Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Black History and the History of Science: A Conversation with Dr. Gregory Good

Dr. Good snowshoeing.
Here is a great example
of a Physicist and Historian
in action! (Photo courtesy of
Gregory Good.)

This post is a the result of a conversation I had with Dr. Gregory Good, The Spencer Weart Director, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics (AIP).

I approached Dr. Good because I was curious to know much is known about Black History and the History of Science.  I know we learn of individual Black Scientists and their contributions, but is it possible to study their contributions and struggles as they have been studied in American culture (example: at Yale Unviersity) and American history (example: the Civil War). 

A Google search on History of Blacks in science pulled up this list of references from the Library of Congress.  Still it was Dr. Good’s impression that the History of Blacks in Science is largely unexplored territory and a subject that he hopes will catch fire.  A problem, he says, is that there are not very many historians of science and many of them are working on a book of fairly narrow focus.

This is the photo of Bob Ellis from the
archived at the Center for the History of
Physics. Ellis is discussed
in Abigail Foerstner’s "James Van Allen:
The First Eight Billion Miles," and also in
George Ludwig’s Opening Space Research.
George says that Bob Ellis single-handedly
integrated the US Navy officers mess on
one of his research trips, since a civilian
could not be made to sleep with the crew!
The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)  Committee on Minorities in Physics has taken on the history of HBCUs as its long range project. Also, the incoming AAPT president has challenged us to feature an exhibit on the topic at the 2013 winter meeting in New Orleans.

Dr. Good is also researching one African American physicist named Dr. Robert Anderson Ellis. Dr. Ellis died in 1989, and Good actually began his study based on his interest in the science topic rather than in the man himself.  Ellis was an undergraduate at Tennessee A&T and went to Yale for his Master’s. He received his PhD at Iowa working with James van Allen who is known for discovering the Van Allen radiation belt. Ellis was a contributor to this team discovery and also worked on one of the first serious controlled fusion experiments.  The work is well known, but many historians don’t realize he was African American.

For some great information about Blacks in science visit a Web page by Scott Williams (Math at  SUNY buffalo), although it has not been updated in a while.  The page is called Physicists of African Diaspora. There are also links to articles, as well as to African American mathematicians and computer scientists.

How can history help science?

This is also very important to specifically promote Black history. Science education in general needs black history as it puts human face on science. Teaching from first principles doesn’t resonate with everyone and doesn’t do much to strike imagination. In fact he feels it appeals to very few even of the scientifically inclined.

In general, we need to insert stories and promote role models. Other ways to excite is to get hands dirty. Students should not be penalized for not getting results.

Teachers hard pressed to get their day job done—so they need help.

In past AIP has done FaceBook and Twitter feeds to celebrate Black History Month. But another way he could help would be to collect material to put together a permanent Web exhibit about African Americans, Women, Hispanics in physics, that are featured at opportune times.

It is really import to try and prevent more papers from African American scientists getting lost.  In the past they have solicited HBCUs and others for materials, but they need more.  One lucky discovery was the papers of a Black scientist that ended up at a public library in Houston. Prior to this find, he never would have thought to look at a public library for such papers.

I asked him that if historians are doing the work—what can a non-historian do to spread the word? He suggests that if know black physicist that you do an oral history interview. He encourages everyone to seek out the personal papers of Black physicists—they can be invaluable.  Although AIP mostly archives papers that relate directly to AIP, they will act as an intermediary and help find a good home for the papers.

 What can you do?
  • Interview and uncle, aunt, grandparent, teacher, friend who is a scientist;
  •  Contact Dr. Good. He is willing to act as nerve center by helping with oral histories, interviews, and getting them transcribed and archived;
  • Collect all that you can find. Oral histories, photographs (hopefully more action shots than head shots), manuscripts, autobiographies, and department histories (these aren’t interesting to read, but they are critical to historians…can open important doors);
  • Volunteer with the Center for History of Physics. You can be anywhere in the world. Amateur or not-- the more the merrier. They can help you learn; and
  • Look at AIP Neils Bohr library website. It has an international catalogue of sources that has information for 9000 individual collections archived 900 institutions around the world.
Dr. Good remarked that “science and history are both good at predicting the past,” so I suggest that if you think something is important NOW go after it and make sure it gets recorded and noticed!

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