OHS Conference Preview: The meeting of history and science

Posted on 03/07/2015 by

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At next week’s annual conference of the Oral History Society Ron Doel (above), professor of history at Florida State University, will be discussing the many oral histories of scientists he has conducted over the years. Here, he talks a little about his work and the meeting of history and science.

Oral History Society (OHS): How did you become interested in the history of science?

Ron Doel (RD): I’m a historian first but I’ve always been interested in science and how to think about science, long before I realised there was such a thing as history of science. When I finished my undergraduate degree – I majored in English with a minor in astronomy – I was doing some research on the Voyager space mission. Later I realised that I was doing oral history interviews.

OHS: Are scientists willing to be interviewed – do they understand why you want to interview them?

RD: Sometimes scientists think we’re only interested in one small part of their work but when I explain we’re interested in them as a person and in their role in professional communities, people are often generous with their time. In a few instances, particularly with eminent persons, when I have reminded them that oral history can be the basis of an autobiography they can be a little freer!

OHS: What kind of oral history interviews do you do?

RD: I tend to do life course interviews. I find it helpful to know how people grew up and what shaped their worldview. It helps me think about how that person became the scientist they are now. I think people are more comfortable relating the larger story if they know we’re interested in them as people.

OHS: What are some of your memorable projects?

RD: The oral history of science focuses on the practices of elites, but I had a marvellous opportunity to do a major project with Columbia University, an oral history of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It was directed by Ron Grele [former director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia] and it included not just the elite scientists but all members of the institution. Lamont has two research ships and has done pioneering oceanographic work so I interviewed the captains of the ships, the spouses of scientists, machine shop leaders, and technicians. It was a real chance to see a community in action.

I also interviewed M. King Hubbert, who was famous for developing the concept of peak oil. I was a graduate student when I interviewed him. I had funds for just six hours of interview with him, but we weren’t even out of his graduate school days by that time. The interview ultimately spanned 33 hours.

OHS: Have you made any interesting discoveries through your interviews?

RD: One of the books I’m writing is using the Lamont experience and lots of archival research to talk about how the United States military, because of concerns about weapons systems, were really interested in the physical branches of environmental science and created a revolution in earth sciences. They expanded the field tremendously and discoveries by this generation of earth scientists helped to forge our understanding of plate tectonics.

OHS: And what about scientific discoveries?

RD: That’s an interesting question. I interviewed Gene Shoemaker, a pioneering astrogeologist who helped train astronauts on the Apollo space programme. He studied the craters that remained after the atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site and he realised the physical structure matched what people were mapping on the moon.

I told Gene about a dissertation I had found at Harvard written in 1938, which had anticipated some of his findings and ideas about asteroid impacts. He looked it up and it was chockablock with things.

I don’t think any interviews have led to scientific discoveries but they have perhaps allowed scientists to understand the history of their own field.

  • This year’s OHS conference focuses on the oral histories of science, technology and medicine and takes place at Royal Holloway, University of London on 10 to 11 July. For more information and to book click here.
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