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Dibner Institute to produce experimental historical web sites

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Dibner Fund have jointly awarded a grant of $2.7 million to a group of scholars led by principal investigator Jed Z. Buchwald, director of the Dibner Institute and the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology.

The grant, which will be administered by the Dibner Institute, is to produce five web sites that will exemplify methods for developing the history of recent science and technology on the web.

A major goal of the project will be to generate "new ways for historians to work with scientists in presenting and making permanently available accounts of how their fields developed," Professor Buchwald said. "The five new sites will stimulate historical participants to contribute reminiscences, thoughts, comments and source materials."

Babak Ashrafi, a producer of one of the new sites, is completing his second PhD under the supervision of Professor Buchwald. (His first PhD, in physics, was from the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stony Brook, NY in 1994.) Dr. Ashrafi described the overall Dibner/Sloan project as "an experiment in doing history of recent science and technology projects, which are large, highly specialized and generate huge amounts of archival materials in different media and formats.

"Also, historians who conventionally work alone on their topics face new problems because of the scale and technical specialization of recent science and technology. So we need teams of historians collaborating with the historical actors," said Dr. Ashrafi.

Each of the five web sites is directed by a principal scholar as well as one or two collaborators. The sites to be created by MIT faculty include "Human/Machine Interaction and the Apollo Guidance Computer," headed by David Mindell, the David and Frances Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, and "Intractable Mathematics and the 'Standard Model,'" headed by Dr. Ashrafi.

Sites to be created by other scholars include "Molecular Evolution and the Neutral Theory," "Materials Science" and "Bioinformatics and the Human Genome Project."


Professor Mindell's site will explore the history of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), the control system on the spacecraft that went to the moon and performed both automatic and manual control of the command module as well as the lunar lander. The AGC site will form a centerpiece for a larger archive of post-World War II electronics and computing technology in the United States linking the AGC to broader histories of electronics, computing, systems engineering, Cold War technology and American culture.

"We chose to study the AGC because it played a central role in such a significant event in American history and in the history of technology. As a real-time digital computer connected to an inertial guidance system with intense interaction with a human pilot, it epitomized the technology of the cybernetic age and thus also anticipated the current era of human/machine interaction, real-time computer control and networked communications," Professor Mindell said.

"Also, the MIT connection is obviously of interest, as there is a generation of engineers and technologists whose memories should be captured and analyzed while they are still available," he noted.

In addition to text and conversation, the Human Machine Interaction site will feature visual data including, technical documents, drawings, photographs, publicity materials, films, 3-D graphics and "anything that gives the site viewer a rich sense of the design and use of the AGC," said Professor Mindell.


Dr. Ashrafi's site, "Intractable Mathematics and the Standard Model," deals with the "standard model" theory of electro-weak interactions and how physicists, through that theory, developed ways to deal with the mathematical problems arising from the need to divide by zero or multiply by infinity to do relativistic quantum mechanics.

The site will examine how physicists addressed these issues beginning in the 1930s until, in the 1970s, a computational method for controlling infinities in a much wider range of theories was developed.

The materials science site is being developed by Professor Bensaude-Vincent of the Universit̩ de Paris X in France and Arne Hessenbruch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Dibner Institute. It will focus on two pilot projects: the development and application of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) from 1981 and the history of solid-state ionics since the 1970s. Together, the history of both topics should yield a backbone for writing the history of the larger field of materials science.

"I find our site fascinating because materials science and engineering is of great contemporary significance, and yet there simply is no history. We conduct interviews and have a dialogue with the scientists and engineers who have actually lived through what we write about. We link audiovisual materials, discussion groups and timelines so historical narratives open immediately to further comment and criticism. It's a completely new way of doing history," said Dr. Hessenbruch.

Professor Tim Lenoir of Stanford University will be in residence at the Dibner Institute this spring working on his site, "Bioinformatics and the Human Genome Project (HGP)." He plans to develop a timeline of key technical and scientific milestones to serve as a "first-cut" historical roadmap of the HGP. The roadmap will then be used to engage genome scientists in the process of producing their own history though web-forum dialogue.

The site created by Professor John Beatty of the University of Minnesota on "Molecular Evolution and the Neutral Theory" will document and discuss the history of molecular evolutionary studies, focusing on the computerization of the field.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2001.

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