IWHC-2015-Tokyo: Lessons from an Enchanted Conference I Almost Missed

by Dr. Pnina G. Abir-Am, Brandeis University

Group photo at conference conclusion on 3-4-15; below on p. 8. [also as the last photo at the conference website http://kagakushi.org/iwhc2015/photos, (all group photos by Masanori Kaji, Chair of Local Organizing Committee, 7th from left in first row)

Group photo at conference conclusion on 3-4-15 (all group photos by Masanori Kaji, Chair of Local Organizing Committee, 7th from left in first row)

The IWHC-2015-Tokyo meeting on “Transformations of Chemistry from the 1920s to the 1960s” was held on March 2-4, 2015 at Tokyo Tech (Tokyo Institute of Technology, or the Tokyo equivalent of MIT according to its students). The participation of historians of science from over half a dozen countries was made possible by a group grant to historians who studied the history of chemistry in Japan during the above period. IWHC-2015-Tokyo thus reflected its organizers’ desire to situate their findings in a wider, comparative and international context. The meeting’s sponsors included the Japanese Society for the History of Chemistry; the International Commission for the History of Modern Chemistry; the History of Science Society of Japan; and the Chemical Society of Japan, among others.

In the spirit of “all is well that ends well” (a surprising statement since Shakespeare was all too familiar with the vast contrast between outcome and process) I will first describe why this conference was so rewarding and worthwhile, even when one’s road to Tokyo was far from obvious. Second, I will reflect on lessons learned from the “process” of getting to IWHC-20115-Tokyo, so as to better address the predicament of many scholars who encounter obstacles in participating at international conferences.

This meeting was organized by two committees. The first was the Program Committee, which included eight members from five countries and was chaired by Professor Yasu Furukawa of Nihon University, (http://www.nihon-u.ac.jp/en/) President of the Japanese Society for the History of Chemistry, (JSHC) who also gave the Opening Address on JSHC’s history. This Committee produced such an impressive program that several distinguished senior colleagues to whom I showed it, among them Roald Hoffman, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry; Margaret Rossiter, a long-term former Editor of ISIS and Osiris; and Irving Epstein, senior adviser to the Provost at Brandeis University, had all commented on the high quality of the IWHC-2015-Tokyo program.

The second committee responsible for the success of this conference was the Local Organizing Committee, composed of members from twelve Japanese universities, and chaired by Masanori Kaji, a Professor of history & philosophy of science & technology at Tokyo Tech’s Graduate School of Decision Sciences. He hosted IWHC-2015-Tokyo with amazing “cool” at several sites in his home university. A team of resourceful staffers coordinated by Ms. Makiko Shiba was available on site to ensure the smooth running of the conference.

IWHC-2015-Tokyo focused on various aspects of the history of chemistry between the 1920s and the 1960s, a period during which chemistry was transformed by advances in quantum theory and the discovery of nuclear fission, by changes in its relationships to biology, and by changes in its relationship to physics, as reflected in the impact of many new methods and techniques such as spectroscopy, electron diffraction, and X-ray crystallography, among others. The conference’s eight sessions thus covered the international context of the chemical community. Most sessions combined guest and host country speakers, as well as professional diversity ranging from graduate students to professors emeriti.

The contributions of the Japanese historians focused on the international relationships of Japanese chemists; (N. Hirota, K. Kawashima, Y. Kekuchi, and M. Wada); the history of research schools of quantum and organic chemistry in Japan (Y. Furukawa and M. Kaji, respectively); and theories and methods (S. Furuya, Mari Yamaguchi, Makoto Yamaguchi, and T. Mine). Eight participants came from Europe (Susanne Rehn-Taube, Victoria Lee & Jeremiah James from Germany; Danielle Fauque & Pierre Laszlo from France; Brigitte van Tiggelen from Belgium, Galina Shindriayeva from UK; and last but not least, Ernst Homburg, one of three keynote speakers, from Holland); seven came from USA (two additional keynotes speakers, Jeffrey Johnson and Mary Jo Nye, as well as Carsten Reinhardt, Ronald Brashear, Evan Hepler-Smith, Kevin Fujitani, and Pnina G. Abir-Am); and two came from Japan’s neighboring countries (Buhm Soon Park from Korea; and Ian Rae from Australia). Regretfully, a scheduled speaker from India, Pankaj Kalita, who had an interesting topic, (polymer synthesis) did not arrive. Nine of the 30 scholars on the program (i.e. 26 speakers and four non-speaker session chairs) were women. The conference was also attended by an additional fifty or so historians of science and students from Japan who participated in the Q&A periods.

Three keynote addresses were delivered by former recipients of the Dexter Prize (given by the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry). Ernst Homburg’s (Maastricht University) address “On Molecules, Men, and Mirrors: Different Ways to Write a History of the Chemical Industry” was a tour-de-force, deftly covering the periods well before and after the conference time frame.

“From bio-organic chemistry to synthetic biology: Fulfilling Emil Fischer’s dream,” delivered by Jeffrey Johnson, (Villanova University, PA.) acquainted us with little known aspects of the great chemist’s broad vision and dutiful efforts in WWI, whose centennial is currently unfolding all over the world. Indeed, a session on the role of chemistry in WWI is currently being organized by IWHC-2015 participants Yoshiyuki Kikuchi & Brigitte van Tiggelen for the upcoming HSS annual meeting in San Francisco (November 16-19).

