A Journey Through Science History From Those Who Lived It

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One of the true pleasures of science reporting is listening to scientists describe algae, rocks or black holes with passion. They recollect the countless overnighters in the lab during graduate school. Some are brought to tears recalling when a problem they were investigating just made sense.

Unfortunately, by the time these interviews are translated into a news or magazine article, many of their personal stories are lost. Journalists often use 10 percent or less of the material they gather during research for a story, and so interesting and emotional details are lost forever in Word documents or mp3s.

Oral histories are the way to keep these stories alive and available to the public. They are valuable because they record individual memories at a particular place and time. (For a full discussion of their value, and a complete list of science-related projects, see “Oral History of American Science: A Forty Year Review” by Ronald E. Doel.)

In the 20th century, dozens of archival oral science history projects were started in the United States. Most, like the Laser History Project and the Cornell Cold Fusion Archive, focused on a specific niche. Unfortuantely, very few audio files from these projects have been digitized, but many transcripts are available online.

Here are three stories captured by oral history:

1. Apollo 8 - NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project

Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon in 1969, may be the Apollo everyone remembers, but Apollo 8, the first manned space voyage in 1968, was just as groundbreaking. “Apollo 8 was about leaving and Apollo 11 was about arriving,” says former astronaut Michael Collins, in the above audio documentary. “When you look back 100 years from now, which will be more important?”

2. Computer Etymology - Computer Oral History Collection

Long before the iMac, a computer was a person that made mathematical calculations. But By the 1930s, scientists were imagining and creating mechanical computers. According to the inventor the electronic digital computer , John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995), “from 1932 onward, we called those things computers—we just allowed the context to differentiate between whether the computer was a man or a machine."

3. Twin Study - Oral History of Human Genetics Project

Victor McKusick (1921-2008) is considered the father of clinical medical genetics, the use of genetics to diagnose and treat disease. He cites a stay in Massachusetts General Hospital with a strep infection as the beginning of his path towards medicine: “I would have ended up a lawyer if it weren't for the microaerophilic streptococcus,” McKusick said on tape. An environmental factor, he added, as law was the calling for his twin brother Vincent, who later became a Maine Supreme Court justice.

-- by Joseph Caputo

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