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The Dayside : Circumpolar perspectives

By: Charles Day
Fri Jan 10 14:00:00 UTC 2014

Physics Today publishes several historical feature articles a year. Judging by the letters the magazine receives, the comments posted on the website, and the viewing statistics, the articles are popular. Physicists are deeply interested in the history of their field.

I can't be sure why physicists like history, but I can speak for myself. As a student, whenever I encountered a great leap forward in physics—Ludwig Boltzmann's expression of entropy in terms of a system's microstates or Emmy Noether's formula connecting symmetries to conservation laws—I marveled at the physicists' imagination and genius. And I wanted to know more about their lives and times.

Later, when I joined the staff at Physics Today, I edited several feature articles by professional historians of science. The careful, attentive reading that editing requires increased my appreciation for what historians do. Like scientists, they evoke evidence—in their case, to support an interpretation of past events. But their interpretations are not unique, and they may be contested (a favorite word among historians) by other historians. If a historian's interpretation is to prevail, it must be argued in a plausible, convincing, and engaging way. When historians succeed in making their case, the result can be compelling, both as history and as literature.

Last week the American Historical Association held its annual meeting in Washington, DC. Although history of science is a minority interest at AHA meetings, there were enough sessions devoted to physical sciences to justify my attending. What's more, the meeting was local. The main venue, the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, is a short walk and subway ride from my house.

Three years ago, I went to the same hotel for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Seeing AHA members milling around the hotel lobby reminded me of that AAS meeting. In some ways, the scenes were similar. Historians and astronomers alike work on laptops in public spaces. They meet and catch up with their friends.

But there were noticeable differences. At their respective meetings, the historians were more smartly dressed than the astronomers were—but not necessarily because the two communities value sartorial matters differently. As a friend who's a historian of science explained to me, AHA meetings serve as a jobs fair. Freshly minted PhDs attend not only to give talks, but also to be interviewed for positions.

Arctic and subarctic environments and knowledge

Other differences became apparent when I attended an afternoon session at the AHA meeting entitled "Circumpolar perspectives on Arctic and subarctic environments and knowledge." I arrived five minutes early and was greeted by one of the speakers, Andrew Stuhl of Bucknell University. "I try to meet everyone who attends the session," he explained. Although that personal touch did not prove onerous to apply—many AHA sessions, I discovered, have small audiences—it was remarkably friendly, I thought.

This photo, from the website of the International Permafrost Association, shows an exposed formation of frozen ground on Canada's Herschel Island.

This photo, from the website of the International Permafrost Association, shows an exposed formation of frozen ground on Canada's Herschel Island.

The session was chaired by Ron Doel of Florida State University, whom I later found out had held a history of science fellowship at the American Institute of Physics. If I had joined Physics Today in 1995 instead of 1997, our offices might have been just a few doors apart.

The five talks were uniformly interesting and enlightening. My two favorites were by Andy Bruno of Northern Illinois University and Pey-Yi Chu of Pomona College. Bruno outlined how the Soviet Union viewed the mineral-rich Kola Peninsula in the far northwest as a region to be both developed and preserved. Chu recounted the surprisingly rich and controversial history of the term and concept of permafrost.

Two of the speakers, Stephen Bocking of Trent University in Canada and Sverker Sörlin of Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, were unable to attend because of the winter storms that afflicted the Midwest and Northeast last week. Their talks were given by Doel and Bruno, respectively. Bocking's talk, about Arctic science in Canada, is available on his blog and exemplifies the session as a whole.

Besides Stuhl's friendly greeting of attendees, two other differences struck me between historians and astronomers when it comes to individual talks. First, all the speakers at the circumpolar perspectives session simply read their papers aloud. Although PowerPoint is much maligned as a communication medium, it does at least provide the opportunity to illustrate a talk with graphs, photos, and other visual enhancements.

The second difference concerned the discussion that followed the last talk of the session. At astronomy sessions, questions and comments usually occur after each talk. That's understandable. Most questions tend to be specific and technical. By contrast, at the circumpolar perspectives session, all the questions and comments took place at the end. The discussion was rich and collegial, and it left me wondering whether astronomers—and physicists—should adopt the practice of ending sessions with a roundtable discussion. After all, we attend meetings to have fruitful exchanges, don't we?

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