March 9, 2016

The Local Angle Enters Into the Picture In Library’s History of Science Series


CRACKING THE CODE: A screening and discussion of “CodeGirl,” a documentary about teams of high school girls all over the world who develop apps to solve problems in their communities, is among the upcoming events at the Princeton Public Library’s History of Science series.

It was a chat with her uncle, who happened to have been her middle school science teacher in upstate New York, that gave Princeton Public Library’s Humanities Programming Coordinator Hannah Schmidl the idea for a series of events focused on the history of science.

“We were talking a few months ago,” Ms. Schmidl recalled, “and he told me he had been reading books about the history of science. The books were about the whole context of the scientists and their lives rather than just focusing on specific discoveries. That got me thinking.”

Before long, and with the help of some Princeton University professors, Ms. Schmidl had put together a program that touches on several topics. The History of Science series began last week and continues through April 24.

High on the list of attractions was theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who took part in a conversation this past Tuesday with Institute of Advanced Study faculty member Nima Arkani-Hamed. Upcoming programs include screenings, discussions, lectures, and readings, on subjects ranging from Albert Einstein to the locally launched Raceabout, considered to be America’s first sports car.

The local angle enters frequently into the picture. “What’s nice about the general package of programs is that they are locally focused, for the most part,” Ms. Schmidl said. “Thomas Levenson [who lectures Thursday, March 10 on his book The Brief Life and Exciting Times of Vulcan — The Planet That Wasn’t There] is from MIT, but he talks about Einstein. We tried to keep it a little bit local in that sense.”

The History of Science series is presented with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Funding from an NEH challenge grant goes toward programs and collections, and Ms. Schmidl’s job is to decide how to use those funds.

Mr. Levenson’s lecture and book-signing is focused on how Einstein’s general theory of relativity “banished from reality” the idea of the planet Vulcan, which had first appeared in the solar system in 1859. Next, on March 18, is the film CodeGirl, followed by a discussion. The 2015 documentary centers on teams of high school girls around the world who develop apps to solve problems in their communities. The discussion, monitored by Montgomery Upper Middle School teacher Violet Markmann, will include panelists from Code for Princeton, the Techsters of Montgomery Upper Middle School, and Stuart Country Day School.

Laurie Wallmark, author of the children’s book Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, will read on March 20 from the illustrated biography of the woman who, more than 100 years before the invention of the electronic computer, became the world’s first computer programmer. There will be craft activities, geared toward grades 1-5, following the reading. A book discussion of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, led by Princeton professor Angela Creager, is next on March 23. Originally published in 1962, the book is still widely read by specialists and non-specialists.

On March 30, author Scott McVay discusses and signs copies of Surprise Encounters with Artists and Scientists, Whales, and Other Living Things. For this presentation, he will focus on his encounters with scientists devoted to transformative change and share stories about these famous “pathfinders.” Kathryn Maxson discusses the book Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox on April 13. Ms. Maxson is a doctoral candidate in the Program in History of Science at Princeton University. The final program April 24 features historian and author Clifford Zink, whose lecture is titled “Mercer Magic and the Story of America’s First Sports Car.” The wealthy industrialist families Roebling and Kuser of Trenton joined forces to form the Mercer Automobile Company and launched what is considered to be the country’s first sports car. Drivers of the car won numerous races culminating in the American Grand Prize in 1914.

“The fact that we’re here in Princeton, where there is an amazing scientific community, was so helpful in planning this series,” said Ms. Schmidl. “The professors were great, suggesting what should be included and who should lead book discussions. The two book talks will be a nice way to participate for people who can’t come to the bigger lectures. Angela Creager was really helpful to me. I reached out to her in the beginning stages of planning. We talked about how to present the history of science to the public in a way that was interesting.”

Planning the series has sparked Ms. Schmidl’s curiosity about the subject in a way she didn’t expect. “I can’t say science was a niche area of interest for me, but once I started looking into this, I got excited that I get to go to these events,” she said. “I’m hoping that’s the case when people see the series. Even if it’s not something they’re not particularly interested in, I hope they’ll be surprised.”