July 29, 2020
In this interview, David Zierler interviews Jed Buchwald, Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History of Caltech. He recounts: his upbringing on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; undergraduate experience at Princeton, where his initial plan was to study physics, until he met Thomas Kuhn whose influence compelled him to switch to history of science; involvement in student protests at Princeton in the late 1960s; decision to move to Harvard for graduate school where he worked with Erwin Hiebert on the history of electrodynamics in the late 19th century; his first academic appointment at the Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, and the different standards applied to the tenure process then compared to now; how the field of history of physics started to trend away from a technical to a more cultural and social perspective in the mid-1980s.
Buchwald describes his work as director of the Institute; his contribution to the Einstein Papers project during his time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he served as inaugural director of the Dibner Institute; his opposition to the rise of postmodernism as a scholarly approach to history of science, and the absence of evidentiary and logical reasoning that permeates postmodern jargon; his scholarship on Heinrich Hertz; the writing process and inspiration for Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Histories of the Electron, and Zodiac of Paris; the personal and professional considerations that led to his faculty appointment at Caltech; his longtime collaboration with Allan Franklin.
At the end of the interview, Buchwald reflects on the common themes that connect his body of scholarship, and in particular, his interest in focusing on historical subjects who were themselves deeply invested in their work.