The Future of the History of Science

This is a re-hash of a topic I previously posted on my own blog, but I’m hoping the larger audience of Terry might provoke a more… lively discussion than the one spam comment it has so far received…

The occasion was my having just read Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science by David Lindley, a very enjoyable and instructive look into the history and personalities surrounding the development of early Quantum Mechanics which I would recommend to any who, like me, knows less about physics than they would like to. Or if you’re stuck on an airplane with terrible film selection, as was the case.


Something which struck me was that many of the insights the book provided into the personalities and private arguments surrounding the historical events were gleaned from letters which the major players had sent to each other, detailing their thoughts and perspectives on the issues.

This got me thinking: how will future science historians gain similar insights into modern scientists, when the nature of modern communication is so transitive? In a world where email, IP-telephony and instant messaging are the dominant modes of discourse, what will remain as a public record for the documentation of scientific development “as-it-happened”? Few people keep old emails forever, and once they are deleted they are pretty much gone forever (unless future historians will be both remarkably skilled in forensic data recovery, and remarkably lucky). Heck, even writing in the margins of hard-copy books, which has historically provided insight into the reader’s personality, and maddening enigmas to spur development, may soon be a thing of the past.

Interestingly, unlike paper media like letters and books, which are more likely to survive if jealously guarded by their owners and more liable to entropy with use, digital data gains longevity from heavy trafficking. Newsgroup, forum and blog posts are likely to have long shelf-lives with services like WayBackMachine and Google caching, whereas private emails, instant-message and Skype conversations will likely be lost. So there’s an interesting conflict between privacy concerns and public interest. Perhaps Google or Amazon or Facebook storing private data might have long-term practical benefits – despite the backlash such occurances generally produce? Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that I like the idea of multinational corporations trawling my private data in order to subtly sell me things, but I do wonder how future historians will gain insight into the personailities of today’s important developers without some storing of personal information. Perhaps we should be giving greater thought to the preservation of digital data – even if it is private?

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Nicholas is a senior undergraduate majoring in Cognitive Systems (Computational Intelligence stream). He enjoys a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits from programming to philosophizing. As well as writing for the Terry project, he maintains a private blog, and a personal home page. His long-term goals include earning his Ph.D, and crushing all life beneath the iron-clad heel of his merciless robotic cohort.

3 Responses to “The Future of the History of Science”

  1. Mark Crowley

    Given Google’s ambitious goals to organize all the worlds information, all of it!, I’m sure much more of your correspondence will be hanging around than you’d like for years to come. One crazy futuristic benefit of really saving everything may be a kind of immortality. And I don’t mean the kind of immortality where people talk about what a great/horrible person you were. I mean immortality in the sense that there is a talking, thinking copy of you that thinks it is you (maybe it is?). In order to overcome the ocean of data about someone it may become easier to build a simulation of them using all their blog,facebook,twitter,etc. info. Then we could just talk to the person and find out what they thought. Give it a couple decades.

  2. Nicholas FitzGerald

    Yes, Mark, I’d agree that anything posted on public social networking sites is likely to be stored indefinitely, but I’m wondering about the more private and transient modes of communication like email and IM which still make up the lion’s share of communication.

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