there, it was a graduate program.
When I joined in ’74 the head of the institute then was a well-known historian of math named Ken May, expert on the mathematician Gauss and founder of the journal Historia Mathematica. He passed away a few years later of a coronary. Stillman Drake had joined a number of years before, the world’s leading expert on Galileo. There was Trevor Levere, historian of chemistry chemistry from England. And Polly Winsor who was trained at Yale in history of biology. And there were occasional people coming through. I was hired as a lecturer, not as an assistant professor because there was no position.
And in fact, it was beginning to get sticky up in Canada because they had been hiring so many Americans. Moreover jobs were very few anywhere because the year that I left, 1974 ,was basically the year that the post-war expansion in hiring shut down. Bang. People think it’s tough now, but it was also pretty tough then, though there were of course many fewer people in the field.
Sure. So were you on the market? Were you looking at other jobs or this one just sort of came available to you and that’s how it happened?
Were there other institutes after which the institute in Toronto was modeled or was the idea that this was going to be a new kind of collaborative effort, bringing more diverse kinds of people together?
I think it was pretty new. It was the brain child of Ken May and John Abrams. John passed away a number of years later, he was a historian of technology. An American, but he had — before Pearl Harbor — gone to England, joined the Air Force there and came back with an English wife. He never came back to the states, but returned to Canada instead. Ken May was also an American but he had left America after becoming caught in the McCarthy era, interrogated by the House and left.
Our offices then were in a small building on the street right next to the campus at the time. There was just those few of us at the time.
And the faculty were fully situated within the institute or they all had joined appointments with other departments?
I think Ken had a joint appointment with mathematics, but the rest of us held our appointments entirely in and through the institute.
Now as lecturer, what were the expectations for you in terms of splitting research and teaching duties?
Well, I had a fair bit of teaching.
And strictly graduate students, you mentioned?
No, undergrads as well. I arrived in July and at the beginning of September I began teaching one undergraduate and one graduate course. The undergraduate course was to teach history of science to engineers. I had 195 undergrad engineers in that course who were just a few years younger than me. I couldn’t turn my back on them or they’d start throwing things. And the graduate students were mostly my age at the time.
Because you were on the fast track at Harvard. You were really younger than you should have been, in some sense.
Oh yes. I was 25 when I started teaching at Toronto. It’s going on 46 years now.
Jed, kind of a broader question, coming from the elite of the elite, Princeton and then Harvard, what was your sense, when you got to the University of Toronto, which of course prides itself as being one of the best schools in Canada, what was your sense of the aptitude of the students, the quality of the faculty, the way that University of Toronto saw itself within the Canadian higher education system?
Well, in respect to the latter question, it thinks of itself as the elite of the elite in Canada. It’s almost the oldest. There’s McGill, of course, but Toronto was founded on the model of Oxford and Cambridge, separate colleges and so on, most of which originally — and some still — had a religious affiliation. For example, one of the colleges is Saint Michael’s, obviously a Catholic college, is also the seat of one of the only two pontifical institutes in the world. The other’s in Louvain. And then there’s Trinity, obviously Anglican. Knox, Presbyterian. Victoria College and University, where the institute eventually moved, which is United church, which effectively means it’s not religious at all.
The professors that I got to know over the next number of years, especially once we moved to Victoria, were mostly Canadian, some American. They were extremely good. Modest? No, not modest except in a Canadian way. Acerbic and rather English in their attitudes.. Victoria College was an early seat of some of the new criticism in English at the time. So for instance, one fellow I used to see at lunch at high table in the Vic chapel was Northrup Frye who was very well-known in English. I liked it quite a bit.
Was it a collaborative environment working with your colleagues?
Except for Stillman, whom I spoke with frequently, we weren’t really collaborating. With Stillman, I had a fair bit of overlap because I had become interested in some of the early optics work in the 17th century, and we would often discuss that. Stillman’s view of the early modern period was iconoclastic, but informative, and he had one of the world’s great private book collections. And in fact, the collection in History of Science at the Fisher Rare Book Room in Toronto consists mostly of his books, which he was able to collect during his career in business – he became an academic at Toronto only in his late fifties.
Stillman and his wife, Florence would hold dinners at their house often At one point, about ’76 or 7, I was going over to Europe for some research. Stillman said, “Listen, while you’re there can you bring back a rare book I bought?” So I went and picked it up - a first edition of Galileo’s Dialogue. When I gave it Stillman, he said, “Well thanks, and by the way, I’m working on one of Galileo’s manuscripts involving a ball rolling down a plane but I don’t know how to calculate what should be happening. Could you do that?” which I did. Then I lent him a programmable calculator I had to run the resulting equation which my father had bought it for me. A couple months later I was over for dinner. As usual, he had rare books stacked up, some on the table next to where I was sitting. I picked up one of the books - a first edition of Newton’s Opticks. I open it and like all of his rare books it had Stillman’s book plate in it. He had crossed out his name and written “For my friend, Jed Buchwald.”
So at Toronto we were surrounded by people steeped in a love of books and scholarship.
When did you become part of the faculty formally, assistant professor?
Well, that’s an interesting account. Of course, there was no position when I arrived as a lecturer. They all kept telling me that there would beone when Stillman retired. Meanwhile, I think it was around 1978, I had been offered a position at Chicago, also initially not tenure track, though I was told in a year it would turn into one. I turned it down because I didn’t see much point in moving from one non tenure-track to another, and anyway I was happy where I was. Eventually Stillman retired atound 1980. At first there was a bit of an issue because I’m an American, though I’d been there for many years by then. And so I was at Toronto for about five years before I was put onto tenure-track.
I didn’t care.
Were you a single guy? Did you not have concerns in that regard?
I wasn’t married until 1979. Moving to tenure-track got me, and my (first) wife, who was American, into Canada on a permanent — what’s called a landed immigrant visa. It’s like the green card.
Had you revised your dissertation at that point?
No. I had put that aside. I worked on other things. I wrote an article on Huygens, which Bernard Cohen put in the Archive for History of Exact Sciences. I also wrote one on Faraday for John Heilbron’s journal, Historical Studies. And I wrote two on something that I had touched on in the dissertation, which John North put in the Archives Internationale. I also had four pieces for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography that had been started by Charlie Gillispie, whom I had taken courses with at Princeton. So I got tenure on the basis of those pieces.
And was the understanding when you became assistant professor that, you know, officially or not, that your time as lecturer would be counted on the tenure clock?
The tenure clock was fluid at that point. They said, “Tell me when you want to come up.” I had five articles so I said, “OK. Now.”
Nowadays, people would probably be more interested in producing a monograph than five articles, right?
Not only would they, I probably wouldn’t vote to tenure somebody if they didn’t have a monograph.
So was it just a different time or that’s what you felt like you were most capable of doing? What were you thinking in terms of not just the scholarship, but in terms of your career prospects?
It was something of a different time. If you really could produce a work that \ significant people in the field thought well of, and if you did a fair bit of it, whether monographs or long articles, you could get tenure. And that’s still the case in philosophy of science. You don’t have to write a book, generally, to get tenure in that field, although a lot of people do. That changed in history of science as the field became more like the expectations in history departments. Because I don’t think even five decent articles would have gotten tenure had I been say a historian of, say, Renaissance art.
That’s an important point. Right. So at the time, it was more of a distinct set of considerations.
I think at the time I was being treated or looked at a little bit more like you might look at a scientist.
Right. So Jed, at this point, sort of a broader question, if you look at these five articles and the kinds of courses you were teaching, what were some of the through lines in your scholarship and interests that others might have looked at and said, “This is the kind of historian of science that you are.” How were you developing your professional identity at the point you became a tenured faculty member?
I was interested, in the way in which the technical substructure of a particular area was formed, and how it was developed. Thisreflects the way Tom Kuhn trained people, to look for the way in which the mathematical structure, the physical hypotheses, the unstated things that guide overt work.
