Drop History? No!

Drop History? No!
February 29, 2012

When I was in high school in England, especially in the smaller country schools, teachers were scarce and schedules, therefore, constrained. Further, the English style is for students to choose directions, and therefore subjects, at a relatively early age. So, at age 13, I had to choose between Physics and Chemistry on the one hand, and Latin and History on the other. Of course, I chose Physics and Chemistry, but thereby lost two subjects in which I was getting A grades.

We can discuss whether the educational strategy is optimum, but it certainly was a little polarizing. There were later choices. At age 16, you limited yourself to three subjects, and some chose math, advanced math and physics. There being no teacher capable of doing advanced math, I chose chemistry.

Fast forward, physics degree, physics career, Lab Director, what have we learned? Well, in fact, what we have learned is that history is important. Reading history increases the breadth of one’s knowledge, exercises the imagination and helps us construct the context in which we live our own relatively constrained lives. For us to read history, someone needs to write history. For someone to write history, the knowledge and the materials associated with that history must be available. It starts to add up. It sounds like a project!

There were efforts in the past at Jefferson Lab to put together materials and to write descriptions of segments of the Jefferson Lab history. But those efforts have been in abeyance for a number of years. Over the past weeks, a number of people have discussed the resuscitation of such an effort. Consequently, we have asked Larry Cardman to lead what we might call a History Task Force. We have had contact with Catherine Westfall of Michigan State University. She is a well-known historian, who has worked on a number of science projects including the one which led to the publication of “Fermilab, Physics, The Frontier and Megascience.” Catherine was also the historian who worked on the earlier phase at Jefferson Lab, including the piece that described “The Founding of CEBAF, 1979-1987.” Discussions have also involved Steve Corneliussen, Dean Golembeski and Kandice Carter. We have floated the idea with the librarians, and with the lab leadership and have found enormous enthusiasm. So, Larry is pulling together a team and a plan. While some of those mentioned will be able to devote significant fractions of their working time to the project, we are also hoping to provide opportunities for volunteers.

We imagine three basic components:

  1. Archiving of existing material that may be sitting in people’s offices, especially offices of those about to retire. We imagine collecting and cataloging and digitizing this material, much as was done previously, adding to the electronic record currently available.
  2. Writing of academic history articles. This, the work of the professional historians, would be attacked by Catherine Westfall following a selective menu of segments, in time and in subject.
  3. Writing of general interest articles. This would be the opportunity for the non-historian writers and, importantly, for us physicists who fancy ourselves as writers; it would provide opportunities for the amateur. We have imagined a popular language description of the physics captured in the recent Journal of Physics, Conference Series publication " New Insights into the Structure of Matter: The First Decade of Science at Jefferson Lab."

It is our hope that this idea will catch fire. Larry is recruiting, and we hope his plan will provide a framework within which many can contribute and that some of us can offset that decision we made at 13 years to drop history.