“A Career at the Center: Linus Pauling and the Transformation of Chemical Science in the 20th Century,” delivered by Mary Jo Nye, (Oregon State University) provided not only a comprehensive view of the famous chemist, but also an essential background for other talks which touched on Pauling, e.g. those by Y. Kikuchi & N. Hirota, as well as my own talk in Session 4, (Chemistry’s Relationships to Biology”).

Following Kevin Fujitani’s (Ohio State University) fascinating talk on the attribution of credit for the discovery of vitamin B1 to seven scientists in session 4, I presented recent research on “Pauling’s ‘boys’ and the mystery of DNA structure,” conducted under a fellowship from the Special Collections and Archive Research Center (SCARC) at Oregon State University. Having had no opportunity to present this research beyond SCARC’s own Fellows series, (Paulingblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/dr-pnina-abir-am-resident-scholar) I was both surprised and pleased to encounter a great interest in Pauling’s misadventures with DNA, especially on the part of our Japanese colleagues. A lively Q&A followed, skillfully moderated by Togo Tsukahara of Kobe University, whose name was already mentioned to me by a common colleague at UCLA. (see below) In seeking to better understand the reasons for the pronounced Japanese interest in Pauling’s failed foray into DNA, I began to quiz Japan experts until I was able to confirm my hunch that such an interest reflected not only Pauling’s fame as both a great scientist and a humanitarian who campaigned against nuclear testing, but also a fascination with the culturally central theme of the “nobility of failure,” a theme going back to the history of the Meiji restoration.

Unfortunately, for reasons of space, it is not possible to comment here on all the talks, (about two dozen) especially since an electronic version of the program, as well as of the revised conference proceedings, is available on the IWHC-2015-Tokyo website (http://kagakushi.org/iwhc2015). An English language special issue of Kagakushi, the journal of the Japanese Society for the History of Science, will also include Japanese translations of the three keynote papers.

IWHC-2015-Tokyo provided ample opportunities for discussion during the Q&A periods as well as during the coffee breaks, lunches, and receptions. It concluded with two most memorable events: a banquet in a traditional Japanese garden and a day long tour of Tokyo. Our guide selected a rich itinerary, ranging from the Hamarikyu botanical gardens, (with 300-year-old pine trees) to the Meiji shrine (www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/); the Tokyo Waterworks Historical Museum; and the Asakusa district with its many traditional Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines. The tour was punctuated by a tea ceremony in a tidal pond pavilion of a former seashore shogun villa from the Tokugawa period in the 17th Century and a Japanese style traditional lunch (http://www.gonpachi.jp/?lang=en).

Flying back to the US with the South Pacific musical sound track in my ear set, I had time to reflect on the fact that this unique experience had almost not happened. To make a long story short, quite a few institutions and individuals in the US proved to be distinctly unhelpful with my efforts to secure matching travel funds for this conference. To be sure, some were a long shot, while others, HSS included, chose to focus on participation at their own meetings only. But there were some organizations and individuals whose official mission revolved around promoting the history of chemistry, yet they strangely failed to foresee that participation on the program of IWHC-2015-Tokyo was an excellent way of promoting such a mission. Whatever the reasons for such a failure may have been, the “nobility of failure” mentioned above as a central theme in Japanese history & culture was obviously not among them.

The only ray of hope came from UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) where several colleagues (Soraya de Chadarevian, Ted Porter, Mary Terrall, Maura Resnick and Yoram Cohen) graciously ensured that the transpacific long haul ahead of me should benefit from a friendly stopover by inviting me to give a couple of talks in the week prior to the Tokyo meeting. Also at UCLA, Sharon Traweek and Sandra Harding generously shared with me their own experiences of Japan. (Harding returned from a recent lecture tour in Tokyo, while Traweek spent considerable time at Tsukuba Science City researching her pioneering Ph.D. thesis on the particle physics community in Japan and the United States. (better known in its published form of Beamtimes and Lifetimes, Harvard University Press, 1992). My uncertain situation was resolved in the last moment only when, in a flash of inspiration and inclusivity, the Japanese organizers removed the last hurdles still standing between me and their amazing conference. I can only hope that their good foresight is appreciated not only by me but also in pertinent professional quarters in both Japan and the USA.

In conclusion, I wish to share a key lesson from my complex experience with participating at this conference. During the prolonged “process” of leaving no stone unturned, one of many colleagues with whom I had consulted, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (a former HSS President, Dean and academic activist at the University of Minnesota) recalled that the National Science Foundation (NSF) once had and might still have a program for travel to international conferences. Though my follow up with NSF-STS Program Director revealed that processing such an application would have required several months (and hence it could not, by then, apply to IWHC-2015-Tokyo) such a program was immediately recognized as pertinent for another upcoming international conference, on “Gender and Collaboration in Science,” to be held in Prague. A group proposal for seven US based speakers, the majority of whom having no other source of travel support, was prepared and submitted. Much as IWHC-2015-Tokyo, the Prague meeting is also a biennial conference co-organized by a IUHST Commission, this time its Commission on the History of Women in Science, Technology, and Medicine. It is hoped that this lesson should also be absorbed by those “fat cats” (even if occasionally disguised as lean and mean) who may not need such a group grant for themselves, but may still want to remember that for others, such a group travel instrument may well be the only way to attend key international conferences such as IWHC-2015-Tokyo without having to depend on last moment miracles in another country.