Field study at the American Institute of Physics

American Institure of Physics

American Institute of Physics. Photo courtesy of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

My MLS field study is at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives at the American Institute of Physics. I will be curating an exhibit featuring the archives’ collection of oral history interviews, which consists of more than 1,500 recordings with physicists, astronomers, and other scientists. Staff at the archives are working to digitize all of the transcripts and make them searchable. They plan to have over 1,000 of the transcripts available online by this spring, and want to highlight this valuable and unique research collection.

So far, I’ve spent about half of my field study researching these scientists. I have to say my knowledge of physics and the history of physics is rather lacking, but reading these interviews has been like taking a crash course. Yes, some of the terms and ideas these men and women talk about are over my head, but a lot of their discussions focus more on the human element rather than the physics side of things. My favorite part of this research is seeing the connections between these scientists. The physics world (and related sciences) is like one big family tree: everyone is linked to each other by their teachers, students, colleagues, friends, spouses, and on and on until the entire field is connected in one great web of scientists. Even though I still couldn’t tell you the difference between a mass spectrometer and a cyclotron, I know and appreciate so much more about these incredible people and their work.

There are a lot of recognizable names from the history of science in this collection, including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, James Chadwick, and Sir Rudolf Peierls. But I have also discovered some amazing people I’d never heard of before. Take Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the English-American astronomer who discovered that the sun is mainly composed of hydrogen. She was quite the firebrand, to all accounts, and didn’t let her gender get in the way of her science. She started out studying physics under Ernest Rutherford, but shifted to astronomy in part because he told his daughter (her close friend), “She isn’t interested in you, my dear; she’s just interested in me.”1 (!) Cecilia was the first person to get a PhD in astronomy at Radcliffe College, and took a job with Harlow Shapley in the famed Harvard College Observatory. She taught at Harvard, and became the first woman to earn the status of full professor from within the faculty in 1956.

Niels Bohr Library and Archives

Niels Bohr Library and Archives. Photo courtesy of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

These past few weeks, I’ve begun selecting quotes from interviews, finding photographs, and writing captions for the exhibit. I have three exhibit cases to work with – two in the library and one in the building’s main hallway. I’m also in the process of setting up two social media campaigns in conjunction with the exhibit. For the first, “Voices from the past,” Facebook and Flickr followers can see photos and quotes from important scientists, most of which also have audio clips online.

The second campaign (and the one I’m most excited about) is called “Physicists Love Libraries!” While reading through all of these interviews, I noticed a trend: a lot of scientists mention how important libraries were in their lives. Some credited libraries (and librarians) with instigating their love of reading and science. Others mentioned the library as a kind of refuge, both in childhood and as adults. Still others mentioned how important libraries were to their research. I thought it would be great to highlight these connections, so I’m scheduling these quotes to post periodically to Facebook.

If you’re interested, you can find and read transcripts here, and check out NBLA’s Facebook and Flickr pages.

** An earlier version of this post was featured on the UMD iSchool’s blog. **

1 Interview of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Owen Gingerich on March 5, 1968, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4620.html

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