He insisted on looking for things that in retrospect, sound puzzling and strange. Which structured how I worked with 19th century electrodynamics and even early modern optics. The latter came about from a graduate course in the history of optics I taught. We were reading Huygens’ work in optics, and we found that there were some peculiar things about it. I spoke with Alan Shapiro, who was working on Newton’s optics, trying to pull out how it worked, and he helped me a good deal.
Yeah. And based on that, I’m kind of curious why the rise of the wave of theory of light came out after from Maxwell to microphysics. I would have thought that your earlier interest in optics would have suggested the other way around.
I think my interest was drawn as a result of that course. There were only two students: Greg Good and David Lukens. We had gone all the way up to the early part of the 19th century, and Greg and Dave did a complete literature survey. I think I still have it somewhere.
Let the record state Greg is my boss.
They were among the first grad students I taught. Greg went on to write a dissertation on John Herschel, a much broader one that he did under the supervision of Trevor.
I needed to get material in print fairly quickly, so I initially developed one section of my dissertation concerning a phenomenon called the Hall effect, for which there was archival material, but more was needed. So I went to England in ’76. My father funded the trip, luckily, and I found a good deal of material in archives. I thought I could see a way of understanding the structure of Maxwellian electrodynamics that hadn’t been quite spied before. In this I was assisted by work that a colleague at UCLA, Norton Wise, had done while a graduate student at Princeton under the direction of Kuhn. He’d opened a different way of thinking about early field theory, and that led me to work on the subject for the next couple of years. Wrote some articles. And then that became my first book, which was published in ’85.
You asked about how the next book happened? Well, I had written two articles for the Archives Internationales on Fresnel’s diffraction theory of light, which recomputed what he had observed. I had left that to do the Maxwell work, but then went back to it, I think because I was teaching another course in the history of optics. Reading early 19th century material around Fresnel eventually made it clear that what I had thought about the subject, along with most others who had worked on it, was missing something critical. We had long thought that the issues orbited almost entirely about whether light as a physical structure was something moving through an ether or whether it was made up out of strings of particles. That was, of course, certainly one of the central issues.
But as I worked through the way in which the mathematical structures were developed and novel discoveries made, it became clear that there was a deeper issue involved. I was trained to look for unsaid things that are hard to understand and found that the driving structure here was a mathematical, physical one. The driving issue for developing results rested on whether you think of light as a surface structure in which the things we call ‘rays’ are parasitical effects. Or do you think of light as something formed out of discrete sets of objects, namely rays, whatever those may be. They don’t have to be made out of particles, for instance, they could be streams of fluid or something, in which case the mathematical structure involves a species of counting discrete objects, very different from the manipulation of surfaces. That recognition opened a new way of thinking about the subject which led to the book I then wrote.
What were some of the broader theoretical issues that you were working through during this time that were representative not only of your work, but some of the bigger questions that were rolling through the field?
The field was already shifting towards social and cultural studies. I hadn’t done and still don’t do much in that vein, although it became increasingly clear that they are strikingly significant. If I were rewriting that book on the wave theory, I’d have more things to say along such lines, though I did write an article about the clashes between some of the central protagonists. But at the time, until about the early to mid-80s, most of the people I knew and interacted with were focused on conceptual issues. I can remember an early meeting of what was the east coast history of physics group, though I don’t remember where we met. There were maybe 20 of us in a room — many of whom have either passed away by now or went different ways — and the participants sat there discussing some really complicated questions involving, I think, the physical implications of issues in the late 19th and early 20th century concerning the velocity-dependent mass of an electron. You would not get that anymore, in part because there are just not enough scholars who would do that kind of thing nowadays, at least not in the United States.
It was a different environment then, but the field was changing — I think necessarily so. At the institute in Toronto I became a full professor and could do what I felt best able to accomplish. So I was never really directly affected by the pressure of scholarly fashions.
When did you start taking on graduate students of your own?
Around 1980 orthereabouts I think. But most of the graduate students at Toronto were doing biology or even Canadian history. At Toronto, I had several by the mid to late 80s, two of whom came even thought they were actually registered elsewhere. One in Tel Aviv and the other in South Korea.Two that I supervised at Toronto were Craig Fraser and Tom Archibald, historians of mathematics. Craig became the historian of math we hired in Toronto.
Now when you were named the director, was the idea that you would stay on longer than you would or did you look at this as a one term appointment and then you were looking on for other opportunities?
No, I thought that I would stay in Toronto forever. I didn’t think I was going to leave.
And was the director — so in a traditional department, sometimes the attitude of becoming chair is, “Well it’s my turn, it’s my duty to do this.” Was it a similar kind of situation being named director or was this sort of bigger than that?
It was about what you’re saying.
So it was sort of your turn, essentially.
Yes. Trevor had been chair, Polly had been chair, now it was my turn. I had to be chair. Nobody wants to be chair of a department unless they’re crazy.
And so obviously being in that position, you thought that you would be there for many years to make the mark that you wanted to make as director.
I thought I’d be director as long as I had to be director, at least five years, and then, with luck, I could go back to doing what I like doing.
In what ways did that vantage point change your perception or appreciation of the institute?
Of course I had to pay a lot more attention to the wellbeing of all the graduate students, what they were up to, what they were doing, do we have enough support for them? Toronto is a public university and so we were subject to the whims of the provincial government for funding. So there was administrative work – figuring out salary increases, making arguments for new appointments, getting somebody through tenure that was a difficult case. I was not thrilled with that kind of thing.
Did you pursue Canadian citizenship on the basis that you’d spend a whole career at Toronto?
Well, I never took out Canadian citizenship – in retrospect a mistake. My two children were born in Canada, so they have dual citizenship, although both now live in the states. Why didn’t I take it out? I should have, especially if Trump in Washington were reelected since if it were possible I’d then move back to Canada in a second. The reason I didn’t is the following . Canada did not have a written constitution for years. During my time there the British North America Act which, made the Canadian parliament subject to the British one, was quote ‘brought home to Canada.’ Which means that the Canadian Parliament, like the British, is directly subject to the queen. At the same time, they decided to draw up a constitution, one that included provisions for freedom of speech and religion. However, it also incorporated a proviso that makes all provisions are subject to such modifications as may be necessary to ensure social cohesion or something to that effect. I did not like that. So I decided not to take out citizenship, which was entirely idiotic given the ways in which the US Supreme Court routinely permits transgression of the boundary between state and religion.
That makes me wonder, Jed, how had your politics changed as you matured into a full professor since your long hair days as an undergraduate?
I suppose in some ways I became more conservative, although considering how far left I was, becoming more conservative would put me — even under the most circumstances — to the extreme left of the Democratic party then, though perhaps not now.
Did you vote in American elections?
I never did in the years I was there, which was also unfortunate.
You sat out the Reagan years pretty well.
Yes, I was up there in Toronto looking down at the craziness of what was going on in the States, dismayed, but it felt distanced to me. The early years I was there, Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. His son, who’s currently Prime Minister, was in diapers at the time. In Canada the provinces are, if anything, more independent from one another than the states are from the federal government in the US. And Ontario, like all the other provinces, had its own national health plan, Ontario Health Insurance Plan. My kids were born under that, and it worked extraordinarily well. The last few years here with Trump have, if anything, pushed me fairly far back politically, if not quite so far as when I was an undergrad at Princeton.
Also another thing that might cloud the lens a little bit is that in Canada, left and right means something very different than it does in the United States.
It certainly does because to a significant extent, the party then, the so-called Progressive Conservatives, would have been about where the center of the Democratic party in the US was at the time. There were three major parties, still are, the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democrats. The NDP would be to the left on the democratic end, and they had a significant effect. The PCs were economically much more conservative, socially, but they weren’t about to dismantle health insurance or social security. Moreover employment laws were a lot stricter in Canada, in Ontario than they are in the States, and the PCs did not alter that at the time.
Jed, when did you get involved with the Einstein Papers? Was that before your move to MIT?
No, it was after that.
Wait a minute, no.
Volume 3 came out in 1993.
