The Chemical Heritage Foundation and the importance of academic communities

Hi everybody,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve let the world know what I’m up to, so I figured that I should take a few moments to fill everyone in.

My desk at the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Othmer Library

A couple of weeks ago I returned from Philadelphia by way of San Diego. I spent my time in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) as an Allington Fellow (a three-month short-term fellowship). There, I spent my time there researching stereochemical diagrams and models, the subject of my third thesis chapter, as well as writing on the philosophy of scientific modeling and visual representation. I’m pleased to report that I was able to get a draft of all of the “content” chapters of my doctoral dissertation done by the time I left, thereby completing my thesis goal for this fall.

When I first heard that I was accepted as a short-term fellow to the CHF I felt a bit like an impostor (a common feeling in academia, from what I’ve heard). After all, I’m not really a historian of chemistry, but rather someone who studies the history of chemistry as a way of gaining insight into how scientists choose to visualize the invisible. While I’m generally interested in the history of chemistry, I no more consider myself a historian of chemistry than a historian of science, broadly construed. Surely, I thought, there must be someone more qualified for this position than myself.

Fortunately I was wrong. In fact, the more I got to know the other fellows, the more it became apparent that I was one of the few people at the CHF who actually seemed to be directly studying the history of chemistry. Other fellows (most of whom were – or rather are – there for the academic year) were studying the history of agriculture, commercial technology, vitamins, art, medicine, psychiatry, and so on. To my surprise, my dreams of meeting “proper” historians of chemistry who would correct any misguided notions I might possess about mid-to-late 19th century chemical theory evaporated with the realization that I was, as far as the other fellows were concerned, the local expert in the very subject!

As I later found out, this wasn’t because all the historians of chemistry had decided to go elsewhere, leaving the CHF with a motley crew of leftover randoms. In fact, all of this year’s fellows were the CHF’s first choices. Instead, it appears that the CHF is trying to do something quite interesting, to bring scholars of different (but somewhat related) subjects together over a shared set of resources. The CHF isn’t trying to create exceptional historians of chemistry, it’s trying to create exceptional historians, some of whose interests might be somewhat related to the history of chemistry (understood in the broadest possible terms), and all of whom (except for me – damn you, hurricane Sandy!) would have the opportunity to present their work to each other.

The CHF is also part the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS), a network of foundations, universities, libraries, museums, and so on that extends into several of Pennsylvania’s neighbouring states. One of my favourite aspects of the time I spent at the CHF is being exposed to the broader history of science community through the PACHS network, through which I was able to meet a number of scholars with similar interests that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

For junior scholars like myself, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of these kinds of academic networks. When I say this, I’m not just talking about the whole “it’s not what you know but who you know” piece of job-advice (although this is absolutely true), but the more general fact that getting to know other scholars will invariably improve both your primary research as well as your ability to be a more rounded and well-informed person. If not for these networks, I might have still have eventually got in contact with my academic heroes, but I would not have found out about the other junior scholars who, for example, also are interested in the varieties of chemical representations and their broader significance, or found out about all the unpublished (but interesting) ideas secretly harbored by more accomplished academics.

Unfortunately, while Toronto has a number of such communities, its breadth pales in comparison to that of the PACHS network, which appears to have the singular goal of making as many scholars meet each other as possible. Much of this just comes down to demographics (the East Coast of the US is a considerably denser place, both in terms of institutions and people), but some of it comes down to money as well. The CHF wouldn’t be what it was without being given hundreds of millions of dollars (no exaggeration), and I suspect that if a wealthy benefactor started making it rain in similar proportions in Southern Ontario we might find ourselves before long with an equally esteemed “T[oronto]ACHS” (‘GTACHS”, maybe?).

Reflecting upon my stay at the CHF, the (greater) Philadelphia academic community, not the material resources of the Othmer Library (excellent as it may be), was their main resource for me (and, I suspect, for others as well). Increasingly, old books and journals are being digitized and placed online, and while this by no means an argument to dispose of the originals, it does mean that travelling to far-off libraries and rare book collections may not be as essential for academic research as it historically has been (at least for the research that I do).

However, the community of minds is not so easily digitized. There is no “Google Books” equivalent for meeting someone who shares your interests and taking them out for a beer, for attending a conference that brings together a number of your intellectual heroes, or for being able to walk down the hallway and ask someone their opinion on a subject that they’re the resident expert on. Communities matter, and that alone is reason enough to drag yourself away from your desk and immerse yourself in a new one.

That’s all for today. In the coming weeks I hope to write a post about some of my favourite aspects of CHF/History of Science in Philly, as well as a bit on the food in Philly, so stay tuned.

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