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The Internet in the History of Science January 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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To start 2008, I’ve decided to start this blog, which I’ve been thinking about for a while now. One thing that is now very clear is that the internet has the potential to transform how the academic world works. I think in the sciences, this potential is already being realized. Maybe the most prominent example is the physics Arxiv, which is a portal that physicists use to distribute journal article preprints. Of course, throughout the 20th century, physicists relied on interpersonal connections to distribute their ideas, often in the form of preprint articles, as much as they did journal circulation. Dave Kaiser’s book on the dispersion of Feynman diagrams describes this process very nicely. This process meets its logical end in the ArXiv.

What about the humanities? I think the internet provides an ideal location to organize factual knowledge in a way that one rarely finds in scholarly books. Because the premium is now on coming up with highly analytical arguments, the factual background on which those arguments are (hopefully) based is often lost. At the moment, I’m starting a new project at the AIP History Center to link together in a centralized place prominent physicists, their institutions, and research projects, along with pertinent facts (e.g. dates of residence) in a way that no existing print resource does. At the moment this knowledge is attained by scholars in an ad hoc manner as they research individual projects. I think we could do much better work if we had access to a topographical map of the physics community. But I also think the act of making this resource will also reveal important trends in the creation of physics elites, and I hope to do some writing on this in the next couple of years (see John Lankford’s admirable book on the 19th and early 20th century American astronomy community for a similar motivation. I plan to discuss this book a bit more in a future post).

I’d like to point to a couple of nice resources already available: The Galileo Project and The Newton Project. Also, take a look at the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England and the Mathematics Genealogy Project, which are two different example that bear some resemblance to what I would like to do with 20th century physics, although I’d like to do this in not quite so thorough a way given the reams of information available! Of course, Wikipedia provides a nice template and already has some nice cross-referenced information on scientists, but somehow I think having institutional direction would help keep the project focused, disciplined and quality-controlled. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this, and my boss, Spencer, and I have thought that some form of public interactivity would be interesting. Of course, I also think more blogs would be a good thing, too. In any case, it seems pretty clear to me that the current focus on journal/book publication will be supplemented and reconfigured in very significant ways in the coming years. We should be discussing what exactly is going to happen more often.



1. John Ptak - February 11, 2008

Centralizing the info on academics/research projects/interests (with the AIP) is a great idea–just great. I wish you well.

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