Is that the one I have something in?
Yeah you contributed to Volume 3 of the Einstein Papers.
Right. By then, I was at MIT, but that started back in Toronto because Marty Klein had asked me to write for that volume.
OK. What was your contribution to the Einstein Papers?
I was supposed to go through and read the notes that Einstein had made on the course that he took at Zurich Polytechnic.
Did you do archival research in Princeton for this?
You didn’t need to.
Well, maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t find it terribly interesting to tell you the truth. These were pretty straightforward notes, and I didn’t see that much in them. That was my only connection to the papers at the time.
You’ve already indicated that you were perfectly content to stay at Toronto, presumably for the rest of your career, and so how did the opportunity at MIT come about?
Well, of course I knew from Bernad Cohen that a new “Dibner Institute” for science and technology history was soon to be founded at MIT. . I thought that logically they were going to go for somebody senior, which indeed they initially did, namely for Larry Holmes, who was at Yale. Larry however couldn’t go for various reasons. I got a call one day from a lady by the name of Evelyn Simha who was in charge of running things for the Dibners, and I thought she was asking for my opinion about whom they should go for. This was in the early fall of 1990 or thereabouts. I told her that I thought John Heilbron, at UC Berkeley and in his mid-50s, would be perfect. And she said, “Well, would you mind if I came up to talk?” I thought that was surprising but said, “of course.”
So Evelyn flew up to Toronto shortl thereafter. We spent a day talking, and she flew back that evening. A few days later she called to ask whether I would come down to meet with the Dibners. Again I thought they just wanted my opinion. I flew down to meet Evelyn and Frand and David Dibner at the Dibners’ home in Connecticut at their place. Afterwards Evelyn asked whether I would be be interested in becoming the Institute’s first Director? At first I said to myself, “No. Why do I want to leave?” But then I thought, “Well, my parents are getting older, and they’re down in America.”
Were yours still in New York?
Yes. I couldn’t move them up to Canada. And I knew that they were eventually going be on my hands. Moreover MIT offered a temporary position to my then wife, whose parents lived in Michigan. And so I accepted. I had to give up a very nice Canadian “Killam Fellowship” to do so, which was to give me give me two full years of leave. Until four years ago, in fact, I never had a sabbatical.
You never got the memo that this was something that was available to you?
I suppose not — but frankly I don’t really think that people in what are after all privileged positions at first rate universities where you really don’t have to do that much teaching, and you’re supposed to do your research, I don’t think they really need sabbaticals. Which will probably result in my colleagues voting to have my tenure revoked.
Well, and in another sense, that’s the very definition of being at a privileged position.
Yes it is.
What was it like in terms of meeting the Dibners?
David was the son of Bern Dibner, who was originally behind the idea of an institute. He had passed away by then thought I’d met him once in Norwalk. He’d been an electrical entrepreneur and made a fortune. In the 30s, he had started amassing a massive book collection in science history. David was not I think all that interested in the subject himself, but he was deeply committed to the library that his father had built. Bern had given a great deal of it to the Smithsonian but had then rebuilt it in Norwalk at his corporation over the years, and it was to be part of the new institute. When I went down to see David and Fran they were very enthusiastic about the plans for renovating the building that was going to be renovated for the institute at MIT. David was a very nice man, as is Fran, his wife.
Evelyn Simha became the institute’s executive director and handled all of the nitty gritty budgetary details. If I wanted to do something and needed money for it, she made sure that we had it. We had a complicated relationship in part because I was the director and she wasn’t on the faculty, but without her nothing would ever have been accomplished.
Now, were you the inaugural director of the Dibner Institute or it predates you?
I was the inaugural director.
And was the recruitment — it was a joint package becoming the Dibner professor and the director of the Dibner Institute?
Oh yes, I wouldn’t have gone without that because I knew two things, having met the Dibners. First, I would certainly not be director of the institute for the rest of my career. Second, once David was gone, I didn’t think the family’s commitment would continue at the same level.
Because then you’re in the third generation. Unless something the Dibner Institute is endowed, by the time the third generation —
They lose interest.
And it wasn’t being endowed. So I knew that sooner or later it would go.
And that meant that I certainly wasn’t going to MIT without a tenured position.
So David was specifically interested in his father’s legacy and your sense was that the third generation would not necessarily keep that up?
Yes, which in the end proved to be correct.
Right. Was the idea that — I mean did the Dibner Institute — it’s interesting because we’ve already talked about how unique the Institute in Toronto was, so I’m curious if either the Dibners or MIT or you personally saw this as an opportunity to make a similar kind of institute as what you were coming from in Toronto, or was this an entirely different template? How did all of that play out?
It was an entirely different template. We thought of it as a research institute to bring together scholars from around the world. Evelyn and I had to talk the Dibners into making the DI a much bigger thing than they’d originally envisioned, and that required a greater commitment from the Dibner Fund than I think they had anticipated.
And you’re talking like everything from postdocs to luminaries or mostly senior people?
Not necessarily senior, but assistant professors and so on.
And you were successful in making that case to them?
Yes, we were. And we would have many people each year — I have forgotten exactly how many, but it was large, anywhere I think, annually, from 16 to 25. I convinced Evelyn that in order to make this a visible going concern, we needed two things; one, every one of the visiting scholars has to give a talk at lunch, so that every week we have something to which people from the community could come, as indeed they did. And two, there should be two conferences a year fully funded out of which we would try and arrange to have books published. To that end we were able to convince MIT press to publish such a series.
I can’t help but feel amused how darkly you spoke of Cambridge during your graduate years, and yet here you are, back in Cambridge, and I wonder if those feelings sort of reignited or by virtue of you being older, you not being at Harvard, at MIT, if it was sort of a different experience for you?
They were not reignited. I don’t think they changed entirely. I was at MIT, which is a very different environment from Harvard.
There’s none of that noblesse oblige sense that permeates Harvard. In any case we were busy running a new institute. My kids were growing up, and I was soon divorced and then remarried again, so I wasn’t that invested in the overall environment.
Now obviously it’s not a perfect comparison, but generally, where was history of science stronger at that time? At Toronto or coming to MIT?
In my opinion, yes. MIT had very many good people, but they were more in science studies than history of science.
History of technology was much more the focus at MIT — we had a solid historian of technology and good students of the field in Toronto, but the real strength at MIT was more in the history of technology vein. Roe Smith in particular is an excellent scholar in the field, as were many of his students, including David Mendell, whom we eventually hired at MIT.
Did you see your hire as sort of — was there a mandate there to bring MIT up to the level of Toronto?
I don’t think STS saw it that way. [Laughs] But I had good colleagues there, in particular, my closest friend on the faculty was Evelyn Keller, a historian of biology. And she was a good friend of Tom Kuhn’s and his wife Jehane. And that was another positive element for me. Tom was of course living in Cambridge by then. He’d eventually joined the philosophy department at MIT and was retired by then. And Erwin Hiebert, Bernard Cohen and Bashi Sabra were all around, people with whom I had become very close over the years. Bernard had published my earliest work, and eventually I was able to reciprocate by published theirs. So that was a good environment. But STS itself wanted to remain a broad program in science studies.
Yeah. And what was your feeling about the emphasis on science studies?
I wasn’t thrilled with it.
Because I wanted to see more engagement with the kind of conceptual structures of science than the department at MIT was interested in. Over time my views have changed on that for a number of reasons, but if somebody had said “You now have three positions in the history of science, whom would I hire?” Well, we wouldn’t need history of biology because Evelyn was there is first rate. I would have hired a historian of mathematics and a historian of either ancient or early modern either astronomy or perhaps a scholar of the 16th and 17th centuries, someone working, say, on Huygens, Newton, Descartes or more broadly on the development of empirical natural philosophy.
That’s interesting. Would you have seen a historian of mathematics as fitting well within a history of science institute? Or should there really be a history of mathematics institute as its own field or discipline?
