About the Center

Purpose

Our mission is to preserve and make known the history of modern physics and allied fields including astronomy, geophysics, optics, and the like. The history of a community offers invaluable guidance. It shows what has worked well in the past, and what has not; it tells us what we are like, and how we became that way. History not only aids the physics profession in its work, but attacks misconceptions that the public holds about the nature of the scientific endeavor. Myths can be put to rest only by facts and informed analysis.

Recognizing the pressing need for reliable history, in 1961 the American Institute of Physics established a Center for History of Physics. It is located in the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland.

Documentation programs

Work to document the history of modern science is the Center's best-known activity. Through research the staff builds a sound base for advising scientists and institutions on how they may best safeguard the record of their achievements.

Meanwhile the Center maintains its own strategy for documenting physics history world-wide. One part of this strategy is a program of oral history interviewing to save for posterity the recollections of eminent physical scientists. The Center has conducted some 3,000 hours of interviews with over 1,500 individuals, while assisting many outside scholars in further interviewing. Most of the tapes are transcribed, indexed, and available for use.

Still more important has been saving correspondence, notebooks, and other unpublished materials--the "raw data" historians must have. By aiding scientists, their families, and archivists at many institutions around the world, the Center has done much to assure the survival of many unique and priceless collections that might otherwise have been lost forever.

The Center normally does not try to acquire such collections for itself but seeks to preserve them at the most appropriate repository. The Center also microfilms collections of letters, notebooks, and the like. On a broader scale, the Center has been a leader in promoting the preservation of endangered historical records created by large nonacademic research laboratories and multi-instituional collaborations.

See our Publications on Documentation and Preservation, Reports on Documenting Multi-Institutional Collaborations and our brochure on preservation of scientific source materials.

Educational programs

Not just a storehouse of facts, the Center plays an active role explaining the heritage of physics and allied sciences to the scientific community and to society at large. Besides providing help to educators and the media, the staff write their own historical articles and books, both scholarly and popular. From time to time they also undertake projects such as exhibits and posters for the benefit of science museums, teachers, and the public. See our historical Web exhibits.

Reference services for scholars, educators, and the media

We foster a better understanding of physics by providing reference services. Hundreds of visitors and thousands of mail and telephone inquiries are handled each year. The staff may answer a brief question from a news magazine about Isaac Newton; track down the current address of a foreign scientist; provide photographs of scientists to illustrate a college textbook or a classroom wall; furnish a tape recording of a scientist's voice for an educational film; guide an inexperienced writer to published books and articles, or help an expert historian find unpublished materials. Of special value is the Center's International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences, a computer database with indexed information about archival materials held in repositories around the world.

The Niels Bohr Library

  • The Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, comprising some 30,000 portraits and other historical photographs, drawings, and film and video clips;
  • A renowned collection of books related to physics;
  • More than 200 archival and manuscript collections;
  • Tape-recorded materials, including some 1,000 recordings of reminiscences and a matchless collection of oral

Our own library has outstanding collections of materials on the history of nineteenth and twentieth century physics and allied sciences. Located in the American Center for Physics outside Washington, DC, these collections attract not only historians and physicists but high school students, publishers, science writers, television producers, social scientists, playwrights. Its holdings include history interviews , hundreds of manuscript autobiographies and unpublished histories of physics institutions, and much else.

Governance and Funding

As a line division of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), a membership corporation whose members are the leading American societies in the fields of physics and allied sciences, the Center contributes to AIP's goal to advance and diffuse the science of physics. AIP's largest activity is publishing, but it also carries out work in areas such as education, public information, and demography.

Basic financial support for the Center is provided from the general funds of the AIP, while special projects are aided by grants from government, corporate, and private sources. Particularly important support comes from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics -- scientists, historians, and others who make donations to help the Center's work.

What you can do

  • Send us your inquiries by mail, telephone, fax, or e-mail. Come visit the Center and its Niels Bohr Library in College Park, Maryland, easily reached from Washington, DC and Baltimore.
  • Ask us to mail you our free AIP History of Physics Newsletter, published twice yearly. And send us news items to publish.
  • Contribute to historical scholarship through writing, oral history interviewing, and helping to preserve materials. We offer grants-in-aid to help reimburse expenses.
  • Please tell the Center if you know of useful collections of manuscripts, books, photographs, and other documentation which might escape the attention of archivists and historians. (For helpful guidelines in this area, see our brochure on preservation of scientific source materials.)
  • Join the Friends of the Center for History of Physics by making a tax-deductible donation to the Friends or to their Endowment Fund. Friends' donations help the Center to conduct oral history interviews; acquire books and photographs; microfilm endangered documents; give grants-in-aid to scholars; carry out educational projects, and pursue other important programs. Please inquire about the benefits of planned giving.

It is important to all of us that the history of physics be preserved and made known. The Center relies on the help of many individuals who donate historical materials, time, money, and expertise.

We welcome your questions, comments, and information. Send feedback.