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Charles Weiner and the Oral History of Physics February 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Having just submitted an article in which oral histories conducted by Charles Weiner play a major role, I was surprised and saddened this morning to learn of his death a few days ago at the age of 80.  I did not know Weiner personally — for an overview of his life, and personal recollections of him, please see this very good post written by his son-in-law, Scott Underwood.  I would, however, like to take a moment to reflect on his work in the oral history of physics.

Weiner was the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics from 1965 to 1974, before moving to MIT where he spent the rest of his career.  I was a postdoctoral historian at the Center from 2007 to 2010 (albeit at a new facility in College Park, Maryland; not the New York City offices where Weiner worked).  During my time there, the co-located Niels Bohr Library and Archives began putting its oral history collections online, and I was asked to pick out some audio samples to complement these.  Spencer Weart, Weiner’s successor and still the director of the Center at that time, suggested that Weiner’s interviews were engaging, and would certainly provide good material.  And indeed they were, and they did.

Looking through these oral histories drove home for me something that had been lurking in my mind for some time: how poorly the written history of science is able to reflect and present the sum total of knowledge that historians of science acquire in order to write articles and books.  To prepare for his interviews, Weiner had clearly done a massive amount of homework.

Unfortunately, much of this work had been buried in AIP’s files for decades.  It was, of course, readily available to scholars who visited the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, but even they could only make partial use of it, and, in any event, would be forced to condense it down into fragments in their own published writings.  Now that archives are increasingly putting their oral history transcripts online, the interviews can themselves become a part of the historiography, and the work put into conducting them can be put to more thorough use.  AIP is currently working toward a goal to put up 500 oral history interviews, and many of Weiner’s are already available.

(Here is a link to the AIP catalog’s references to Weiner’s oral histories.  Individual entries will have links to online transcripts where available.  Even if you don’t have research use for them, they are good reading.)

Weiner’s interviews are a marvel in the historiography of physics.  They surely rival the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics (AHQP) project headed by Thomas Kuhn, which is itself now largely online.  (AHQP should be considered at least as important as Structure among Kuhn’s contributions to the history of science.)  But, where AHQP has formed much of the basis for the truly intensive historiography of the quantum revolution, Weiner’s interviews remain lamentably unexploited by comparison.  Although, as his son-in-law notes, his interviews of Richard Feynman — not online — were a resource exploited in James Gleick’s popular biography, Genius.

Ultimately, we are fortunate that oral histories constitute a significant way to preserve the fruits of historians’ preparatory research.  In general, this research is simply lost.  Historians can either repeat others’ research, or they need to have some way of knowing which historians are likely to know about what portions of the record, what exactly they are likely to know about it, and then they need to be able to track those people down and know what questions to ask them about it.

But, even this, it turns out, may not be a practical way of proceeding.  When I was at AIP, as I was preparing to put my ACAP project online, I sought out feedback from historians of physics.  This led to the only conversation with Charlie Weiner I’ve had the pleasure of having.  He wanted to talk on the phone rather than email me comments.  He was extremely friendly, and offered easily the most substantive comments on the project I received.  But I also got the chance to ask him about his oral histories, and — and this impressed itself upon me greatly — he said that he had himself been rereading some of his old oral histories now that they were online, and that it was like reading someone else’s words.

Naturally enough, he had forgotten much of the massive amount of history he had investigated in the intervening decades as he moved on to other projects.  Even had one known to track Weiner down and ask him about all these things he had studied back then, he wouldn’t have actually been able to tell you about them in much detail.  Thankfully, his work was preserved in the oral history program he led as director of the Center for History of Physics (and after), and this work can now be appreciated by all and sundry.

Now historians are presented with a more luxurious problem that already plagues the more formal literature: how to organize and synthesize this material so that it is navigable and cumulative.  One reason I designed ACAP for AIP was to attempt to lend some formalization and navigability to what we actually do (or should) know about a massive scientific community, where the historical writing on it is usually limited to a mere handful of its members.  Unquestionably, much of what we now might be able to claim to “know” about this broader community was found out by Charlie Weiner, and I hope we can honor his diligent work by continuing to promote it, use it, and build on it.

[This post is a rearranged version of one posted slightly earlier.]



1. Catalin - February 23, 2012

Thank for this. I am a physicist and I did not know about Charles Wiener’s passing.

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