A Historian of Science Off the Beaten Path

by Henry Small

Editor’s note: In this article, we hear from a historian of science whose career was decidedly unconventional for a PhD in our discipline. He tells of his choices and career trajectory, and offers some pithy advice for graduate students and young scholars on the job market.

I have an odd feeling writing about my history of science background having more or less left the field some fifty years ago. But, despite my unorthodox career trajectory—mostly in the information industry—I somehow feel I am still doing “history of science,” albeit in my own way.

Henry Small (left) with friends in Vienna at the 2013 annual meeting of International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI)
The author (left) with friends in Vienna at the 2013 annual meeting of International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI)

My story begins as a grad student in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1963 where I was a PhD candidate in computational chemistry and taught chemistry as a TA. My introduction to the history of science came from taking a course from Aaron Ihde whose book, The Development of Modern Chemistry, I still have on my shelf. The whole idea of studying the history of science was jolt to the mindset of someone working at the “cutting edge” of a field without knowing anything about its history, but I found it fascinating to study how chemical concepts originated. I recall telling my major professor that I wanted to understand where quantum mechanics came from, and why classical mechanics was insufficient. This led to my work at Wisconsin’s history of science department under Erwin Hiebert. I recall naïvely asking my history of science professors why we couldn’t just use the scientific literature to reconstruct the history of a field? Of course, their reply was that we had to consider a much wider range of sources, but perhaps the die was cast. My thesis was on the history of the old quantum theory, and I received a joint PhD in chemistry and the history of science.

My first job at the American Institute of Physics Center for the History of Physics (CHP), then in New York City, could not have been more fortuitous. First and foremost, it was there that I met my wife of 50 years. On the professional side, CHP had an NSF-funded project to collect sources for the history of nuclear physics. I got to meet many historians, philosophers and sociologists of science who visited the Center and the affiliated Niels Bohr Library, among them, Tom Kuhn, Gerald Holton, Paul Forman, Robert Merton, Harriet Zuckerman, Ernan McMullin, Imre Lakatos, Derek Price to name but some.

Part of my job at the CHP, under the historian Chuck Weiner, was to “map out” what nuclear physics consisted of in the 1920s and ‘30s, an assignment which I took literally, spending weeks coding data from physics articles and literature indexes and then statistically manipulating the data to create a map of nuclear physics which could evolve over time as a series of cross sectional snapshots. In this work I was influenced by “information scientists” in particular, Art Herschman and Sam Schiminovich, who worked across the street in AIP’s information division. I didn’t know what information science was, but I could see how my work was similar to but also a new departure from what they were doing.

I excitedly wrote up my findings on “mapping” the physics literature, and submitted a paper to Isis, but was disappointed to receive a rejection notice several months later. By this point I knew that my ideas on mapping science were outside the mainstream of what was considered proper history of science. I could have continued to plug away in the field, but it made more sense for me to switch to a field where I knew my ideas would be better received. Thus, I decided to find a position at an organization that systematically collected the kind of data on science I was interested in where I could continue my experimentation. After contacting almost all the abstracting and indexing services, I found the ideal employer, the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in Philadelphia. Not only was its founder/creator Eugene Garfield interested in history of science, but he also knew many of the historians and sociologists I had met at CHP.

I quickly adapted my new techniques to Science Citation Index data and submitted my first paper to the journal of the American Society for Information Science in 1973. This paper on “co-citation” eventually became a “citation classic” and subsequent research at ISI led to my receiving several major awards in information science and the new field of scientometrics. I was pleased to receive a note from Erwin Hiebert that one of my papers was, as he put it, “pregnant with possibilities.” He had been one of the referees responsible for rejecting my earlier paper. I had also proposed that clusters of co-cited papers could be interpreted as “paradigms,” but Kuhn did not like this idea. Nevertheless, some of his later writings point to an information theoretic interpretation of paradigms and revolutions in science.

Knowing of my dissertation, Paul Forman tried to talk me into writing up how the failure of the old quantum theory contributed to the development of the new quantum mechanics, but by that time I had more pressing matters to deal with in information science. The closest I got to history of science in the following years was to create a citation index for the physics literature covering the early twentieth century.

I recall attending HSS meetings in the early years to present some of my ideas. In my very first presentation of work-in-progress at a HSS meeting in 1970, I offered an interpretation of the old quantum theory history in terms of the increasing loss of confidence and growing uncertainty about the assumptions of the theory. Recently I returned to this theme of perceived “certainty” in the context of theories of confirmation in science.

Nowadays, one can more easily study such questions using electronic, full-text databases and the techniques of computational linguistics. I also was a founding member of 4S in the 1970s, for a while editing their Newsletter, but the field was irrevocably split between the social constructivists and the “citationologists” like me. So, some of us went our separate way and founded the ISSI. In 2003 I was pleased to be elected president of that group who are to this day going strong, with biennial meetings and a new journal.

Reflecting on my almost 60-year career in chemistry, history of science, information science and scientometrics, I realize that not everyone may want to pursue such a perilous career path. I had the good fortune of finding the right positions at the right time, but my career could have easily crashed and burned. Working in the corporate world also presented unique challenges. Nevertheless, my message for grad students who may not be interested in finding a traditional academic position, if you strongly believe in the correctness of your course, then you must follow it wherever it leads. Good luck.

Henry Small is the Chief Scientific Officer at SciTech Strategies, Inc.

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