Notre Dame restores forgotten letters of scholars’ physics debates
Sometimes what seems like a random bit of trivia turns into much more. As a student of history and philosophy of science, Sebastián Murgueitio Ramírez was aware of the existence of Epistemological Letters as an obscure journal/newsletter devoted to the foundations of physics at a time of deep skepticism of such inquiry within the wider physics community. So when he was asked to find and research an overlooked academic paper for a history of science class, he thought, “OK, I’ll find something there.”
“I was sure there were probably papers (published in Epistemological Letters) that had gone unrecognized because the journal is so hard to find,” said Murgueitio Ramírez, a graduate physics student and a doctoral candidate in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame whose work focuses on symmetries and quantum mechanics.
While impossible to predict at the time, that seed of a thought would launch the Colombia native on an unexpected journey of discovery — backward and forward in time, from Europe to Boston, Boston to South Bend, South Bend to Chicago — and open a valuable door to the past for physicists and historians alike.
“I had this whole series sitting in my basement. I hadn’t realized I had this rarity.”—Don Howard
What’s more, it would add to Notre Dame’s reputation as a leader in the history and philosophy of science, both as a center of scholarship and an archival institution.
Published in Switzerland in the 1970s and 1980s, Epistemological Letters was a critical venue for work that was viewed as marginal by mainstream physicists of the era — work that would later contribute to important developments in areas such as quantum computing, quantum encryption and quantum teleportation.
Think a Reddit for theoretical physicists.
While primarily subscriber-based, the newsletter was distributed unsolicited to a who’s-who of physicists and philosophers of the era, as well, from Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg to Victor Weisskopf, an Austrian-born, American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and later co-founded the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But where to find the newsletter?
Unable to locate even a single issue in print or digital form, Murgueitio Ramírez turned to Don Howard for help.
A professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, Howard was familiar with Epistemological Letters. As a doctoral student in the early 1970s, he studied under the philosopher and physicist Abner Shimony at Boston University. Shimony, with one foot in philosophy and the other in physics — and with key relationships across the physics community, particularly in Western Europe, where Epistemological Letters was born — was a “guiding spirit” of the newsletter, having been involved from the first issue.
Howard, then, was an early subscriber to the newsletter, from the second issue in the spring of 1974 to the 36th and final issue in the fall of 1984.
Fortunately, despite several moves over the years, the self-described “pack rat” had held onto the collection, most recently storing it on a bookshelf in his basement in South Bend along with rows of other papers and documents representing decades of academic ephemera.
“I had the whole series sitting in my basement,” Howard said, peering from behind stacks of books in his cluttered office on the third floor of Malloy Hall. And yet, “I hadn’t realized I had this rarity.”
He would know.
With a bachelor’s degree in physics and advanced degrees in philosophy, the former director and current fellow of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at Notre Dame has spent his career exploring the history and philosophy of modern physics. He is a fellow with the American Physical Society. He co-founded the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science. And he is an expert on the works of the acclaimed physicists Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
Still, a key piece of the collection — the first issue — was missing.
Leveraging his connections in the physics community, Howard issued a social media appeal for the fugitive newsletter. The appeal reached Howard Stein, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. A close personal and professional friend of Shimony, Stein happened to have two copies of the missing issue, Howard said, and gladly gifted one to Howard and Murgueitio Ramírez.
Preserving the past
The story might have ended there, but Murgueitio Ramírez had other ideas.
Aware of the importance of the newsletter, and eager to share it with the wider physics community, he started scanning it, page by page, in his spare time using the free BookEye scanners at Hesburgh Library — a simple yet tedious task given the quality and construction of the journal, which, according to Howard, was “printed in the crudest way,” hand-assembled from mimeographs.
The process took 18 months.
Sitting at a wooden table in the foyer of Bond Hall, Murgueitio Ramírez said of the newsletter, “It was not professionally printed. So sometimes when you open it, the margins are …” He lay his hands, palms up, on the table to indicate a book. “The text is very, very, very close to the margins on both sides,” he said, folding and unfolding his hands and running a finger along the edges of the “book” for emphasis. “So sometimes there was no way to open it in such a way that (the scan) didn’t look weird.”
