Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Letters, archives, reconstructing the past ...

In the latest issue of Current Science, P. Balaram makes a comeback of sorts with an editorial titled "Researching the Past". His piece is about his two recent 'projects', and why they have proved to be difficult:

... The first is the job of writing about the early years of [Current Science], which is now in its 75th year of publication. The second is the formidable job of building a permanent archive at the Indian Institute of Science, which is rapidly approaching its Centenary Year. In both tasks I have been astounded by the absence of catalogued records in the organizations themselves; a clear sign that an historical record is not a matter of grave importance.

The careful maintenance of a written record and the building up of archives and repositories of documents is, undoubtedly, a Western practice. Oral history is more popular in India, with every story embellished in the retelling. Organizations which retain every file in dusty and disorganized disarray, usually discard them by the truckload in periodic cleaning operations. There is no resident archivist, who sifts through the piles of paper looking for the bits that may help a future chronicler to piece together an authentic and interesting story. I felt the absence of a written record, files of correspondence and photographs, most acutely when confronted with the self-imposed task of writing on the early years of Current Science. ...

Do read the editorial, and also the accompanying piece by Riki Krishnan and Balaram on the early history of Current Science.

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Can technology help this process of archiving information? Sure, but there's a different problem now. Much of the information is lost because nobody writes letters -- of the paper-and-pen variety -- any more! We communicate via e-mail. We store data on our computers. And we give talks using computers. And electrons -- being so informal and all -- just vanish into outer space! This worries Robert Crease:

Now that e-mail has replaced letter writing as the principal means of informal communication, one has to feel sorry for future science historians, who will be unable to use letters and telegrams to establish facts and gauge reactions to events. In addition to the Copenhagen episode, another example of the role of letters is Stillman Drake's startling conclusion, based on a careful reading of Galileo's correspondence, that the Leaning Tower event actually happened. And of all the reactions to the discovery of parity violation in 1957, the simplest and most direct expression of shock came from Robert Oppenheimer. After receiving a telegram from Chen Ning Yang with the news, Oppenheimer cabled back: "Walked through door."


E-mail is , of course, cheaper and encourages quicker thought, and it introduces a peculiar blend of the personal and professional. The AIP historians have also detected a decline in the use of lab notebooks, finding that data are often stored directly into computer files. Finally, they have noted the influence of PowerPoint, which can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.

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Thanks to Guru for the pointer to Balaram's editorial and to the article by Riki Krishnan and Balaram.