Yesterday evening I had a very pleasant evening meal in Nürnberg with Karl Galle. Now somebody reading this statement, who doesn’t know Karl, might wonder what this has to do with the title of this post. Things might become a little bit clearer if I explain that Karl is, like myself, a historian of science. Now this post is not actually about Karl but rather more how I came to be eating with him yesterday evening on the Market Square of the picturesque Renaissance city of Nürnberg. Before I give a direct answer to this implied question I first want to go back in time to those dim and distant days when the Internet didn’t exist.
When I first became seriously interested in the history of science in the 1970s, I was living in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, with no real contact to other historians of science other than through the books on the subject that I was eagerly consuming at the time and I never truly imagined that I could get to meet and converse with a real historian of science in the flesh. Occasionally I would meet up with somebody who shared my interest on some level and would then enthusiastically engage them on the subject, often whilst getting stoned or drunk or both.
In 1980 I moved to Germany more by accident than design. It was never planned, thought through or aimed for; it just happened. In 1982 I returned to university in Erlangen having dropped out of university in Cardiff in 1971. This time round I studied mathematics and philosophy with an emphasis on the history and philosophy of science. In the middle of the 1980s because the maths department were not interested in history I changed over to philosophy, English philology and history. For most of the 80s and into the 90s I also worked as an, albeit badly paid, researcher into the history of mathematical or formal logic. I was for a decade an integrated part of a history of science community. Professors, lecturers, students, doctoral students and postdocs lots of local possibility for informative exchanges. However to go beyond the local was not so simple.
In this age of cheap instant communications, I think we forget how new this all is. In the 1980s there was no Internet. Telephone calls were expensive even a long distant call within your own country would cost you an arm or a leg, so to speak, so they were outside of the possibilities of a poverty stricken student and not encouraged by employers etc. If you wanted to communicate with another historian of science in Canada for example you sat down and wrote a letter; the sending of which and any eventual reply could and often did take several weeks. Truly snail mail. If you wanted to meet non-local historians of science you either went to conferences, although travel was in those days also prohibitively expensive compared to now, or you hoped that they would come round on the lecture circuit. If your university department had the necessary funds they could invite the luminaries of the discipline to guest lectures when they were on tour. We had money and through this system I got to know and converse with such luminaries of the history of maths and logic as Martin, Davis, Joe Dauben and Ivor Grattan-Guinness amongst others.
In the early 1990s I dropped out of university because of serious mental illness, having completed about 95% of my masters degree but never passing the finishing post. Most of the next decade I had little or no contact with the history of science community although I kept up my reading on the discipline. In 2002 I returned to the fold about the same time as I acquired my first computer. The last is somewhat ironic, as compared to many of my contemporaries I came late to the computer although one of the things that I had studied intensely was the history of computing. In fact at the drop of a mega-byte I will launch into a whole lecture series on the history of computing starting with the Babylonian sexagesimal number system and going up to Alan Turing, Johnny von Neumann and beyond. On my return to being a historian of science my first public lecture was on George Boole and the contribution of Boolean algebra to the history of computing. During my absence the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web and completely changed the rules of the game. Being a member of the history of science community had taken on a wholly new meaning, although it took me some time to recognise and to experience this.
Initially my interest in the Internet was connected to my love of music, the first website I ever visited was Dead.net. The first maths or science web site was Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math Bad Math, which often has a history of maths content. In those days Mark was on Science Blogs and through visits to his blog I stumbled across John Wilkins, an Australian historian and philosopher of biology. John is actually responsible for the existence of this blog set up in 2009, as is here in various places well documented. Through my own blogging and my comments on other related blogs I slowly began to get to know other historians of the sciences scattered all over the world. Direct contact and instant communication that was unthinkable in the 1980s.
In 2010 John together with John Lynch, a lecturer for the history of science at Arizona State University set up the Whewell’s Ghost blog as a collective history of science blog, providing a one stop distribution point for people wishing to read posts by a diverse collection of history of science bloggers. Yours truly was invited to participate, an invitation, which I accepted with alacrity. Amongst those participants whom I didn’t already know was Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt, then a curator at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and now a lecturer at Kent University. Unlike myself and other participants Becky didn’t originally have her own blog but used Whewell’s Ghost as her blog. Later she would leave the nest to first found her own blog Teleskopos and then moving on to found with Vanessa Heggie the H-Word blog at the Guardian, a rare history of science blog embedded in a major science blog collective. Very early I realised that Becky and I shared similar attitudes and approaches to the history of science and I christened her, my “#histsci soul sister”. On visits to London I would come to know her personally along with her Greenwich colleague Richard Dunn.
Even before I met her in the flesh, Becky and I became good Internet friends and when I blogged something about Albrecht Dürer and Nürnberg she said that I would probably be interested in the doctoral thesis of her earlier doctoral studies colleague Karl Galle. I said I was and could she supply me with his email address. Having checked that he agreeable, she did so and I wrote an email to Karl asking if he could supply me with a pdf of his thesis. He could and did, and I read it with great interest and we continued to exchange emails. All of this took place over a couple of days. In the 1980s Becky, who I might never have got to know, would have supplied me with a postal address. I would have written a letter and posted it off hoping to maybe get a reply some weeks or even months later. If Karl had then agreed to my request he would have had to photocopy his rather substantial thesis, parcel it up and send it to me at not inconsiderable cost. It then hopefully arriving after a longer period than the letter took in the other direction. Times change!
Sometime later Karl, who lives in Cairo (the one in Egypt) came to Nürnberg to do some research connected to turning his thesis into a book and we met up for the first time, spending a happy summer’s day together rapping about things scientifically historical. This week Karl was back doing some more research, this time with his charming wife, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, we continued that conversation over things scientifically historical during a very pleasant meal sitting on a balcony overlooking the Market Place in Nürnberg.
To recap, through the Internet I got to know a historian of biology living in Sydney, Australia who introduced me to a lady historian living and working in London, England, who in turn introduced me to a historian of Dürer the Nürnberger mathematician, who lives in Cairo, Egypt. I have also had the pleasure of meeting all three of these generous historians in the flesh.
This is just one set of connections that I have made through cyberspace since I decided to become a history of science blogger. I sit in a small flat, in a small village in Middle Franconia physically cut off from the rest of the world but through the medium of the Internet I am an integral part of a flourishing history of science community that is still growing and the members of which can communicate with each other instantly on a daily basis exchanging ideas or sending papers, theses or illustrations equally instantly as data files. Only physical books still have to be sent with the traditional post, although I will admit to having quite a few scans of books on my computer and iPad.
This is a situation that I would not have dreamt of when I started on my personal journey into the thickets of the history of science almost fifty years ago and one that I am very grateful to have experienced and hope to continue to enjoy for some time to come. If you know any historians of the sciences, who still haven’t discovered the Internet history of science community tell them to dive in, the waters lovely.
6 responses to “The Internet and the history of science community”
You wrote, ” I am an integral part of a flourishing history of science community that is still growing” – I would like to affirm that fact. Your work has been important to many of us who are non-historians but are very appreciative of your efforts to help us understand the history and philosophy of science. Thank you for your blogs, websites, and writings.
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Indeed the opportunities offered by the internet are truly remarkable, which must carefully be balanced with avoiding its distractions.
Distractions, what distractions?
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You do not use my blog as an advertising space for your activities. Go onto social media for that!