Once scanned, he stored the documents on a borrowed thumb drive, which he later shared with Natalie Meyers, an e-research librarian at the Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship at Notre Dame with whom he had consulted on a previous project — a Spanish-language physics textbook (“Física Paso a Paso,” or “Physics Step by Step”) designed to help students transition from high school to college physics.
“I went to her and said, ‘Look, I have this, but I don’t know what to do with these files. I want to preserve them in a way that’s accessible to everyone,’” Murgueitio Ramírez said.
Meyers, who specializes in data management, recalled, “We looked at (the scans) and discussed how we could open the content so researchers could engage with it in ways that were enabled through better indexing and what you might think of as better threading.”
With that in mind, Meyers assembled a team from Hesburgh Libraries and the Navari Center to preserve the files through CurateND, an online portal for the preservation of Notre Dame-related research, collections and scholarly output. The team then integrated the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a Notre Dame-supported platform for viewing, comparing, manipulating and annotating shared digital images on the web.
The team developed custom IIIF workflows in partnership with the DataFutures project during an Institute for Museum and Library Services-supported hackathon at Hesburgh Library, providing a way for scholars like Howard and Murgueitio Ramírez to isolate individual contributors, conversations and translations across languages and multiple issues of the newsletter — a critical exploit given the conversational nature and international flavor of the journal.
“Some of the conversations go on for many issues, and that’s particularly difficult to read in print form, in part, because the responses might not appear until one or two later issues,” Meyers said. “But also, the participants wrote in their native language, or in the language they were most comfortable in. The letters themselves are in French, German or English for the most part, and a particular conversation could go flip-flopping between different languages.”
In this way, she said, Epistemological Letters serves as a powerful example of the library’s capacity for facilitating collaborative research and digital scholarship both on campus and with partners around the world.
As this was happening, Howard gifted the hard copies of the newsletter — which, according to Meyers, were in “very good shape” despite years in Howard’s basement — to Rare Books and Special Collections, where they now live in a secure, controlled environment, safe from atmospheric pollutants and pests as well as heat, light and moisture, all of which degrade paper over time.
To Howard’s knowledge, Notre Dame is the only place in the U.S. — and one of few in the world — where the newsletter can be consulted in its entirety, in print or digital form, outside of the Institut de la Méthode in Switzerland or some private collection. A copy at the British Library in London is incomplete, he said. It’s also not online. A copy at the University of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has proved difficult to access.
“It moved the discussion of quantum mechanics out of the classroom and barrooms and into the laboratory, making such investigations somewhat more respectable among the members of the core physics community.”
“I’ve seen no new copies, and I check WorldCat regularly,” he said, referring to the worldwide, online library catalogue. Murgueitio Ramírez checks too.
“I’ve been delighted to see this side of him,” Howard said of his student, “this enthusiasm for the history of philosophy.” Combined, the print and digital versions of the newsletter add to Notre Dame’s collection of more than 130,000 rare books and periodicals and more than 6,000 linear feet of manuscripts, printed ephemera, posters and other non-book materials.
What’s more, they reinforce the University’s reputation as a leader in the history and practice of philosophy, with the largest philosophy department in the U.S.
“There is a firm commitment within the department to maintain our primacy in the philosophy of physics,” Howard said, including by continuing to attract “a steady stream of impressive Ph.D. students” like Murgueitio Ramírez.
‘Some adequate journal’
Epistemological Letters arrived at a critical moment in the development of the foundations of physics, Howard said.
Building on the work of Shimony and others, the physicists Stuart Freedman and John Clauser had recently conducted the first test of Bell’s theorem, resulting in strong proof of quantum entanglement — the idea that two particles can be intimately linked across great distances, or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”
As Howard and Murgueitio Ramírez write in their introduction to the newsletter, this excited the foundations of physics community and “stimulated others to attempt different and improved tests” of the theorem.