That’s a good question. Of course in Toronto we always had a historian of math, and they still do (Craig Fraser). It was even founded by a historian of the subject.
And we did quite well together. Again my first two PhD students were both historians of mathematics. So I didn’t see — and I don’t see — a problem with such cooperation, quite the contrary. Some of my closest colleagues have always been historians of mathematics, including Jesper Lützen in Denmark. And I Jeremy Grey, a reknowned historian of mathematics is co-editor of the Archive with me, as was Henk Bos before him.
Harvard was changing and headed in a direction where they didn’t want for the most part to focus on such matters. Their interests lay principally elsewhere, though Peter Galison of course is an excellent historian of physics and related matters. When John Murdoch, Harvard’s specialist in mediaeval natural philosophy, eventually retired, he was replaced by Park. She’s an excellent medievalist, though very different in her interests from Murdoch. Harvard never replaced Bernard with anybody remotely like him. Though, for a time, they had Mario Biagioli whom I like and respect (and whom we had as a Fellow at the DI), but Mario did various different things, and he eventually left. When Owen Gingerich retired, history of astronomy went with him. And Harvard never had history of mathematics. And so they were not going to form the kind of history of science department that I would have envisioned at the time. No matter, because, as you know, I edit several book series, and most of the works that we publish are centered on the social and cultural history of science and technology which is indeed Harvard’s present strength.
Right. And MIT is a big influence for that direction, would you say?
Perhaps a bit. I became acquainted with work of that sort, but the field has itself shifted overall. We of course alim to publish solid work in our series and journals, work that is grounded in clear argument based on a solid foundation of persuasive evidence. It must not be full of the jargon that so often permeates incomprehensible and effectively meaningless ‘theorizing’. But socio-cultural history is now the center of the field, and that’s mostly what we do publish.
That’s a great place, I was wondering where I could fit this question in, and now seems as good a place as any: where has post-modernism been in history of science over the course of your career and where do you situate yourself within sort of the broader arguments that come up as a result of having a post-modernist viewpoint?
Post-modernism was already starting to rear its head in the 70s. We used to have discussions at Toronto, in fact Victoria College, the Institute’s home-base, at one point had thought to hire Michel Foucault, which would have been an interesting situation.
To say the least.
I profoundly disliked what seemed to me and still seems to me the complete lack of concern with proper evidentiary and logical reasoning that characterizes post-modern jargon and meaningless verbiage. It reached a peak around the time of the science wars in the 90s and has substantially, I think (and hope), declined since then. Although every so often its little head pops up again. I don’t see much of it in history of science nowadays. I don’t think it’s there in quite the same way it used to be, namely as rejection of — what was the early phrase? Ah yes, the inveterate addiction to logo-centric European reasoning. I thought it was nonsense then, I think it’s nonsense now, and I would never publish anything even remotely characterized by claptrap of the sort in any of our journals and book series.
I can’t help but observe that the way you’re talking about post-modern theory is the way that many physicists talk about string theory. I wonder if you’ve ever thought about the ways that string theory and post-modernism not only play well together intellectually, but have also shared a remarkably similar timeline.
How interesting. I’ve never thought about that connection. I never would claim to make any judgments about what physicists do or don’t do, especially if it’s something past the beginning of the 20th century because I haven’t engaged with that type of material. On the other hand,we have friends or acquaintances in physics departments, and I have watched, over the years, the increasing concern that many of them have with the appointments of people who are fundamentally mathematicians working in a world that probably may not exist, and that seems to have very little connection to experiment.
Still, I have a lot of respect for them. My wife and I have known Ed Witten for a number of years, and of course he’s one of the founders of string theory - and probably the smartest person I’ve ever known, so I wouldn’t dream of making a judgment. But I do think it is a little strange that so many physics departments have gone in the direction of string theory, though, as you say, the curve is dropping. Still, I never thought about a connection with post-modernism. That’s an interesting one.
Even if we want to put aside the scientific validity, just the way that physicists or many physicists have expressed a disdain for its lack of applicability or relevance to the actual physical world, it’s just — I’m just editorially observing a very interesting similarity here.
I have to think about that. It’s a problem, isn’t it? Because when I look, historically, at what physicists do and don’t do, particularly pre-20th century, but even later, they have to work on interesting problems to solve, and these at some point must have some connection with empirical reality or the practice just floats off into nothingness.
You can see that historically, looking at a number of pursuits that eventually evaporated because they didn’t generate anything novel, such as in the early history of the wave theory of light. Some of the partisans of pre-wave optics who lived a long time, some of them into the 1850s and 60s, would respond to novel instrumentalities developed on the basis of wave optics of which there were quite a few by the 1840s. And they could even cook up mathematical schemes that, with some effort, could accommodate these novelties, but they were never able to generate anything novel themselves.
And so as younger people — by then you could begin to get trained in such fields with the hope of maybe getting a position somewhere — don’t go near the older work because it’s not going give them anything to work on. It’s rather practical. If you can’t do anything with it, it’s going to disappear.
Jed, when did you start working substantively on Heinrich Hertz? Did you bring that project with you from Toronto or that was sort of one of your first items at MIT?
Well, in some ways it goes back fairly far. Early on, I think in 1975, Marty Klein at Yale had called me and said, “Listen, I can’t do this and my colleagues at the University of Aarhus in Denmark want somebody there for six months.” He didn’t tell me why. He said, “Will you go?”
So I talked to I think Trevor Levere or Ken May, who was the head of the department, and they said, “OK. Go.” So I went to Aarhus for six months. Jesper Lützen was then a PhD student in the history of mathematics of Kirsti Andersen. The historians of physics Ole Knudsen and Kurt Pedersen were there, as well as Olaf Pedersen, one of the great historians of astronomy. Ole worked on electrodynamics, while Kurt worked on aspects of optics. I got to know Jesper very well and over the years, we kept close. I went back to Aarhus I think three times.
And then in 1988 Jesper, by then the historian of mathematics at Copenhagen invited me there for a semester to lecture in the physics department, which I did. While there we started talking about Heinrich Hertz because Jesper was interested also in a book that Hertz wrote on mechanics that involved novel mathematical structures. And so we started talking about it. At the time I was finishing writing my book on wave optics history but had written I think a nrief piece on Hertz. A couple of years later I was hired at MIT and went back to Hertz to write a fuller account of his electrodynamics. I’m back at Hertz now, by the way. One of my former students, Chen-Pang Ueang, who is no a professor at Toronto, and I just finished a long article about Hertz’s experiments based in part on his and his students’ reproduction of them.
Just sort of a general question about your research and writing style with Hertz, this is coming off two monographs and then you would go on to produce a string of edited anthologies or collaborative works. When and how do you determine whether the topic at hand is a monograph that you will take on as a solo project and when do you see an article or opportunities to collaborate with co-authors?
Let me work backwards. Chen-Pang and I previously collaborated on a technical article concerning Gustav Kirchhoff’s diffraction theory, after which we decided to go forward with a book on Hertz, which we’re now working on. Why collaborate? Chen-Pang came to us at MIT after he already had a PhD in electrical engineering. And so he has formidable technical capabilities. And he’s fundamentally a historian of technology – his first book was on radio wave technology. I had previously collaborated with Sungook Hong, now a professor at the University of Seoul, on an article while ago, and that worked out very well. So I found collaboration to be a n exiting and productive way to work. As you know, my last three books, including the one that’s in press right now, are not anything like what I’ve otherwise written. The first one, the Zodiac of Paris, was co-authored with one of my other PhD students, Diane Greco Josefowicz,. She had a degree in English from Brown and is a superb writer. We decided to collaborate on our first joint book as a result of a serendipitous discovery in Paris.
My wife, Diana Kormos Buchwald (general editor of the Einstein Papers and also a professor at Caltech), and I were in Paris I think around 2005. We went to an old book store I knew about where I wanted to see if they had early 19th century math or physics books. Indeed they did, but while we were there out of the corner of my eye I saw on a lower shelf a volume in red Morocco with Zodiaque stamped in gold on the cover.
