Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More on the Center for History of Physics and Becoming a Science Historian

This blog post provides some additional information that resulted from my conversation with Dr. Gregory Good of the Center for the History of Physics.

How does your Center interact with the public?

Usually it is professional historians, science writers, journalists, and producers (NoVA, BBC, American experience) and some scientists that stop by. The Center mostly interacts with the public through the websites. Much of the website content is found through through Google searches—their aim is to have content appear on first age of hits.

Using their content:
For education use content on web is fair use… go ahead. They draw the line at commercial publishers. 23,000 of 30,000 images are online. The low resolution thumbnails are good enough for PowerPoint and blog use. For high res images there is a no charge, but there is a handling fee (to cover staff time).

How do you become a professional science historian?
For his generation his path is typical—he was an undergraduate science major who moved in to the history of science as a doctoral student. Today many first graduate in history and move into history of science. There are pros and cons to both pathways as the older generation of science historians are less used to social/cultural/political issues and the younger generations have a less clear understanding of what science is doing. But they complement each other.

One interesting tidbit is that Brazil is a top producer of physics historians, and as in Europe the disciplinary historians tend to hold their academic appointments in the science departments (rather than in a department of history).

Also, he wants to remind you that it’s not just the people who are important to study. Things of current scientific relevance might have been undervalued in years past. What “old folks” have done is not necessarily throw away science since old data can be useful in various contexts. For example, in April a conference will be held at the AIP building about the preservation of glass plate negatives (American Astronomical Society wants to preserve them).  Another example is that O2 readings from 2nd polar year are very useful today (80 years later)… you never know!

Where can you study history of science?

Mostly graduate programs are available… only a few have bachelors programs.  Probably 100 grad schools with history or science can do minor. A few he listed are:
Harvard, Minnesota, Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana, Toronto, York University (Canada), and UPenn.

What made you decide to become a historian?
Change in field was quixotic. He was physics major at a liberal arts school. Philosophy classes introduced him to “old dead scientists,” and this struck a chord and he decided to divert his study from astronomy to give history of science a try. He didn’t know the field’s potential, but it resonated and has worked for him.

Where do science historians work?
They work in academia (actually less than 12%... similar to physics overall), government, museums, private research firms (history associates), branches of military (Naval Research Lab and Army Corps of Engineers each have science historians), and many also end up in academic administration.

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