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A Year in the Blog January 1, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

On New Year’s Day 2008, I started Ether Wave Propaganda over at blogspot as a “thinking tool” [originally evocatively called “A History of Science Blog”].  And I think it’s worked.  Going back over the past year, I’ve learned an enormous amount about how scholarship works in the history of science, how to articulate my own sensibilities within this scholarship, and, of course, I’ve learned a lot of history.  The blog has given me a space to practice writing quickly, in short form, and outside my comfort zone.  The luxury of never having to be “final” in my thoughts has allowed me to write abundantly and without the pressure of having to be original or please referees; but being a “professional” (har har) writing critically in a public space has also forced me to be serious with my ideas.  I think most other historians of science still think it’s kind of weird, almost always distracting—and possibly dangerous—to blog, but I take heart that other quite serious academic professions are not nearly so shy.  I also take heart in the existence and excellence of the other history of science blogs listed on the blogroll, all of which have chosen their own angles and kept up the good work.

My tolerant and supportive boss, Spencer Weart

My tolerant and supportive boss, Spencer Weart

But the blog could not have been as effective as it has been without other opportunities.  First and foremost, there is my three-year postdoc at the American Institute of Physics History Center.  Spencer Weart, the director of the center since 1974, long ago insisted that the center sponsor a well-paid postdoc lasting for this span of time, and his support of this project and the freedom from immediate responsibilities has allowed this blog to grow in the way that it has.  Spencer is retiring this month and is being succeeded by Greg Good, an enormously good-natured historian of geophysics who is joining us from the University of West Virginia.  My hope is that some time this year the History Center and Niels Bohr Library and Archives (headed by Joe Anderson) will be starting a blog that draws on my experience here, and mixes elements of Hump Day History, the Pauling Blog, and Advances in the History of Psychology.  In the meantime, you, too, can become a fan of the Niels Bohr Library on Facebook!

I’d also like to thank the University of Maryland History Department for allowing me to teach its Introduction to the History of Science, which really forced me to construct a united picture across disciplines and time periods.  And I have to thank my TA and co-blogger Christopher Donohue, a prodigious reader and a sharp intellect.  When I first met Chris a year ago, it seemed like we had totally different perspectives on everything.  I wanted to teach the students about nitty gritty history of astronomy and chemistry, and he wanted to talk about what all this had to do with Saint Augustine.  Remarkably, by keeping up the conversation and sticking to our respective guns, we’ve managed to hew out a surprisingly coherent world view about what the history of science does and does not have to do with the history of philosophy and the history of ideas, and how historiographical arguments work in various disciplines ranging from early modern natural philosophy to 20th-century German history.

I’d also like to thank Jenny Ferng, who has allowed her name to be associated with our experiment, keeps in touch with blog goings-on from Paris, and is occasionally guilted into posting as well!  And the University of Chicago Press, whose publicity department appears to take us seriously as a history of science forum, and for whom we’ve got a nice series of book reviews coming up this month.

Favorite Ideas of 2008: The idea of the “epistemic imperative”, which is Christopher’s term for what I originally called the “epistemological imperative”.  It neatly articulates the impulse that subsumes history-for-history’s-sake beneath the linguistic, argumentative, and organizational demands of a historiography that exists to make a fairly narrow range of claims about the nature of knowledge.  The resultant literature exhibits a “gallery of practices” that exists to demonstrate (or occasionally give rise to) these claims, rather than to establish coherent accounts of historical change which “consolidate the gains” of prior historiography.  Understanding these historiographical dynamics has given me a better definition of what historiographical changes are worth fighting for.

The epistemic imperative is often justified by the need to inform scientists and a broader public about the anti-Popperian and anti-Mertonian aspects of science, as though scientists and the public held clearly Popperian and Mertonian perspectives.  The statistically most popular feature of this blog, “Hump Day History” exists in the conviction that good popular history need not start and end by condescendingly saying “You know what you think you know about the history of science?  Totally wrong.”  I don’t think I’ve thoroughly purged these impulses from myself yet, but we continue in the belief that good, sophisticated science writing will attract its own audience who will recognize honest and informed depictions of the scientific enterprise when they see them.  With that, Thony Christie and his post on Newton’s prism experiments and color theory holds the championship for most-visited post on this blog.

New Year’s Resolutions: I’d like many more guest posts from a variety of scholars at all levels of the profession so as to highlight their work.  I’d like to do more work on early modern science, which has intimidated me because the literature is so vast, so thorough, and of such high quality that I’d be afraid of saying something horribly wrong.  I’d also like to look more into fields such as chemical biology.  Propaganda-wise, we’ve been discussing the 1980s a lot.  This year we’re going to have to get into the 1990s, when the insights that made 1980s scholarship so kinetic whirled out of control.  Probably the best work ever to come out of the profession, certainly research-wise, but probably writing-wise, too, has been in the 1990s and 2000s.  But, in my opinion anyway, historiographical incoherence and divisiveness has made the resultant gains difficult to consolidate.  So, in 2009 we’ll be taking our stab at figuring out what happened, consolidating gains, and resolving historiographical perspectives.

Happy New Year, readers, and thanks for your tolerance and support!



1. Michael Robinson - January 3, 2009

Will, a nice round up of the year. I found myself nodding with a lot of your insights about writing and scholarship. I also feel like I’ve changed quite a bit in the eight months since I’ve started my blog. In the year forward, I also hope to bring a lot of my work up to the present. For me, the scary century is the 20th century – but blogging has quickly dragged me out of my 19th century cocoon. Happy New Year!

2. Will Thomas - January 3, 2009

Thanks Michael, and thanks especially for the interaction between your blog and mine. In 20th-century studies there’s a lot that’s known, but so much remains a blank slate, which is both scary and exciting, even for those of us who’ve cut our teeth in the era.

3. darwinsbulldog - January 4, 2009

Happy New Year, Will!

4. Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda | Zilsel - December 13, 2014

[…] initial motivations and the problems you wanted to cover? You have already written this story (cf. here and there), but it would be interesting to go back on it because maybe your perception evolved […]

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