I opened it up to find a collection of reprints with annotations from the early 19th century about an Egyptian Zodiacal ceiling from a temple that had been brought to Paris. I wrote an article on it for the Caltech magazine which a number of readers found interesting. So I thought a book could come out of the story, but I didn’t want to write it alone, not least because such a project clearly required delvinginto the social and cultural environment at the time in ways I wasn’t used to doing.
From a theoretical perspective? A chronological perspective? All of the above?
Both. This was the Napoleonic era and then Restoration France. There’s religious conflict. Everything is happening. And I wanted somebody to work with me who has a real way with writing.. And so I asked Diane if she wanted to collaborate. She was married with a child and was teaching creative writing at Boston University at the time. We worked together on this for five years. The collaboration went very well even though she’s on the east coast, I’m out here, but with email and the internet you don’t have to be in the same place. The book was printed in 2010 by Princeton Press.
Now a year or so before this, in 2004, I’d been invited to Amsterdam for a semester by the historian of physics Anne Kox to be what was then called the Zeeman professor in the physics department. While I was there, I had taken with me some material that my colleague here in history of science, Moti Feingold, had asked me about concerning Newton’s work on ancient chronology.
This is Mordechai, right? His full name is Mordechai Feingold.
Yes. Moti for short. And there was a lot of material in Newton’s manuscripts with calculations that looked interesting. I knew enough history of astronomy to be able to go back and start working through things. When I got back, Moti and I decided to write a book on the subject, which would take advantage of our respective expertises, and we did: Newton and the Origin of Civilization. That came out in 2012, so I was writing it and the Zodiac of Paris at the same time more or less.
The collaboration worked very, very well. Then around the time Moti and I finished the Newton book, I spoke with Diane and said, “You know, I’ve gotten so much more interested in the history of archeology and writing and so on, and we ended our book on the Zodiac of Paris with Champollion and the decipherment of hieroglyphs, so let’s do a book on that.”
Oh wow, that’s so fun.
And we did. It’s now finished and will be out as of a week from now with Princeton.
It’s called the Riddle of the Rosetta and is about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It does involve a scientist, Thomas Young, who is one of the early deciphers. And again it is set in the very particular endroits of late Georgian England and Napoleonic France, with all of the eruptions and conflicts of the time. So that was exciting.
It also suggests you had a sense of adventure on your part.
Well, you should never just do the same thing your whole life. You should broaden out and do different, potentially more interesting things. Change the subject a little bit. In fact, if it were up to me – this’ll never go — I would have every one of my colleagues teach a course on something they know nothing about. So I teach an undergraduate course, for instance, on the history of the transition from polytheism to monotheism about which I am of course a rank amateur.
On the basis, of course, that the best way to learn a topic is to prepare teaching it.
Yes, exactly. You learn a lot that way. And it’s more fun to do, but I don’t think that plays too well with most of my colleagues.
Jed, back on the administrative side, looking back at your tenure directing the Dibner Institute, bookending the original ideas that you had, the mandate that you felt, the expectations that were there, to what extent did you achieve what you wanted to over the course of your time at the Dibner Institute?
I think it came out pretty much the way I had hoped, at least for a time. I always thought of it as focused on the groups of people that we could bring in and having an impact on their lives and hopefully on the field a bit as well, I think it did do that, broadly speaking. I knew it was never going to last. I didn’t think I would be leaving MIT, we can come to that later, but I did certainly think I wasn’t going be there a director for more than 10 or 15 years. I did 9, and I did think the DI would not last too many years past that, so the idea would be to get people together while it exissted to do good work. We did have a book series drawn from DI conferences, and eventually a permanent series with MIT Press separate from the DI that is ongoing.
What series are you referring to?
We had set up a series called Dibner Institute Studies that lasted while the DI was in operation, continuing after I left. It published books that were associated with DI conferences. I think I did seven or eight volumes and then George Smith, who took over after I left, did three or four more. And since we accordingly had good relations with MIT press, I started the separate book series there in 2003, I think, called Transformations, which is ongoing, and which I still edit.
Jed, if not in names specifically, to the extent that you’ve kept up with your former colleagues, what are some of the long-term impacts or legacies on the field at MIT specifically and sort of more broadly on the history of science of your time as director of the Dibner Institute?
At MIT, I don’t think there’s been much of an impact. David Mindell is still there, and he’s an excellent historian of technology.. Beyond that, as I rather intimated before, STS wasn’t going to change from its overall direction, which was not thoroughly in synch with our aims at the DI, though there certainly was overlap. In terms of the field more broadly, we supported many people who have gone on to significant careers around the world. I knew by then, the early years of the DI, that the field of history of science was going to be very different from what it had been when I started, which remember, was still a young profession. It was really a post-war field.
I started in 1967, ’68, and the field was growing. The history of science society was becoming large. In the early days, a large meeting was 70 or 80 people. Now it’s in the hundreds. Where are all these people going to be employed? I knew that the only places that could accommodate such large numbers would be in history departments, and I knew from my own experience that historians were not all that comfortable with technical history of science.
Which meant that the field was inevitably going to head in a direction that would produce very good work, but work that focused principally on other aspects of scientific development, more directly social and cultural aspects of the field. That proved indeed to be the case, as one can see from the population of the history of science society today. Much excellent work has resulted. As I said, we publish a good deal of it in our various series, but the number of technically oriented people is very, very small. And where are they going to get hired? Physics departments don’t have positions and neither do math departments.
Right. It’s difficult.
Well, it’s just the way it is. It’s inevitable. I think, frankly, most of the technical history of science that we publish — and I still do so in the Archive, for instance — is written by people who are not from North America. They are Europeans, principally, but we increasingly receive material from China and South Korea and Japan. From India we receive a pot-pourri of material: some extraordinarily powerful, usually in the history of astronomy or mathematics, including Indian mathematics, but we also get nonsense purporting to prove that you can find modern cosmology in the Vedas.
There are still venues for solid technical work. Years ago ago, I became editor of a longstanding “yellow book” series published by Springer – the Studies in History and Philosophy of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences, which was founded by Otto Neugebauer. We publish technical works in the history of astronomy, mathematics, occasionally physics, even edited collections of scientific correspondence, most recently that of H. A. Lorentz, edited by the Dutch historian of science, Anne Kox. I don’t think we have had a submission from somebody in North America in some time for that series.
To come back to the chronology, 2001 you published Histories of the Electron. And so as a bookend, I wanna ask you about this concept of microphysics, which of course is one of the anchor themes of your first monograph. Where does the term microphysics come to and how do you understand it from a broader history of physics perspective?
Well, the term in the sense I intend is probably more of a modern locution. I used it to discuss the transition in which novel work towards the end of the 19th century was shifting to the use of using models of the micro world to generate mathematical, theoretical structures with concrete applications. Work that was used in the building of physical models and experiments, something that was not generally pursued through most of the last half of the 19th century. Even if you include the Laplacian era in which some efforts were made in that direction, the actual generation of novelties and working structures on such a basis was nugatory and was often explicitly rejected for a panoply of reasons by British natural philosophers – physicists by the middle of the 19th century. Not that they didn’t think that atoms and so on existed, it’s that you couldn’t do that much novel work with particles beyond the retrieval of known results in gas theory (with the exception of Maxwell’s analysis of viscosity in fluid flow).
And as if you can’t do something new with a scheme, then it becomes an interesting thing occasionally to give a presidential address about, but you aren’t for the most part going to get somebody building a career on trying to use it to do anything. And indeed you didn’t until the explosion of work along such lines in the 1890s.
So that’s interesting. So microphysics has implications, both from a scientific perspective, but also from a labor history perspective.
And you would situate it sort of on one side of the spectrum and on the other would be sort of like Mary Jo Nye’s work on big science, for example.
The transition from microphysics to big science.
To big science, but there is a difference there. By microphysics, I don’t mean necessarily an experiment that’s done on a tabletop. I mean specifically the use of models of the micro world, which are built structures and of course —
I’m asking it has a duality to it, though.
