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In Praise of Historiographical Work Horses January 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The consolidation of gains is methodologically progressive

Who are the work horses in your field?  I’ve finished reviewing the data on my big web project at AIP, which at the moment consists of basic career data on over 800 physicists working in America at any point after 1945.  Where the information is actually available, this tells you things like where they were and when, what special posts they held (department chairs, professional society presidencies…), and what major committees they were on.  But you can also turn this around: the resource will also tell you, for certain institutions, who was there and when.  But, to make the resource complete and useful, you need to have a third dimension that links people intellectually rather than institutionally, which will be done via topic guides, on which I am now working.

Unlike gathering all the basic biographical information, which mainly requires tenacity in data mongering, this last task vastly benefits from the guidance of other historians.  And in the history of physics, when you want to find out the basics, it’s remarkable how the same names keep coming up again and again.  Should a chronological problematic ever re-emerge as an organizational principle in historiography, I think these individuals’ methodological importance will be better appreciated.

University of Illinois professor Lillian Hoddeson is everywhere, and constantly in collaboration with physicists and other historians.  She, Adrienne Kolb, and Catherine Westfall have just come out with an early history of Fermilab (2008). However, she’s also co-written with Michael Riordan a sophisticated popular history of the transistor, Crystal Fire (1997), written a biography of transistor co-inventor and the only two-time winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics John Bardeen, and she has and co-edited (with Ernst Braun, Jurgen Teichmann, and Spencer Weart) the only major study of the history of solid state physics (the field of which transistor physics is a part), Out of the Crystal Maze (1992).  She is also a co-editor of all three volumes of the symposium series held at Fermilab, which assembled together historians and physicists to try and assemble a detailed picture of particle physics. These volumes are The Birth of Particle Physics (1983), From Pions to Quarks (1989), and The Rise of the Standard Model (1997).  Laurie M. Brown was also a co-editor of all three volumes, and has also been consistently dedicated to charting the history of physics work, most especially as a co-editor of the Twentieth Century Physics volumes (1995).

Joan Bromberg is also an extremely important historian of physics, consistently generating sophisticated history on a variety of topics for decades.  Her book Fusion: Science, Politics, and the Invention of a New Energy Source (1982) set the (still mainly unadorned) baseline for the history of controlled nuclear fusion and plasma physicsThe Laser in America, 1950-1970 (1991) was the first real look at the history of laser science and technology [sic, one should mention Mario Bertolotti’s 1983 Masers and Lasers].  A number of other books have appeared since, but hers probably remains the most sophisticated.  Likewise, space history is not exactly hard to find, but Bromberg’s brief NASA and the Space Industry (1999) maintains a sobriety and analytical rigor in a field that almost begs to be watered down and jazzed up for widespread consumption.

Helge Kragh is probably best known as a historian of 20th-century cosmology, but maybe the most remarkable thing about Kragh is his level of output.  There’s almost always a new Kragh article in my bi-annual surveys of new literature for the AIP History Center.  However, what surprised me as I begin putting together the topic guides for my web resource is the analytical quality and information density of his review of twentieth-century physics Quantum Generations (1999).  I had not had cause to return to it in some time, but going through it again I am amazed by what an exquisite consolidation of historiographical gains it is.  It’s title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression it is mainly about quantum physics and biography, where in fact it is extremely wide-ranging, judicious in its allocation of space to different topics (The Bomb is there, of course, but its presence is not overbearing), and concentrates on trends and institutions as much or more than individuals.

Finally, I want to mention Olivier Darrigol.  Unlike the above, his work tends to be on earlier eras and extending into the first half of the twentieth century (so I won’t go into details), but he is prolific, his interests diverse, and his analysis consistently deep, so I have to at least mention him.

We remember the 1980s, this blog being no exception, as a time of methodological ingenuity, and even elevate some of the insights of that time to the level of revelation.  I think it’s also extremely important to remember that it was also a time of really fantastic empirical work, and unprecedented cooperation with scientists themselves (as the aforementioned trilogy amply testifies).  The confidence our profession seems to have in the vitality of its eclectic methodology perhaps stems from memories of a rather recent era that certainly extends well into the 1990s when unprecedented gains do seem to have been made in all kinds of history.  The body of work produced does not constitute a finished historiography.  Many of the gains remain scattered, unquestioned, unconsolidated, and, worst, unused; and unconsolidated and unused gains cannot rightly be considered historiographical gains at all.  The first step to building a working historiography around this work is by recognizing the contributions of these scholars as sophisticated and methodologically progressive.  Who are the work horses in your field?



1. Clement - January 28, 2010

Did you think of a network representation of your physicists?
(with nodes: physicists; links: co-authorship, or “belonging to the same institution”).
I really don’t know if this would fit your project, but graphs are usually good a representing a complex array of parameters in a synthetic way. And extra: this graph could be made dynamic, evolving through time: nodes appear and leave, links would form and go…

2. Will Thomas - January 28, 2010

Yes, indeed. The citation services do a lot of co-authorship network stuff, including all the graphics. There’s a new one for physics, which I can’t remember the name of just now. So, I’ll leave that to them. This project uses career data, so it instead does “belonging to the same institution” so you can see who was there at the same time. Right now I’m working on topic guides, which link people by the research that they do through time. So, unlike the citation databases, this is supposed to make historical research and analysis easier.

Graphics have been mentioned to me a few times before. I’ve had real trouble getting consistent IT support for the project, meaning I’ve had to do a lot of the programming myself, meaning I don’t currently have a search function let alone a graph-building function. These are both things I’d like to add on once I have the final product up. Nearly there.

3. Will Thomas - February 8, 2010

I believe the name of the resource I was thinking of, which organizes data by co-authorship is AIP’s UniPHY. It is based on a social networking model. Apparently it just won a PROSE Award in the e-product category. One could imagine this sort of thing being useful to historians, since it does, by definition, reach at least somewhat backward in time, but I’m not sure our presentation methods can, as yet, accommodate such mounds of information without some threads that will help organize it historically.

4. Clement - February 9, 2010

That’s the challenge indeed.
Databases are not lacking (J-stor, anybody?), and non-proprietary software for network representation are aplenty (Pajek and UCINET to start with, but there is now much more advanced stuff). What is really lacking is historians tackling those issues with social network analysis specialists and scientometricians. And this is precisely the direction I am working in. So if your IT support really fails you I could have a look at your database one day and see what could be done about it! :-)

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