Artifacts From the Archives

The Niels Bohr Library and Archive opened its doors last month to show off some of its hidden gems. In addition to its exhaustive book, photographic and oral history collections, the library hosts a repository of a range of old physics documents and artifacts. Much of what it stores are the historical documents of the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics and some of its member societies. But hidden amongst board meeting minutes and old society declarations are some real treasures.

Richard Feynman’s high school notebook. Feynman used it during his sophomore or junior years while he was teaching himself calculus from the book Calculus Made Easy. From Feynman’s oral history:

My father and I went to Macy’s and he bought me a book, CALCULUS MADE EASY, and I took it home and studied it and wrote a notebook which I still have, and can give you, of this book, that tells me the stuff in it. That was a way to try to get it into my head this time, instead of forgetting it. So I had learned calculus.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gives science a big thumbs up. In this letter to K.T. Compton, then chairman of the AIP, the 32nd president responds to concerns about a seemingly growing “Stop Science” movement that blamed the Great Depression on the advancement of science. FDR was having none of it:

     The value to civilization of scientific thought and research cannot be questioned.  To realize its true worth, one has only to recall that human health, industry and culture have reached, in a country of scientific progress, a far higher state than ever before.
     The idea that science is responsible for the economic ills which the world has recently experienced can be questioned.  It would be more accurate to say that the fruits of current scientific thought and development, properly directed, can help revive industry and the markets for raw materials.

Five years later, FDR would direct the physics community to split the atom after a letter from physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard.

A number of the documents stored at the archive also show some of the mundane, day-to-day side of physics. Here,

J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would later be known as the father of the atomic bomb, politely declines an invitation to publish some of his early research about cosmic rays in 1936.

Writing in his native German,

Albert Einstein apologizes for missing a physics meeting in 1934.

President Herbert Hoover congratulates the AIP on its founding in 1931. 
The library’s old book collection is home to some truly beautiful old donated texts, like this one which recounts laying the first transatlantic telegraph line
…As well as a few that have seen better days, like this folio of old scientific papers. I’ve been told by the archivists that this is not the preferred way to store records. 
There’s also some space for the lighter side of science. The library has programs from the medical physics musical comedy troupe, The Mutants. From 1965 to 1970, they entertained the annual meetings of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine with parody jams like “Those are the Rays” and “SuperVoltageTherapyGivesExponentialDoses” sung to the tunes of “Those Were the Days” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” respectively, I can only imagine. 

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