It has. Though it started with experiments on tabletops, by the 1930s much larger experimental devices were beginning to evolve on microphysical theoretical bases . Obviously the Manhattan Project is a marker point, but after all, the big science that we talk about outside of astronomy itself — and even there to some extent — is grounded on models of the micro world. What else do accelerators do but smash particles together?
And astronomy increasingly, is concerned with not the micro world, but with analogous structures in as it were the hyper-macro-world, mainly black holes, neutron stars and the like. Things that have a, as it were, a life and reality in a theoretical world which now connects through the instrumentalities of big science. I should give you an example of that. We have an edited book coming out with Princeton based on a conference we held here a couple of years ago called Einstein Was Right: The Science and History of Gravitational Waves.
Oh, very cool.
That should be out in a few months. It contains articles by two of the three 2017 Nobel Prize winners in physics, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, and by Alessandra Buonanno who runs the LIGO in Italy, and contributions by historians of science. If anything is big science, the LIGO project is big science.
That’s for sure.
The collection contains an article by our friend the sociologist of science Harry Collins, who wrote a huge and very insightful book on the LIGO project .
Now, 2001 rolls around. At that point, do you see the writing on the wall that the Dibner Institute is — is the Dibner Institute going to exist for as long as you’re directing it? How closely intertwined are the two?
By around 1999, 2000 I’d been divorced fora number of years and had a bicoastal relationship. Soon Diana took over the Einstein Papers as General Editor. She could have moved to Boston University, or we could have both gone to Yale where I had been offered a position when Larry Holmes retired. So I could have stayed at MIT and Diana moved to BU. , But I thought, “Well, I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years now. David’s getting older. I don’t think it’s going survive more than another five or six years. What happens after that? I would have to remain in the STS department, which has good people but is focused in ways with which I am not comfortable.”
At that point, Diana spoke to the chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division at Caltech. I knew the president, David Baltimore, because he’d been on my board at the Dibner Institute. Caltech made a very nice offer here and I decided to move. There’s no history of science department there but who needs it?
And that was liberating to you to not have that built-in infrastructure?
Absolutely. But I also knew we would have the opportunity to make some hires, which we did, including Moti Feingold.
Because there was a budget for you to work with? The institutional support was there?
Not really, but we could see that the opportunity would arise. But even if it hadn’t, I would have come.
Was Baltimore specifically looking at what you had accomplished at MIT and saying, in one way or another, we can do this here at Caltech? Was that part of the equation?
I don’t think so, no.
Just to foreshadow to 18 years later, the Caltech Huntington Institute —
Well now, that might lead to something permanent over time, we’ll have to see.
I kind of wonder where that bubbles up from.
The issue of a formal relationship between Caltech and the Huntington has been a longstanding one. Around 2005 or thereabouts it became clear that the Dibner Institute basically was going to leave MIT because as I said, the Dibners were really principally interested in the library as a legacy which meant that the library would be moved, but not to a university. And indeed the Burnday collection went to the Huntington.
The chair of our division, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, worked to develop a connection, which resulted eventually in structuring the Caltech Huntington Research Institute when a donor was found to support its first three years. I was aksed to direct it, which did not thrill me at my age, but I agreed especially since it’s only for the first three years, after which the director should shift to the Huntingtons.
The Directorship accordingly alternates every three years, which is fine. The first year started out quite well and then COVID hit. And so we’ve had to redo things on Zoom like everyone else, but we hope that COVID is over by next spring. This coming year is on environmental history and the third year will be on early modern science. It’s all set, but until the plague is under control meetings in person remain impossible. We were supposed to have a conference in June on the history of electrical power engineering, and in light of Covid they’re instead meeting nine or so times for two hours on Zoom in September. And we will publish a book out of that. The following summer, we will have the environmental history conference, which I hope we can hold here.
Even more reason to look forward to an effective and durable vaccine.
No kidding. Because I’m returning to campus until we get one.
Jed, I’ve been excited to ask you about your work with Allan Franklin, it was particularly interesting to hear him talk about his own intellectual transformation and so by 2005, first of all, when did you meet Allan? When did you start working with him?
Oh my gosh, when did we first meet? I’ve known him for so long.
I mean because his transition so to speak, right, was really pretty completely by even the 1980s. He had been sort of firmly — even though he never left the Department of Physics at Colorado, which is a remarkable academic achievement in and of itself, that he was able to maintain his affiliation as a professor of physics, even though by late 70s I think, early 80s, he was a full card-carrying history of science person.
History and philosophy of science.
Of course. Do you have an idea of when you met him?
We’d run into one another in the 80s, but I think we first got to know one another well at an annual meeting that was set up by Alan Shapiro, Roger Stuewer and others, including me supported by Lee Gohlick called the Seven Pine Symposium. It’s ongoing, though has changed — it’s more pure physics and philosophy of physics now. Originally we would meet at his hotels in the wilds of Wisconsin and bring in philosophers and historians and physicists. In one of the early ones, we brought in Allan, and I think that’s when I first got to know him well, sometime in the early 90s. So about 30 years ago.
Had you ever worked with — I don’t know what the right word is — a recovering physicist before?
No. Definitely not.
And so I mean he’s such a unique and special person generally, right? So it’s hard to disassociate who he is as a person from his intellectual journey, but I’m curious if you felt or noted or took advantage of the fact that originally or fundamentally, he’s a physicist and not a historian or a philosopher of physics.
Absolutely. As I think you can gleam from what I was saying before, over the years and given the kind of work I do in science history, it’s generally easier for me to talk with physicists than it is with people trained otherwise. Not altogether, but at least they know what we’redriving at, so to speak. And so it was easy to talk to Allan. We weren’t going to sit there and engage with post-modern gobbledygook — although actually, we did often bemoan its existence over drinks, but aside from that, we would talk about what was actually done by physicists.
I think that no matter how far back you go, including to the time of the astronomer Ptolemy, there is a certain mindset that people who work with technical things have that, however different the environment and culture may be, nevertheless has a discernible character that allows the historian to get into the way they’re working. Tom Whiteside, the great editor of Newton’s mathematical papers, was trained as a philologist, but he was able to work deeply into Newton’s way of thinking, so there’s no necessity per se to be trained in mathematics or physics. into it, but mostly I think you have to have enough of a training to work into the suject fruitfully. Not everyone is a Tom Whiteside. So Allan and I hit it off pretty well.
And as you mentioned, you’ve been so good over the years in collaborating with people who bring a different skill set to really complement your capabilities. So I’m just curious specifically with Allan as a physicist, in what ways was his background especially useful for that project?
Strictly speaking, we only collaborated on one thing, an edited volume.
Right, which must have been such a fun book to work on.
Indeed it was. The books was Wrong for the Right Reason. We had considerable back and forth over the kinds of articles that would go into it. And of course we were talking all the time about his work. I think he was beginning to work on the Fisher material at that time or something like that. I can’t recall anything specific because we were talking all the time one way or the other and corresponding. I’d also been to Colorado to visit.
It was hard to disentangle being friends from the specifics of what we might have done. We never co-wrote anything together except the introduction to the volume. We were mostly in sync — even the very idea of this thing, “wrong for the right reasons,” how could you be wrong for the right reasons? Because the right reasons are the way somebody would technically handle material with respect and competence, whether or not in the end the result stood the test of time.
When you got to Caltech, your initial hunch about being more liberated to not be within a more formalized institute kind of environment, did that play out as you thought it would?
Oh yes, even more so. When I got here, I didn’t think I’d be writing a book about Egyptian Zodiacs and hieroglyphics, or about how Newton thought about the origins of civilization. It’s very liberating. I have everything I could have hoped for in that way. Caltech is a marvelous environment. I don’t think there’s any university in the world like this place.
And I want to ask you — I asked you the transition, your impressions of MIT coming from Toronto and also your impressions of Caltech coming from MIT. It’s a more apt consideration because they’re much more similar kinds of schools of course than MIT and Toronto. So can you just talk generally about what it felt like coming here, what was different, what might have been better about it?
