Materials Research Activities

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General introduction to the materials research site:

This site is the result of a project that ran between May 2000 and May 2003. During that time we interviewed many participants in materials research and located valuable archives and seminal literature. Much of that materials has been uploaded to this site and you can read, listen to, and view it.

However, the project was also an experiment in history of recent, or contemporary, science. The idea was to use web technologies to improve communication with the large and dispersed scientific community. And so, much of the site is structured to enable and facilitate the participation of a large number of people - really anyone who wanted to. Hence, as long as one registered on the site, one could submit comments on just about anything: documents, interviews, arguments, timelines, whatever! During the course of the project we spent much time and energy on the infrastructure: how best to cope with legal issues such as copyright or defamation, how to edit and delegate editing responsibilities, or what standards to deploy in the streaming of audiovisual material. We also spent much time thinking about the problem of obsolescence: how best to cope manage digital data that we produce in a format that will sooner or later go out of use.

Only gradually did it become clear to us that there were more serious problems at the very core of the project: lack of interest. Scientists, engineers, and others do take an interest in history, but not remotely for historians' reasons. Whereas historians can get very excited about the new methodological problems posed by a project such as this, scientists need to get something out of history that they can use in their own lives and careers. Why squeeze time out of a busy schedule to contribute to a site, the point of which is not obvious? And indeed, as the visitor to this site will soon recognize, the contributions of those who weren't paid to participate are minimal.

Within the materials research group we decided that the way forward was to collaborate with the communicational heart of the materials community: the Materials Research Society. And that institution was indeed very friendly and helpful, offering also to network with us - a very generous offer. In the course of our short collaboration (money ran out) it became clear that motivating scientists to participate requires personal contact, preferably over a sustained period of time. But furthermore, scientists were also puzzled by the interests of historians: if the scientific publications are already in the public domain, what else do historians want and why? What is the point of focusing on the history of an institution? Why be interested in the development of a now obsolete scientific instrument? Why do historians seem to be so dismissive of certain accounts written by sceintists themselves? Clearly, in order to have a fruitful collaboration, not only do historians have to listen to scientists; they also have some explaining to do. In other words, only sustained contact between historians of scientists will get scientists interested in our site and render them comfortable with us. But sustained contact is precisely what we tried to eliminate with the web-technology: the wonderful aspect of digital technologies is the ability to reach a large and geographically dipersed community. We had a problem!

Unfortunately, our funding ran out. Our project had begun during the internet boom, but by 2003 we were in the nadir of the bust. Quite understandably, the funding bodies had no interest in pouring more money into a project that showed next to no participation by scientists.

Still, much of value has come of it. There is the historical data and some interpretive narratives. We have a heightened awareness of the problems and opportunities of history on the web. And here comes the inevitable plug (grant-giving bodies, beware!): this project provides a platform for further research.

This page was written on 4 February 2004 by Arne Hessenbruch.