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Sebastien Soubiran, University Louis Pasteur of Strasbourg

"The revival of Physics heritage in the University of Strasbourg"

Two years ago the University of Strasbourg embarked on a program for the preservation of the heritage and the development of historical research on twentieth century physics in Strasbourg.  The collecting concerns mainly paper archives but also includes instruments and all kind of materials related to the activity of physicists in the University of Strasbourg. The program mobilised numerous people with a variety of knowledge and expertise: archivists, historians of science and technology, physicists and curators are involved.

Six physics laboratories or institutes have been chosen: the Institute of Physics, the Astronomical Observatory, the Charles Sadron Institute (research on macromolecules), the Institute of Subatomic Research, Institute of Physics and Chemistry (magnetic and optical properties of materials), and Laboratory for complex fluids dynamics. Those six departments represent most of the research in physics pursued at the University and its heritage.

The anticipated results of this program are many: As well as creating access to the historical records and instruments of modern physics via the web and other media, this program aims to establish a university physics laboratory records and instruments management plan. The development of historical research in twentieth century physics is closely linked to these preservation management plans as well as to general research on the built heritage .

This program has received various funds:

- Three year funding support from the Ministry of Research sustains records and instruments collecting as well as research activities (2004-2007).

- A grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, generously contributes to the records inventory (2005).

- Important financial support is also given by the regional inventory department to complete the instruments inventory (2004, 2005).

Records management and instruments’ inventory methods are put in place with strong regional and national partnership.

This initiative is certainly unique in France where no dedicated centralised structure exists to collect scientific archives. The National Archives Office, though aware of the specificity of these archives, has not put in place a national long term policy for the benefit of these kinds of materials. Overall, few universities care about the preservation of their archives and there is no records department at the University.

 So, why is this policy taking place in Strasbourg? Why now? Why did it start with physics?

Although the University of Strasbourg is certainly in the lead as far as the preservation of its physics heritage is concerned, this policy emerged in a national preoccupation with scientific heritage preservation. Though heterogeneous, the praise of heritage by various French scientific institutions is significant: in these places, since the end of the 1980s, actors with different backgrounds and knowledge, took action and expended a great deal of effort in locating and making inventories of different kinds of collections. Moreover, many public scientific institutions took a big step by creating, with lots of difficulties one should add, a records department of their own. Until then, records were supposed to be administered by a central public department: la direction des archives de France. However, few institutions took the trouble to obey the law concerning the administration of their archives, especially scientific ones. In addition to this new concern for records, the preservation of scientific instruments was at stake in many ad hoc committees of both French Ministry of Research and Culture. Thus, the legitimacy of such actions was reinforced by the recognition of French administration, however shy this recognition might be. Indeed, scientific sites, buildings and instruments, for example, astronomical observatories and instruments, the first French nuclear reactor Zoé, the instrument collections of the Ecole polytechnique, benefit from this new concern.

The different actions that emerged came with various objectives. I would like to underline three of them.  Firstly, the will to share this heritage appears as obvious: access for the general public to instruments collections exhibitions, houses and laboratories of famous scientists, is part of the main preoccupation. Secondly, these activities are founded on an important reflection with professionals. Lastly but not least, the emergence in France in the 1980s, of the social history of science, more concerned with scientific practices, research policies and the understanding of science in its social context than the big ideas on which scientific knowledge relies, certainly helped in questioning the existence of historical materials to support such researches.

The University of Strasbourg is certainly a good illustration of these preliminary remarks and its preservation concern is certainly inherited from these various actions, some people involved in them, also being involved in Strasbourg.

As well as external partners, the establishment of the program is based on the collaboration between two departments of the University: the Mission de culture scientific et technique and the research group on social studies of science and technology.

On the one hand, the Mission de culture scientifique et technique is in charge of the communication and the diffusion of scientific culture. Among various activities this department is in charge of the very rich research and pedagogical collections of the university constituted mainly during the German period from 1870 to 1918. Most of the collections are preserved in five museums. Only one is permanently open to the public, the other three are partially open or on demand.  It is part of the activities of the Mission to organise exhibits, special visits or events so as to make those collections accessible to the general public. The ambition now is to establish a co-ordinated policy for their preservation. Collections related to physics are seen as a starting point.