The first thing that strikes you is the physical environment. MIT — even in summertime — is not exactly a wonderful physical environment, especially in winter, but beyond that, although MIT is tiny compared to Toronto it was harder to make connections there than it was at Toronto outside of your areas. At Toronto, divided as it was into colleges, you knew people in the college you were associated with who were in many different areas. In my case at Victoria I had colleagues in semiotics and English. MIT is so huge, unless you made a direct, real effort, you didn’t meet people very much outside of your area —
That’s also perhaps as much a cultural observation as it is an administrative observation.
Indeed. At Caltech, on the other hand, our acquaintances are across the divisions, especially at the moment in biology. Less so in physics, I might say, although that’s partially as a result of a sad thing, the head of the DIvision, 10 years ago, was a good friend who passed away. But there are others, including Kip Thorne, though he’s retired now.
And Jed, just a specific counterfactual, is the culture at Caltech one where it makes perfect sense how you would do this hot off the press anthology and somebody like Kip Thorne and Barry Barish would be a part of that project in a way that perhaps at MIT, Ray Weiss might not have been because that’s just how it was set up?
I think Ray might have.
Well, Ray’s a unique character of course, but my question is sort of more structural.
What happened in this particular case was this.There is a biannual prize that we give at Caltech – The Bacon Award. When we set it up — I think 14 years ago — we award it every two years to a historian or a philosopher of science who’s well-known, well-published, ongoing mid to late career. We bring them here for a couple of trimesters. They do some teaching, but mostly they’re here to interact with us. We also fund a related conference, which they organie with our administrative assistance.
Several years ago, the award went to Jurgen Renn at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. We set up a related conference on the history of general relativity. Diana of course runs the Einstein Papers and she organized the event. Talks were given by Kip and Barry and Buonanno, who arrived from Italy. This is what led to the Einstein Was Right book.
Do you feel that the legacy of — why is Caltech like that? Would a Feynman be the kind of person that would have set that tone? Obviously it’s bigger than one person, but who do you see as some of the major influences that created this incredible environment at Caltech?
It probably goes way back though I don’t really know. One of our former colleagues here who was the Caltech archivist, Judy Goodstein, and she is an expert on the history of Caltech who knows. I certainly think you can Feynman’s affects in the way the scientists here tend to talk. It’s hard to describe, but it feels more like a place where everybody’s doing something interesting and significant and can get together with other people and tell you a things at lunchtime —
I’ve had so many physicists tell me Caltech was remarkable. I don’t know if they still do this, but they would send a faculty member all over the country to interview prospective high school applicants, and a theme that comes up over and over and over again for people who would become major physicists is, “I would be interviewed by the Caltech people and interviewed by the Harvard people,” just as one comparative example, everybody would say, “Caltech, it just seemed like they were having fun there. It just seemed fun.”
That’s a very good point. People here are really invested in and wrapped up in their work —
I mean, you said this yourself in the way that you couldn’t get out of Harvard fast enough.
I couldn’t at the time, even though I was very happy in my connections with Erwin Hiebert, Bernard Cohen, and John Murdoch but —
No, but you made your own reality, is the point.
In a sense, yeah. Caltech is a little more like Toronto was when I was there because, in Toronto I knew people. Not everywhere because it’s a huge university, but in our college. I enjoyed knowing scholars who worked in areas so different from mine. I think Caltech is unique in so many ways. There’s no place on earth like it.
Did you take graduate students with you from MIT?
Not strictly. Chen Pang was my graduate student, he stayed at MIT for a year, officially finishing there, but then when I moved, he came here as a postdoc for a year.
Now we talked a little bit before about the Zodiac of Paris. I do want to ask specifically – had you — in what ways prior to this did you think substantively about religion and science issues?
Probably not that much.
Yeah. So in what ways was this a whole new way of thinking, of assessing the issues, of delving into some of the philosophical undercurrents that are part of history of physics? How did you deal with all of these things?
To a certain extent I was driven by the material. As I started working through these pamphlets that we’d found it looked like an issue principally concerning dating and the use of astronomy to do so. But as I kept working, it expanded into religious controversies, you couldn’t ignore it. You couldn’t stop,driven by the material itself, what was written there. We even found something that nobody knew Napoleon had written concerning censorship in religious matters among many other things.
Diana and I also took a Caltech group to Egypt and visited the temple of Dendera itself, photographed it, and in the course of that, found a previously unknown image of Cleopatra, which was published in the Zodiac book.
If you’re serious, you’ve got to follow where the material leads . You can’t ignore it. You couldn’t write a book just about, “who calculated what when?” No. That doesn’t work. You get enmeshed in the politics and culture of the period, the rapid changes of the late Napoleonic and early restoration period.
Retroactively, did you see some things in this research that might have been apparent in some of your earlier scholarship, but your antennae simply were not up on those issues?
In respect to this, I don’t think so. If I had for example gone past where I had stopped with my book on the history of wave optics, I would have ben taken necessarily into the French protagonist, Jean-Augustin Fresnel’s, engineering and lighthouse work. Theresa Levitt , who was a graduate student of Peter Galison’s at Harvard and who was my research assistant when I was at MIT has written a wonderful book on that. The one thing that I did write about was the personal conflict between two of the protagonists involved with Fresnel, namely Biot and Arago, about which and I wrote an article or two. That, in retrospect, has much broader cultural dimensions than I perceived at the time, though it would not, I think, have affected in any substantive way the argument I was making in the wave theory book.
Now you mentioned you hired Moti Feingold to come to Caltech.
We did, yes.
Where was he coming from?
And the Newton book, was that already in train when you hired?
So this is when he came?
This is when he came and he asked me at one point — it must have been around 2003 — about the chronology business. He has long worked on Newton and was good friends with a great historian, by then deceased, Frank Manuel who was the only one who had ever written about Newton’s chronology. We started talking about it, he showed me some of the Newton manuscript things, and I was caught.
Now obviously book publishers like big titles, but you have to approve them as well. So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what it means that there’s an origin of civilization surrounding Newton and what he represented?
That was intended in part to pull a reader into the broader context of what gripped Newton in pursuing, so intensely as he did ,the chronological reordering of ancient history. It was not just about changing the dating. There was a much broader context, including the way in which humans had produced civilization since the time of the flood. Of course, Newton thought there was a flood around 4,000 or so BC. But his cast of mind was such that he could not accept anything that, in his view, violated what he thought of as the “course of nature.” And that didn’t just mean things about planets or moving bodies; it meant humans as well.
Newton didn’t think that anybody who lived for 900 years after the flood or anything so fanciful as that. How indeed he wondered did humanity expand after such a global disaster? There were others writing at that time about early human lifetimes, involving indeed some of the earliest quasi statistical thinking. Newton was gripped by that. Along the way, he was gripped as well by the question of how humans formed the first organized societies.
How did it happen? It didn’t come down from an obiter dictum from on high, no. It had to have happened according to the “course of nature” in human society, as it does in the material world itself. So that’s why we called it what we did.
Now, it came out so quickly after Zodiac of Paris, I wonder in what ways — I asked you retroactively about your delving in religious issues, right? I wonder in what ways your concurrent research on the Zodiac of Paris book might have influenced the kinds of questions you were after with the Newton book?
Oh, I think it certainly did because they were both concerned with chronological, astronomical issues, and they both had valences in the contemporary social and cultural environment that each of our sets of protagonists were engaged in at the time. Working on both of them, more or less simultaneously, certainly I can’t say specifically how, but I was going back and forth between the two, so there indubitably was synergy between the projects..
Now, in light of your work with Bernard Cohen, the Isaac Newton’s natural philosophy book and also your work with Moti Feingold, I wonder if you can talk sort of broadly, historiographically about where the scholarship on Newton was in the early 21st century, how cognizant you were of the hundreds and hundreds of scholarly works that were done on Newton and where you saw the most important unmined areas to examine or at least to re-examine. Where did you situate your scholarship on Newton with these broader issues in mind?
