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New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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B_SPR390_CLIM_00009.inddI am pleased to say that my article, “Research Agendas in Climate Studies: The Case of West Antarctic Ice Sheet Research,” has appeared in its Online First edition in the journal Climatic Change. It is behind a paywall, but Springer’s rules do allow me to post a prior submitted version* of the article, accompanied by the statement: “The final publication is available at http://link.springer.com.”  Click here to access the prior version.

This was a secondary project for me that I have long wanted to turn into a more sustained research program.  The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has a special interest for climate scientists because it rests on bedrock that is below sea level, and may well therefore be unstable.  It could disintegrate even though the ambient temperature is—and will continue to be—continually below freezing.  (Thus, WAIS is a rather different beast from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on bedrock that is above sea level, but is prone to melting.)  If WAIS were to disintegrate it would raise sea levels by at least 3 meters.  The trouble is that the long-term glaciological behavior of such “marine” ice sheets is not especially well understood.  So nobody knows for certain how stable WAIS really is, or how long it would take to disintegrate. It could be only a few centuries, or it could be millenia.

Goals

It was important to me that I try to reach scientific audiences with this paper. However, I was not really interested in conveying a particular “humanities” approach—I wanted to try and develop a historical picture that would have a more natural appeal to scientific audiences by engaging with the intellectual substance of their work.  Thus, I used history here to illuminate some of the contours, or “agendas,” of research that have shaped scientists’ understanding of WAIS.  Scientists are generally aware of the existence of such contours.  But those contours seem to inhabit an intellectual space above the level of the individual scientific paper, and yet they are not typically captured in review articles.  Thus they are ill-articulated, and play an ill-defined role in scientific work.  This then seemed to me an ideal place for the history of science to play a role.

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Book Review: David Cassidy’s Short History of Physics in the American Century November 10, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 103 (September 2012): 614-615.

© 2012 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.  In-text links have been added by the author, and were not included in the original text.

David C. Cassidy. A Short History of Physics in the American Century. (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine.) 211 pp., tables, app., index. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. $29.95 (cloth).

William Thomas

David Cassidy styles this book “a very brief introductory synthesis of the history of twentieth-century American physics for students and the general public.” As such, it “is not intended to offer a new analysis of that history or to argue a newly constructed thesis.” Nor does it “drift far from the standard, often currently definitive literature on its subject—as far as that literature goes” (p. 5).

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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.

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Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 1 December 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Richard Staley’s 2008 book Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution is an exemplary work of progressive historiographical craftsmanship, and is very high on my personal list of best history of science books written this past decade.  The book is an unabashed work of scholarship, using past historiography constructively to pose and answer a startling variety of questions that both deepen current professional understanding of certain events, and expand that understanding into largely unexplored territories.  It is demanding, and will most reward those with at least some understanding of physics and of prior scholarship on both Einstein and the history of late 19th-century physics.

Einsteins’ Generation works as scholarship in subtle, but, I think, significant ways that will not necessarily be apparent at first reading, so I want to use this post to try and unpack this book’s argumentative strategies and analyze their power.  The first thing I want to note is that the book doesn’t follow a “sandwich” strategy: asserting a central argument in the introduction and  conclusion, and then offering a series of cases, or a long narrative, that bolsters that argument.

There are hints of a centralized anti-straw-man argument, which deflates the view of a single, radical break between a “classical” physics based dogmatically on Newton’s foundation, and a “modern” physics based on relativity and the quantum, but I don’t think this is Staley’s main intent.  More to the point, I think what Staley is trying to do is use a certain style of narrative and historical analysis to create a new view of cutting-edge physics around the turn of the century, which builds on prior scholarship while departing from it in important ways. (more…)

The Internet in the History of Science January 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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To start 2008, I’ve decided to start this blog, which I’ve been thinking about for a while now. One thing that is now very clear is that the internet has the potential to transform how the academic world works. I think in the sciences, this potential is already being realized. Maybe the most prominent example is the physics Arxiv, which is a portal that physicists use to distribute journal article preprints. Of course, throughout the 20th century, physicists relied on interpersonal connections to distribute their ideas, often in the form of preprint articles, as much as they did journal circulation. Dave Kaiser’s book on the dispersion of Feynman diagrams describes this process very nicely. This process meets its logical end in the ArXiv.

What about the humanities? I think the internet provides an ideal location to organize factual knowledge in a way that one rarely finds in scholarly books. Because the premium is now on coming up with highly analytical arguments, the factual background on which those arguments are (hopefully) based is often lost. At the moment, I’m starting a new project at the AIP History Center to link together in a centralized place prominent physicists, their institutions, and research projects, along with pertinent facts (e.g. dates of residence) in a way that no existing print resource does. At the moment this knowledge is attained by scholars in an ad hoc manner as they research individual projects. I think we could do much better work if we had access to a topographical map of the physics community. But I also think the act of making this resource will also reveal important trends in the creation of physics elites, and I hope to do some writing on this in the next couple of years (see John Lankford’s admirable book on the 19th and early 20th century American astronomy community for a similar motivation. I plan to discuss this book a bit more in a future post).

I’d like to point to a couple of nice resources already available: The Galileo Project and The Newton Project. Also, take a look at the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England and the Mathematics Genealogy Project, which are two different example that bear some resemblance to what I would like to do with 20th century physics, although I’d like to do this in not quite so thorough a way given the reams of information available! Of course, Wikipedia provides a nice template and already has some nice cross-referenced information on scientists, but somehow I think having institutional direction would help keep the project focused, disciplined and quality-controlled. I’m not quite sure what I mean by this, and my boss, Spencer, and I have thought that some form of public interactivity would be interesting. Of course, I also think more blogs would be a good thing, too. In any case, it seems pretty clear to me that the current focus on journal/book publication will be supplemented and reconfigured in very significant ways in the coming years. We should be discussing what exactly is going to happen more often.