The estimated reading time for this post is 11 minutes.
While still working maniacally on my thesis about the reception of Ernst Cassirer’s work on the history of physics, I let the U3 once again drive me to the green and wealthy Dahlem. This time it was for an interview with Jürgen Renn, Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (MPIWG). It would be our third encounter—the first being a firm handshake and warm welcome upon my arrival and the second being a short talk I had given in his presence in the fall. After discussing my thesis in his large office, Jürgen Renn allowed me to ask him some questions on his career, the relation between science and the history of science (Part I), open access and its methodological benefits (Part II). While listening closely, I marvelled at my surroundings: a stage set with well-fed plants, a huge table, chairs, bookshelves and, most prominently, books, many books.
Being trained as a physicist, when and how did you get involved in the history of science?
As a physics student at the Freie Universität (Berlin) I worked on expanding universes and particle creation according to quantum-field theory. This meant I was involved in both relativity theory and quantum physics. I had this, you know, need for widening my horizon, already when I came to Berlin in the end of 1970s after two years of undergraduate studies at the University of Bonn. I was really fascinated by philosophy. Even when I was doing my diploma thesis (1983), I retained a strong interest for conceptual issues, for our understanding of the basic concepts of physics.
When you study physics you have to swallow a lot of concepts, given to you by people without really explaining them. If you think carefully, it is challenging even to understand basic concepts like force or mass, or space and time. Those challenges are not really dealt with in physics. I started looking around among philosophers and historians where I could learn more about these things and met a group around Peter Damerow and Wolfgang Lefèvre, who were based at the Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung and the Freie Universität. They had a group on conceptual development in the natural sciences. So, I became a part of it and joined the informal colloquiums where people were studying primary texts and exactly the issues I was interested in.
What fascinated me most was an edition of Galileo’s works I hit upon in the physics institute. I grew a very strong interest in his works and brought these discussions into the colloquiums because they opened up a world for me that was even more different than I had anticipated.
I was quite amazed to see how different Galileo’s physics was from what is reported in textbooks, which only deal with special cases of classical physics. Galileo, however, was thinking in completely different terms.
At the same time, I continued to do my physics. After finishing my diploma I was really fascinated by issues of quantum gravity and I applied for the Imperial College in London. They accepted me but I couldn’t pay the tuition there. I got a fellowship from Germany but it wouldn’t cover the costs. I got a second offer from the University of Rome, but there I would be doing statistical mechanics and quantum-field theory, so no longer relativity. I accepted the offer in Rome and as I knew a little bit of Italian because of my interest for Galileo this was a nice match. I came into contact with people in Florence, particularly with Paolo Galluzzi who is the director of the Museo Galileo. This meant that I had a wonderful opportunity to do my studies on Galileo, which I continued on the side while doing my PhD on axiomatic quantum-field theory and statistical mechanics (Technical University of Berlin, 1987).
Ultimately, I had to decide whether I wanted to become a physicist or a historian of science. At that time I didn’t necessarily feel like deciding and was never frustrated with physics. A special situation arose when a physics friend from Berlin pointed out an advertisement for a position as an assistant editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein in Boston. I decided to apply for it, even though I hadn’t even finished my PhD completely. I was almost immediately accepted, probably because I had already done some editing work with Galileo’s manuscript, knew the physics and was a German native speaker. The decision was basically taken out of my hand.
I emerged myself in this wonderful material. Einstein is such a fascinating person. People were then just bringing out the first volume of the Collected Papers: the so-called Love Letters between Einstein and his wife (Mileva Marić) that had then been recently discovered. I did the scientific annotations to those letters. So it was just a marvellous situation. Through this, of course, I became an Einstein scholar but I never left Galileo completely.
And then you got involved with the Max Planck Institute…
Well that’s a long story. I worked for almost seven years with the Einstein Papers Project. I worked at different Universities and did some teaching. I even went back to Italy to do research in mathematical physics, so I really did try to combine the two things. But then the Einstein Papers Project was at some point confronted with the need to either accelerate their production or to make use of digital media. This was, you know, what people felt at the time: you should use digital media like CD-ROMs to do editions. People believed they could just copy full archives to a CD-ROM. My colleagues, the other editors, and I were shocked and said: “no, no… you forget that this is really an issue about editing and doing research, so we cannot just abandon this!” Being friends with Peter Damerow here in Berlin and Paolo Galluzzi in Florence, I knew very well that I could combine the new information technologies with editing. Peter was at the time thinking about a digital cuneiform library. Paolo Galluzzi was dealing with Galileo’s material and also thought about new forms of presenting it. So I proposed to make a digital Einstein edition.
It was a fascinating time because the web was just being developed. The National Science Foundation gave me a little grant to do a feasibility study together with Damerow and Galluzzi. We started a working group at the CERN with some of the developers of the web and made a big proposal to create a Galileo-Einstein electronic archive as a pioneering venture for new digital scholarship. This was around 1991-1992. It turned out to be very difficult in terms of issues of rights. Different interests were involved and the project basically failed. As a result I left the Einstein Papers Project and became a guest professor, first in Tel Aviv and then at the ETH in Zürich were I substituted Paul Feyerabend. Then I got the call from the Max Planck Institute and was appointed director in 1994. At the institute we realized the Galileo electronic archive together with the Italian colleagues (see here and here). The Einstein archive is coming online these days now. Diana Buchwald, who is now the general editor of the Einstein edition (Caltech, Pasadena) has managed to realize this old dream of a digital Einstein edition and all the thirteen volumes that they have done are coming online very soon, all open access.