In terms of what it seemed to me Newtonian scholarship looked like in about 2000, when I was about to join MIT, the greatest scholar in Newton’s mathematics, Tom Whiteside, whom I knew fairly well, was still around, though he passed away in 2008. And there were other first rate scholars who had also for years been probing Newton’s work, albeit in different aspects. Scholars whose work reached their apex only really 10 or 15 years before that or had come into their own. There was Alan Shapiro, whom I’ve already mentioned. Bernard Cohen, who had begun collaborating with George Smith on a magisterial new edition of Newton’s Principia. George was the first, it seems to me, to move away from the total abstractions of metaphysical commitments to investigate in detail what the Principia was substantively about, how it was structured, what its relationship was to experimental reasoning? How did it connect to Huygens’s work at the time? Of course there was already great work done on Huygens by Hank Bos, Jody Yoder and others.
Moreover, when I came to MIt Bernard me in touch with a young scholaw named Bill Newman who Bernard told me was working on alchemy. I looked at Bernard and said, “Alchemy? Why would I want to meet someone who works on that?” Bernard said, “Why don’t you just go listen to him?” Which I did, And Newna’s was a revealing, stunning piece of work. It demonstrated the carefully-constructed, experimentally grounded structure of Newton;s work, which he and his colleague Larry Principe referred to as “chymistry.” Different no doubt from chemistry after Lavoisier, but nevertheless fundamentally grounded and experimental in careful reasoning, no different in type than the reasoning that Newton employed in chronology, in the Principia and elsewhere as well.
And I also was introduced to Domenicao Meli, who wrote a spectacular book on Leinbiz’s Tentamen, in which Meli demonstrated how Leibniz had reverse-engineered the Principia to produce his own alternative. I never liked Leibniz much, so I especially enjoyed hearing about that. So you already had the foundations of great Newtonian scholarship, which has expanded over the years. About a decade ago Robert Fox in England and I edited an You know, I did this Oxford handbook on the history of physics that includes some of this work. The two books written by Niccolo Guicciardini, one of which we published in Transformations, provide an utterly first-rate understanding of the mathematics that underpins the Principia. I think there’s almost no area of the history of physics, that has more accomplished scholars working in it than that field.
To this day.
Well Jed, we’ve covered up to the present in terms of your work and affiliations now and we’ve even sort of — you’ve already shared with me what you have on the agenda in terms of a very exciting and fulsome set of projects coming up for the next several years. So I think for my last question, I wanna return to something that we talked about during your time as an undergraduate as you were sort of figuring out where to situate yourself in science and in history and where you wanted to make your mark intellectually.
So it’s a question that’s sort of retrospective and forward looking which is what do you see as some of the major intellectual through lines that connect all of the scholarly endeavors you’ve been involved with as an editor, as an author, as a collaborator, as a mentor to the next generation of history of science scholars? Obviously, interesting projects come up and you work on them and that’s the sort of prosaic response, and yet there are big through lines I think intellectually that connect your body of scholarship, so I wonder if you could reflect on what those through lines are and how they might inform the work that you’re looking to do into the future.
I am interested, principally, in things that have something else going on from what it looks like at first. Anything that is too surface-oriented has little interest for me. It has to be something that puzzles you, that grips you, that you might be able to figure out on any of sevaral different axes. It could be technical, it could be socio-cultural – our hieroglyph book runs more along the lateral than the former lines. I try always to look for something, not that people may have missed, but that nobody may have thought existed, something that drives the way in which people have come to grips with their subject.
And then, I will not work on something in which the protagonists were not themselves thoroughly gripped by what they were doing. I have no interest in something in which the individuals were in it purely for personal self-aggrandizement, which of course is always a motive, but if that’s the central motivation, a drive to gain influence and power over others, I have no interest in pursuing the subject.
I wonder if you can give an example of a case study that you might have delved into. You realized what the motivations were and you promptly backed out because of this.
I don’t think I ever came close enough to really come into contact with something like that.
But you’re generally aware that this is an issue and it’s not compelling to you.
Sure. It’s not that that isn’t interesting. Hardly. It’s just not compelling for me to work on it. Many, many years ago, I thought of writing a piece of Herbert Spencer and Joseph Larmor, two very different types of characters, one a broad-ranging social theorist, the oher a technical physicist in the late 19th century. I pulled away from the project because there was too much going that I didn’t want to get involved with. There was issues of social Darwinism, professional identity, and so on ¬– very significant things indeed, but once you’re involved in such issues, you’re inevitably pulled deeply into people’s prejudices, personal views, likes and dislikes, and hatreds.
I like reading things about such issues, I just don’t like working on them myself. And it’s not that I might not even supervise somebody doing it, but I wouldn’t do it myself. I read an interesting book about Herbert Spencer and social Darwinism, recently, I think it’s called Dinner at Delmonico’s, which actually treats such matters in a way that I found quite gripping. When Diane and I write our books, we often start with an interesting dinner meeting that implicitly invokes the intellectual issues that we want to deal with.
As a researcher, when do you make the decision that you need to do hardcore work in the archives and when can you rely on published and available material to put out serious scholarship?
It depends what you mean by published material. There are things that are published that get lost and that nobody knows about, but I don’t think you can ever really do the kind of thing I like without having access to some archival material. All of the things that my collaborators and I have written about at least involve materials that were not necessarily published at the time. One of my earlier books, on the wave theory of light thing did use only published material – but published included the material in the archives that held Fresnel’s draft papers, for these had been collected and printed essentially unaltered by Emile Verdet in the 1860s unaltered. How did I know they were unaltered? Because I went to Paris to check.
And so in that sense, yes, such material is in print, but it’s archival in a deeper sense. I don’t think you can do the kind of work that I want without archival material in that sense. Though you could try, and I did write one article where I did try to see what was below the surface without archival access in any sense, and that was on Descartes and optics and his theory of the rainbow.
There I felt it was possible to see below the surface because the published material that so many read at the time is so fractured that you can see spy the difficulty of literary composition that Descartes faces while trying to work his way into something that crosses between making measurements and theory while thinking about what it might all mean mathematically and physically. But that was the only such one that I ever of the kind.
Jed, I know I asked you two questions ago it was my last question, I’m just having too much fun with you, but this will really be my last question; in thinking about what you learned from Kuhn and Hiebert about how to be a scholar, right? Broadly defined. What are some of the career long takeaways you learned from both of them and how are they relevant or not for the young scholars that you’ve been mentoring over the course of your career?
I think I can answer that. From Tom — and not just from Tom but from Charlie Gillispie too, but mostly from Tom and Mike Mahoney — I learned and absorbed that one must be gripped by the material. If you’re not gripped by it, if you’re not interested in it, you have no business working on it at all. And you’re not a scholar.
From Erwin, who was an extraordinarily decent man, I think I absorbed the way in which you should deal with colleagues and students and collaborate. That one must not put your ego in front of everything. You don’t put it away. But you want to be generous and decent, give help to people, and when you collaborate, you must be open. If you write something, and your collaborator writes back and redo this and that, you work positively with them. You agree, you don’t agree, you go back and forth. Not that I ever collaborated with Erwin, although I did publish his final piece of work, but it was the decency that he exemplified that affected all of his students. There were many such–Mary Jo Nye and Roger Stuewer, including my wife Diana — all of whome recall the extraordinary decency that both Erwin and his wife Elfrieda exhibited. Tom Kuhnwas supportive in a different way, but he had no tolerance for somebody who was not doing what he thought they should do in the way he thought they should do it.
And obviously you benefitted from having both of those perspectives.
I think so. Very different, but useful anyway.
Jed, it’s been so great talking with you. I really appreciate our time together and to answer that question at the beginning of our talk, you know, why are you talking to historians of physics, I hope you realize that you’ve answered your own question over the course of our conversation.
It’s been a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll also talk to others.