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Gomory on Research, Industry, and National Competitiveness July 30, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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Click for the Ralph Gomory profile at the IBM archives

One of my activities on my recent blogging hiatus was an oral history interview with Ralph Gomory.  The interview was originally instigated as part of the AIP History Center’s History of Physics in Industry project, on which I’ve helped out here and there.  Our discussions with researchers at IBM all pointed to Gomory as a crucial figure in that company’s history.  Personally, I had a strong interest in the interview, because Gomory’s background is in mathematics, and he is a notable figure in the operations research (OR) community, primarily on account of his foundational work on integer programming.  (For those keeping track, I wrote my dissertation, and am currently polishing up a book manuscript, on the history of certain sciences of policy analysis, including OR.)  This post is mainly based on the background research I did ahead of the interview.

Gomory was director of research at IBM from 1970 to 1986.  IBM Research had been established in its present form in the late 1950s by Emanuel Piore.  Piore had spent much of his postwar career at the Office of Naval Research, culminating in a stint as Chief Scientist.  Careful readers of Zuoyue Wang’s recent book on the President’s Science Advisory Committee (to be discussed on this blog presently) will know that Piore became a ubiquitous figure on various high-level government panels (i.e., though not well-known to historians, he was a big deal).

The idea behind establishing IBM Research was the general sense, widespread in the 1950s and ’60s, that technologically-oriented companies would be well-served by conducting their own basic research.  Piore’s goal was to establish an environment — housed in a modern building designed by Eero Saarinen — where researchers could freely explore their own ideas.  Gomory had originally been brought in to be part of the new mathematics department (along, incidentally, with fractal geometry pioneer Benoît Mandelbrot).

Now, going back to my previous post’s interest in basic research and the “linear model” in history: once one had established the importance of the link between research and technological development, one was faced with a series of subsidiary questions, to which one would have devoted more or less thought. (more…)

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). (more…)

Primer: Project Matterhorn and Early Fusion Research May 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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At this moment, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is preparing to come online at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (see the New York Times story).  The goal of NIF is to study small-scale nuclear fusion ignited by a precisely focused array of 192 high-power lasers.  Reflecting a situation often seen in higher profile with America’s space program, the project is vastly over-budget, and its worth has been subjected to extensive criticism.  Nuclear fusion has for decades remained  a subject of intensive study and perpetually unmet promise.  The “Array of Contemporary American Physicists” on which I am now at work for the AIP History Center will have fusion and related plasma research as one of its focuses, and includes information on some of those involved in the NIF as well as in prior generations of research.

Lyman Spitzer explains the stellarator at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

Lyman Spitzer explains the “stellarator” at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

The study of nuclear fusion dates to the 1930s, when an emerging theoretical understanding of subatomic forces and particles suggested a way of accounting for the energy produced by stars and the synthesis of elements within them, as worked out by German émigré physicist Hans Bethe.  During World War II, it was understood that artificial fusion could be created by using a fission bomb to ignite nuclear fuel—the idea behind the “super” or “hydrogen” bomb.  This possibility was pursued during the war by Hungarian émigré physicist Edward Teller, and, following debate on whether (more…)