More importantly, perhaps, it “moved the discussion of quantum mechanics out of the classroom and barrooms and into the laboratory,” they write, “making such investigations somewhat more respectable among the members of the core physics community.”
And yet, Howard said, the attitude to such work among the wider physics community remained skeptical at best.
“There was a lot of outright hostility in the physics community to this kind of work,” he said, describing it as a “career killer” for some physicists.
He recalled that the leading journal of the day, Physical Review, refused to even consider papers on the foundations of physics “unless they had both mathematically derived new predictions or some solid experimental results.”
“They didn’t want to publish anything that was just thinking about physics,” he said.
“Shut up and calculate” is how the MIT physicist and historian David Kaiser described it in his book “How the Hippies Saved Physics,” about an eccentric group of Bay-area physicists who “stood up to convention — and changed the face of modern physics.”
“There really was a concerted push to shove outside the domain of ‘legitimate’ physics the kinds of philosophically inflected analysis that had once been central to the practice,” Kaiser, whose research focuses on the rapid expansion of the universe in the seconds following the big bang, said by phone from Boston.
That was particularly true in the U.S., Kaiser said, where the “mobilization of physicists and engineers around all kinds of military projects” during and after the Second World War served to reorient university physics departments toward applied research and away from “more open-ended, mushier questions of interpretation.”
“We know people are interested in this. We’re talking about stuff that’s 40 to 50 years old, but it’s still a living part of the contemporary conversation.”
By contrast, Epistemological Letters embraced such “mush,” providing a safe space for physicists to explore and discuss the foundations of physics without fear of reprisal.
Published by the Institut de la Méthode in Bienne, Switzerland, the newsletter debuted in November 1973 with a written symposium and accompanying postscript outlining the goal and function of the publication. Shimony and Michael Horne, another of Shimony’s former students, wrote and edited the issue, which alternated among English, French and German over the course of its 24 narrow, typewritten pages.
To draw attention to the newsletter and build a subscriber base, the first and second issues were distributed unsolicited to a wide range of physicists worldwide. “Every prominent physicist — and not just foundations of physics, but Nobel Prize winners like Heisenberg — at least saw the first two issues,” Howard said. “Whether they paid attention and took it seriously, that’s a hard question to answer.”
It’s not clear how seriously the journal took itself.
From the outset, it included what, in retrospect, could be considered a modest statement of purpose on the back cover: “Epistemological Letters are not a scientific journal in the ordinary sense,” the statement read. “They want to create a basis for an open and informal discussion allowing confrontation and ripening of ideas before publishing in some adequate journal.”
Howard chuckles now at the wording: “some adequate journal.”
Four decades later, the ideas advanced in Epistemological Letters, particularly around Bell’s theorem, have become mainstream. And not just within the physics community. The PBS television program “NOVA,” the most-watched science series in the U.S., recently devoted an entire episode to quantum entanglement.
Said Kaiser, “Epistemological Letters became this remarkably creative and flourishing venue for the kinds of work that today would be published in most elite, peer-reviewed physics journals.”
‘Proof of interest’
Not surprisingly, the physics community has been eager to get ahold of the newsletter. Almost from the start, Howard said, but especially after the social media appeal, “Word got out, and in short order I began getting emails from colleagues saying, ‘Geez, can you get me copies of these?’”
At one point, Howard said, a peer institution offered to preserve and digitize the collection itself, “so that’s real proof of interest.”
Said Meyers, “If (scholars or researchers) know one or more of the contributors by name or reputation, or if they know the time period and the importance of the content, they become immediately excited to go have a look. And because the material is now digital, their curiosity can be easily satisfied.”
And this is just the beginning.
According to Howard and Murgueitio Ramírez, the plan is to host a series of workshops next where scholars can discuss and annotate the newsletter offline, as well, with logistical and technical support from the Navari Center.
After all, Howard said, “We know people are interested in this. We’re talking about stuff that’s 40 to 50 years old, but it’s still a living part of the contemporary conversation.”