It is not always crystal clear what the direct significance is for universities, scientists and society of understanding scientific knowledge in its historical, cultural and philosophical context. A specific example in which the significance is very clear is of course the development of the atomic bomb. During the 1940s in the Third Reich, the National Socialist Uranverein had a secret office right here, in the white building behind the institute. I wondered: why is there no sign in front of the building explaining to visitors what took place there?
That’s a good question. I don’t know why there is no sign. At present the building is in the possession of the Free University. It is probably a good idea, one should stimulate them to make such a sign. But, as you know universities often don’t have the budget to realize this kind of public museum. I was involved in so many discussions about creating some sort of science museum here in the vicinity. Such plans would have certainly also involved markings of the historical sites. It was never realized however; probably because people had other priorities.
So there are no political reasons behind it…
No, I don’t think so. In particular the Max Planck Society has very deeply worked out the Nazi past of its precursor, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. This was a huge project and took place very much in the open. More than a dozen books have come out as a result of this and all the relevant archives have been opened. However, to transform this into a permanent memory of the scientists and of the environment involved is yet another task. Apparently it’s not enough that historians find things out. These things also need to be transformed into some kind of public landmarks and so I take your question as a hint that this needs to be done. Yet, projects end and such a dialogue with the public is still very much underdeveloped. People very often leave it to popularisers and to occasions where for some reason it is preferred to present a positive public image of science. I very much favour an approach that also takes the problematic points of science as an occasion to discuss its nature and limits. When we did the Einstein exhibition a lot of light was cast on the dark sides of the sciences as well. Normally that is not something that is done in for instance science museums. You often find just the positive aspects being expressed.
Dahlem is one big science museum, but only if you already knew it was one…
That is a very good observation and it would be a nice and huge and important project to actually articulate Dahlem’s history within the whole area. The fact that some of the museums here in Dahlem are now moving their contents to the centre of Berlin has left enormous empty spaces. This has raised discussion about using these sites for such science museums, but so far they haven’t materialized. If not for political reasons than just for local or practical reasons. I don’t think there is any resistance on anybody’s part to also show the dark sides here.
How does scientific research itself benefit, if at all, from the history of science?
I find that there is generally a great interest in history on the side of working scientists. For many scientists, however, history just exists in one form and you just have to go there, open the drawer and find it. For this and also a variety of other reasons, many governments and research institutions are not willing to invest in for instance positions in history. It would of course be nice if many more departments of science would integrate historians of science, helping them to get a broader overview of where their own field comes from and how they are positioned in relation to other sciences and so on. But, most of the times that doesn’t happen. There are real historical questions that are controversial and intellectually challenging. Yet, when push comes to shove and people have to decide, you know, between a new position of an experimental physicist or a new position of a historian that doesn’t immediately contribute, then the decision never falls on the historian.
Honestly, one has to add that on a personal level people are very interested. And I also think that sometimes the interests are much deeper, particularly when people face conceptual problems or when they face moral or societal problems like for instance the issue of the dual use of certain technologies. I just came back from a two day conference, organised on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the German gas attack at Ypres (the first mass use of poison gas by Germany on the Western Front -PvdH). There I found an immense interest on the side of the scientists in the history of their own institute (the Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, which is the former Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für physikalische und Elektrochemie -PvdH) and in the history of their own heroes. They really wanted to understand history in order to prevent such abuses of science in the future: “How could it happen that people would do such gruesome things?”
On the whole I see a growing awareness of the interlacing of science and societal issues. Nuclear technology in general or the Energiewende in German for instance, such developments are clearly intertwined with societal issues. One has to say, however, that historical issues are far from being exploited as possible lessons, insights that might be very useful to address current challenges of changing resources. For instance, how does a society react to a change of its energy resources? I very much wish that more studies are being pursued on how people went from wood to coal and from coal to oil and how this was perceived. I think that the other side of the problem is that many colleagues in the humanities to some extent shy away from addressing such current challenges. Historians very often prefer to profess history for its own sake rather than connecting the intellectual issues of their discipline with societal problems like the issue of energy conversion.
The other big issue is, of course, how we think about the Anthropocene. (Jürgen Renn and the MPIWG collaborated with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt on a large project on this topic -PvdH.) The Anthropocene is an age in which we realize that humans have shaped planet earth in ways that are basically irreversible. How can we act more responsibly and make sure that, you know, we survive the age in which we have transformed our own planet? Answers to these questions have many, many repercussions on thinking about human technology, culture and freedom and so forth. I would encourage my colleagues in the humanities to take these issues seriously. Whether one is doing research on the Renaissance or on ancient societies, one can learn a lot. In the Topoi project of which we are part (see here for general information) you see so-called tandems, groups of archaeologists and geographers, who study for instance how ancient cities dealt with water management. We could learn a great deal from the ancient experience, for instance in facing current challenges in desert-like areas and so on.
It is not generally recognized that a better understanding of these issues is of crucial importance for understanding our current situation and opening our horizon. I think that people should be much more concentrated on such opportunities. They will then also find greater recognition and attention from the side of the natural sciences.
A man knocks the door and comes in to claim his appointment with professor Renn, a sought-after person even within his own department. Before I leave, Jürgen Renn shows me that besides Italian, he also speaks some Dutch:
Amsterdam die mooie stad, is gebouwd op palen. Als die stad eens ommeviel, wie zou dat betalen. Tot ziens!
In Part II, Jürgen Renn talks about the possibility of an empirical history and about how new digital methods and open access allow us to answer increasingly bigger questions.