On the other hand the research group on social studies of science and technology has defined scientific heritage as a subject of its research activities. These researchers are interested in the process by which sciences – practices, knowledge, cognitive and social forms – are instituted as patrimony or remembrance place, “lieu de mémoire” as defined by Pierre Nora. This research is based on the conviction that memorial practices, particularly within a university, cannot be separated from an historical or sociological viewpoint of its motives and the aims it defines.

As regards local specificity I should also note the importance of the physicists’ community. Historically, physics played an important role in the development and the fame of Strasbourg University. This role is partly due to the German history of the University between 1872 and 1918, then between 1940 and 1944, during which the university was considered as a display of German scientific research, then of French scientific research as well. This research made a big contribution to the emergence of new fields in physics at that time. Famous scientists of both nationalities succeeded one another. For instance, Ferdinand Braun was the first director of the Physics Institute created by the Germans in 1872. He was followed by the famous French physicist Pierre Weiss when Alsace was returned to France. Louis Néel (Nobel Prize), Charles Sadron, Serge Gorodesky or Marguerite Perey, all members of the French Academy of Science, spent part of their careers in Strasbourg. This heritage imparts to the patrimony of the University of Strasbourg a richness and a specificity that distinguishes it from the other French universities. More broadly, the historiography of twentieth century physics in France and of the development of science at the university, especially after 1945, is particularly poor.

Thus, the background in terms of historical heritage, the existence of various university collections and a department in charge of their valorisation, together with the studies pursued in the history of science and scientific heritage as an object of research certainly facilitated the setting-up of the programme. Last but not least, the year 2005 has been declared the year of physics by UNESCO to celebrate, among others, the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s breakthrough scientific papers. Thus Strasbourg wanted this program to be part of this celebration.

However favourable this context might be, it is still far from being enough to ensure the setting-up of a long term policy on the preservation of scientific heritage of the university. Indeed, scientists who care about the preservation of their heritage are still few, and those that do care are still confronted with the difficult compatibility between the objects of the past (old instruments, scientifically obsolete that refer to ‘dead’ scientific knowledge), and the determination with which scientists tend to recall the innovative potential of their discipline while talking about their heritage. This difficulty is reinforced by, and linked to the changing status of science in society, science becoming more and more a controversial issue within public opinion. Thus, the preservation of scientific heritage and its display to the general public is thought of as a way to reinforce the visibility of science in society, as a strong tool for the popularization of science and, last but not least, as a valuable communication object for an institution. Universities in France and scientific research institutions, more broadly, are also experiencing strong questioning and changes with regard to their role in French society. Heritage and historical research should help to reinforce a legitimacy questioned.

In my opinion, this tension questions the prospects for a proper and long term existence for the scientific heritage within scientific institutions. What happens when commemorative or special events are over? All experiences in France tend to prove so far that heritage concerns just fall into oblivion as well as experience and remembrance of what have been done once the commemoration is over. Well, will the programme started in Strasbourg be one of them? Let us hope not, however the general concern expressed by the head of the University is reassuring, as well as the strong connexion built with the regional archives department and the regional department of the inventory. Moreover the link between the preservation program and research program should also be a guarantee for the setting-up of a long term policy.

What has been done so far?

- A general inventory on the archives preserved so far by each physics department was done.  Approximately 70 ml were preserved.

- Three finding aids have been completed (~ 12 ml)

    - Marguerite Perey scientific and personal papers

    - Directory of the Institute of physics and magnetic laboratories (1945-1970)

    - Nuclear power reactor of the University (1964-1998)

- Inventory of astronomical instruments is achieved

- Historical research was started

    - PhD research on radioprotection within academic environment (1925-1960)

    - Re-construction of physics in Strasbourg after World War Two

- An international symposium on the building process of scientific heritage is planned for the end of November 2005.

- A website on which finding aids can be found and downloaded as well as historical information, pictures:

What has yet to be done?

- 50 ml of archives that have yet to be processed and hopefully much more archives that are still in private hands and “secret place”

- A general policy concerning the preservation of these archives and their public access has yet to be put in place

- Should the archives be maintained at the university?

- Would the science library be a good place?

- How far can the regional archive department take charge of these archives?

To conclude I should like to underline that the next important step will be the attachment of the program in a European Network regarding the preservation of physics heritage as well as the history of twentieth century physics in Europe.