If you are attending this year’s history of science and all the rest monster bean feast in Manchester in July and are holding a lecture there for the first time in your life at a major conference then I recommend that you stop reading this post.
In 1980 I moved from Britain to German and made my home there. It was a move that was determined by a random chain of events rather than any sort of positive decision. Once settled in Germany I needed to do a series of things such as, for example, find work or learn the language. After some time I found out that the best German as a foreign language course available locally was at the University in Erlangen not far from where I was living at the time. Upon investigation I discovered that to enrol in the course I first had to enrol in the university in a regular course of study. Now I was a classic nineteen seventies drop out who had originally studied archaeology in Cardiff but who had always intended to return to university when I had discovered what I really wanted to study. Now the time seemed to have come for me to resume my academic career and I enrolled in the university to study mathematics with philosophy as my subsidiary subject and after a year of learning German I became a mature maths student studying for the equivalent of a master’s degree, in those days the first degree in Germany.
Now my principle interest in mathematics was in its history for which the Erlangen maths institute had little interest but by a strange twist of fate my philosophy professor was a practicing historian of mathematics. After three years, at about bachelor’s level, I dropped mathematics and took up philosophy, concentrating on history and philosophy of science, as my major with English philology and history as my subsidiaries. By now my philosophy professor had asked me if I wished to work in a research project into the external history of mathematical logic, a chance I jumped at and which became my apprenticeship as a historian of science. I worked in this project in total for around ten years.
In 1989 the International Congress for the History of Science XVIII (ICHS), as it was then, came to Germany and because they couldn’t decide which city should have the privilege of putting it on, the first half took place in Hamburg and the second in Munich, the two of them a mere 790 kilometres apart. Not only did we attend but our research project was a section in its own right with legendary Dutch-American Marxist historian of mathematics Dirk Struik, then 95 years old, as our keynote speaker.
I was due to hold a talk on nineteenth century Scottish logician Hugh MacColl, the intended subject of my master’s thesis. Although I was already approaching forty and had quite a lot of experience lecturing at my home university this was to be my first lecture at a big conference and this with around twelve hundred delegates, if my memory serves me correctly, was the biggest conference that the history of science had to offer. I was to say the least somewhat nervous.
Finally the big day dawned and taking my place at the lectern I was introduced by my professor, who was chairing the session, to the seventy or eighty assembled listeners waiting to hear my talk.
The author apprehensively preparing to present his lecture Munich 7.8.1989
(Photo: Volker Peckhaus)
Suffering from a good portion of stage fright I stumbled out the first sentences of my talk and I was just beginning to come into swing when the door crashed open stopping me in mid sentence and riveting the attention of everybody in the room. One of the organisers stomped through the doorway and marched with determined strides across the room to the desk on the podium where my professor was sitting, his footfalls booming out into the stunned silence like the steps of a jackbooted military officer on his way to an execution in a Hollywood B movie. Reaching the desk he ripped off the conference timetable that was taped to its surface replacing it with a new one, which he taped into place, tearing long strips of adhesive tape from a roll with a noise that seemed to rent the very air in the room. He then turned and with the same purposeful stride marched out of the room banging the door shut with a final clap of doom as he exited. During the whole process he uttered not a word.
I was sunk. Whatever faint shreds of confidence I might have had before his appearance were blown away leaving me a gibbering wreck staring at the listeners who of course were no longer paying any attention to me. Somehow I managed to stumbled through my presentation feeling like I was battling through a thick mental fog and mumble some sort of answers to the few polite questions proffered at the end but what should have been the glorious highpoint to my career as a historian of logic at that point of my life had turned into a nightmare.