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Web work and physics historiography July 21, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In Friday’s post, there was a bit about relying on “iconic individuals” etc…, which I don’t think necessarily applies to the historiography of a lot of fields; but is probably still true of the historiography of physics, which tends to focus heavily on quantum mechanics, the atomic bomb, and the “big science” of tiny particles… and Einstein. This historiography concentrates on perhaps 2-3 dozen people. There are exceptions, of course, but simply creating exceptions to the rule does not create new narratives and interpretations of history. It’s struck me that using new kinds of publication formats might be the best way forward. So I’m now in the initial stages of a two year project to create a web resource containing the biographical details on about 600 American physicists from the post-1945 period: members of the National Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize and APS-prize winners, department chairs, members of major government or international committees, etc…. These names will then be interlinked through institutional pages (departments, gov’t labs, committees…), and through major lines of research (assembling these from review articles, secondary sources…).


From: David Kaiser, “Cold War Requisitions, Scientific Manpower, and the Production of American Physicists after World War II.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences. 33 (2002): 131-159.

The project is inspired, in part, by current work of Dave Kaiser on the postwar physics “bubble” (when PhDs awarded in physics multiplied rapidly), and its attendant impact on teaching. Kaiser’s work makes clear that the period brought major changes in what it meant to do physics. But this also has to do with “historiography from below”. On Friday, we got into a nice discussion about shifting winds in the history of science profession, and how a rejection of triumphal histories and military histories have allowed historians to discount military R&D in their appraisals of 20th-century “science” in discussions of science and the state, etc. This discussion inevitably has political overtones, but the fate of historiography from below isn’t necessarily bound to the shifting political winds. In this case, it involves things like the rich collection of non-professional history to be found in places like review papers, Physics Today (which is run out of the offices down the hall from me), and, above all, collections of biographical memoirs of the NAS.

These sources (as well as biographical files we have in cabinets here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives) detail a history of physics that has little to do with the usual narratives. This stuff isn’t written about much, because it seems very parochial. But, it also constitutes the bulk of physics work, and it behooves us as historians not to ignore what is all around us and to find something to say about it. It challenges us to construct entirely new narratives about things we simply cannot get at by placing text in context or conducting case studies. I really don’t know what these narratives will be, and that’s why I’m excited about this.

Some stray comments on the structure of the web resource

1) 600 is far from the full population of physicists; in fact, it represents a very elite contingent. As my boss, Spencer Weart has pointed out, we still get a much more diverse and representative history by opening up our history to the top 1% rather than the top .1% of the profession.

2) Some grant reviewers balked at the concentration on the “elite” award-winners, etc. (and I did, to my discredit, prominently deploy this unfortunate word in my proposals), and the suggestion that we allow practitioners to determine our “selection criteria”; isn’t it our job to problematize these things? It certainly will be once our histories are superior to theirs, but I would claim that they are not. Physicists (if we bother to read the historiography from below) have been far more diligent than historians in recognizing not only sub-fields, but women and ethnic minorities who have been underrepresented in the profession. Long story short, the funding situation seems to be OK, but until the situation is finalized, I’ll stay mum on the details.

3) The project is designed to be expanded to the pre-1945 era, to other countries, and to those not included in initial selection criteria. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and it’s best to have some initial set of search criteria that are not totally arbitrary.


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