AIP’s Third Early-Career Conference for Historians of Physical Science

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26 April 2016

The Center for History of Physics sponsored its third conference aimed at the next generation of historians of the physical sciences from April 6-10, 2016 in Annapolis, MD. This conference, like those in 2011 and 2014, was well attended by (mostly young) historians of science from around the globe. The goals of the conferences include building up the community of scholars pursuing areas of history of science critical to AIP, bridging between the established generation and the rising generation, and engaging scholars from many countries and institutions.

Katemari Rosa, Federal University of Campina Grande, Brazil (Credit- Greg Good)Countries represented included the United States (with 16 early-career scholars attending), Brazil (8), the UK (3), Germany (1), France (1), Italy (1), Hungary (1), and Malaysia (1).

American institutions represented included the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Johns Hopkins University, UC-Berkeley, UC-Irvine, Florida State University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Los Alamos Historical Society and Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. British universities included Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds, Leicester, and Kent. Brazilian universities included Bahia, the Federal University of ABC, Western Bahia, Feira de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, and Campina Grande. Also represented were the Technical University in Freiberg, Germany, the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne, the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin, and the National University of Malaysia. Senior commenters came from across the United States and Canada. Altogether, 46 people participated in the conference.

The topics presented in the ten main sessions ranged widely. Scholars presented on early modern astronomy, 19th-century astronomical instruments, and Britain’s National Physical Observatory; on Newtonian optics and mathematics in the 18th century; on geoscience education and mineralogy in the 19th century; and on science in the Antarctic during the International Geophysical Year. Other topics included the use of radiation in medicine, disagreements between physicists and chemists on determining when a substance is a new element, the Glauber-Wolf controversy, and the Cold War as a factor in science. Several scholars discussed the disciplinary and professional development of physics, quantum mechanics, and the third law of thermodynamics. The final session considered physics in postcolonial Malaysia, Brazilian-Japanese collaboration in cosmic ray research, and a new project to document the careers of African Brazilians in the physical sciences.

The tone throughout the conference was serious and exciting. After each session, an established historian provided a detailed reaction and suggestions for new directions. This precipitated lively questions from the other participants and often led to people from different countries and institutions realizing they shared common interests. Our sincere thanks are due to the commenters for their generosity and commitment: Marc Rothenberg (NSF), Andrew Butrica (National Coalition of Independent Scholars), Audra Wolfe (proprietor, The Outside Reader), Alexei Kojevnikov (University of British Columbia), Allan Needell (Smithsonian), Angelina Callahan (US Naval Research Lab), Will Thomas (History Associates), Joe Martin (Michigan State), and Ron Doel (Florida State).

Special thanks are owed to Kathryn Olesko (Georgetown University), well known for her classic Physics as a Calling: Discipline and Practice in the Königsberg Seminar for Physics. She not only had questions and comments for nearly every speaker, but she also delivered an inspiring plenary lecture tracing the development of historical writing about physics from the 1970s to the present. The students knew by the end of Prof. Olesko’s lecture that they are the leading edge of a tradition stretching back generations.

The conference included two panel discussions aimed at professional development of early-career historians. The first focused on the process of generating new oral history interviews. Greg Good and Melanie Mueller described the life cycle of an interview and some factors affecting both the making of interviews and the important role of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives in making the transcripts accessible to scholars. Jarita Holbrook (University of the Western Cape, South Africa) discussed the program now sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, an AIP Member Society. Several students commented that the use of oral histories was a new research technique for them.

The second professional development panel focused on careers, an issue certainly important to those in the room who will soon be finishing their PhDs. The panel included two academic scholars, Kathryn Olesko and Wayne Davis, and two historians making their way in the commercial/consulting world, Will Thomas and Audra Wolfe.

The AIP Early-Career Conferences share one last distinctive feature: all of the program organization is done by a committee of early-career scholars. From writing the call for abstracts, to selecting presenters, to organizing the sessions, they own the process. This year’s committee was chaired by Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, the postdoc in the Center for History of Physics. Working with her were Ben Wilson (MPI-Berlin), Daniel Liu (Wisconsin-Madison), Daniel Jon Mitchell (Cambridge), and Victoria Florio Andrade (Bahia, Brazil). This was their conference. They created a stimulating and fulfilling experience for all of us.

Conference for Historians attendees (Credit- Climerio Neto)