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Scientists' Nightstand: Mary Jo Nye

Mary Jo Nye is Horning Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Her most recent book is Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 2004), a biography of the British physicist and Nobel laureate Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Mary Jo NyeClick to Enlarge Image

I am a historian of science teaching in the History Department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, after teaching for many years at the University of Oklahoma. I did my graduate work in history of science at the University of Wisconsin following undergraduate studies in chemistry and discovering that I preferred research and writing about science and its history to actually doing science. My earliest historical work focused on French scientists and scientific institutions (Molecular Reality, American Elsevier, 1972; Science in the Provinces, University of California Press, 1986), and in the last decade I have written about modern science more broadly, including studies in England and Germany (From Chemical Philosophy to Theoretical Chemistry, University of California Press, 1993; Before Big Science, Prentice Hall International, 1996). I think of the history of science, or science studies, as a network in the sciences and humanities that gives me the opportunity to teach and to talk with students and colleagues in physics and chemistry and biology, just as much as in history and philosophy and English. This bridgeland between the sciences and the humanities is one that needs constantly to be enlarged and strengthened, and I am lucky in having the opportunity to do this not only through my personal teaching and writing, but in my role as a co-organizer of an annual series of lectures and conferences supported by my university's Horning Endowment in the Humanities.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I have just completed reading Hasok Chang's Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (Oxford University Press, 2004) for a professional review. It's a splendid book of lively historical narratives about experimentalists' work from the 17th to the mid-19th century in solving puzzles about making reliable thermometers: What should be the working fluid? What precisely should be the basis for fixed points and the numbers attached to them in order to create a scale of temperatures? What kinds of thermometers can you use for extremes of temperature, and how do you make these thermometers agree with one another in the same ranges? What do thermometers measure, anyway? Chang aims not only to write history, but to use history and philosophy of science in building a "complementary science" that recovers forgotten stories of science and uses them to rethink the methodological foundations of the ways in which current scientists do their everyday work.

For some casual reading, I embarked three books ago on the Flashman series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser, which he began publishing in 1969. So far I have read Flashman (World, 1969), Royal Flash (Knopf, 1970) and Flashman's Lady (Barrie & Jenkins, 1977). Fraser's conceit in the series is his supposed discovery of a packet of papers written toward the end of his life by Harry Flashman, the notorious bully who was expelled from the Rugby School in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857). These particular three novels are a romp of adventures from 1839 to 1845 in England, India and Afghanistan, Germany, Borneo and Madagascar, as the cowardly, deceitful and womanizing Flashman always emerges as a decorated war hero, no matter how dastardly his actual conduct. The novels are semihistorical, and it's a challenge to try to distinguish historical events and people from invented ones, as in Fraser's extraordinary portrait of the young and obnoxious Bismarck in Royal Flash. Unfortunately, the tale of Flashman in Afghanistan has some current resonance.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I rarely read in my office at the university, but mostly at home in my study or next to the fireplace, always on planes, and wherever I happen to be when there's time.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

One of my favorite writers is Iain Pears. I have read all his Italian art-theft detective novels from the time he first began publishing them: The Raphael Affair (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), followed by The Last Judgment (Gollancz, 1993), The Titian Committee (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), The Bernini Bust (Harcourt Brace, 1994), Death and Restoration (HarperCollins, 1996), Giotto's Hand (Scribner, 1997) and The Immaculate Deception (Scribner, 2000), as well as his more serious historical novels: An Instance of the Fingerpost (Riverhead Books, 1998), set in 17th-century England, and The Dream of Scipio (Riverhead Books, 2002), set in overlapping narratives of the fifth century, the 11th century and the 20th century in a small town in southern France. Pears uses his considerable historical erudition, whether about art masterpieces in Italy, the practice of medicine in Restoration England or the German occupation in Vichy France, to weave together compelling and complex stories of guilt and innocence that are both intellectually challenging and enormously engaging.

What are the best books you've ever read? Explain how.

One of the best books that I've read recently is Oliver Sacks's Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Knopf, 2001). If only I could write like this! We read this book in my graduate seminar focused on different ways of thinking about and writing about the history of the chemical sciences. Sacks's memoir of his boyhood is one of growing up in a professional Jewish family in London during the Second World War. Stories of the public (boarding) schools of the type of Tom Brown's School Days are fabulously intertwined with stories of chemical properties and chemical experimentation, including an experience that he says altered his life: seeing and then understanding the giant cabinet-wood display of Mendeleev's periodic table in the Science Museum in South Kensington in 1945. The memoir ends with Sacks's discovery of his own adolescence and sexuality in a beautifully nostalgic piece of writing about the waning of his chemical boyhood.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

A slightly facetious but not untruthful answer is volume one of Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). I first went to France in the eventful month of May of 1968, and my life was transformed in many ways by that experience. I learned to eat and I learned to cook, and so did my husband, who is a European intellectual historian. Nor is cuisine unrelated to the history of science. Note that M. F. K. Fisher translated into English in 1949 Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's 1825 The Physiology of Taste: or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

I will be reading soon David C. Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (Pi Press, 2005) and Peter Goodchild's Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove (Harvard University Press, 2004). I have been thinking about different ways to write biographies because of my own recent work on the physicist Patrick Blackett. For fiction, Alan Lightman's Reunion (Pantheon, 2003) is next on my mental list.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Among books about science and scientists, I would recommend the Oxford Portraits of Science, which seem aimed at middle-school and high-school readers, and particularly Tom Hager's Linus Pauling and the Chemistry of Life (Oxford University Press, 1998). Hager's full-scale biography Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling (Simon and Schuster, 1995) never appeared in paperback, for some odd reason, and it has not had the reading from the general public that it merits.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Hager's Force of Nature. Also Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996), which begins with the controversial statement: "There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it." This is an excellent introduction to the idea that a revolution took place in the 17th century that brought about the modern sciences.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

One of the most successful books that I have used recently in teaching is Loren R. Graham's What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Stanford University Press, 1998). The book is a series of essays (lectures) that were given at Stanford University, and it poses some startling questions about the relationship between the modern sciences and modern states, one of which Graham phrases as: What is more important to science, freedom or money? The essays range over the histories of various sciences in the Soviet Union from the 1920s until the mid-1990s, briefly narrating stunning achievements in Soviet science and technology during this period, as well as horrifying persecutions, with periods of the waxing and waning of governmental funds for scientific work. It is a sobering book for scientists and citizens who wonder what kind of science has been accomplished under authoritarian regimes and how scientists should behave when confronted with oppression.

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