I was born in the late 1960s and grew up in rural Pennsylvania. To help balance things, my schoolteacher parents gave me things like a microscope, chemistry sets, and an encyclopedia. When I saw movies like Poltergeist or ET, they seemed odd as West Coast suburban living looked really different from my own experiences. I find this ironic as I now live a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in a tract-style house built c. Sputnik. I didn’t fly in an airplane until I was 19. But I visited the National Air and Space Museum as a kid and loved it. Jump ahead three decades and I’ll be spending 2015-16 there as the holder of the Lindbergh Chair.
As an undergraduate, I studied an interdisciplinary field known as “materials science and engineering” (it used to be called metallurgy). I figured I would learn lots of basic math, physics, and chemistry and get a foundation for other areas of science and technology. Although it worked out very differently, my schooling gave me some insights into how research communities function which has proven useful when interviewing scientists and technologists.
My Ph.D. research (University of Arizona, 1996) on the history of glass making in Renaissance Venice let me combine my interest in science and technology with the humanities. It also taught me to pick research topics that take you to interesting places. But I was becoming more interested in contemporary science and technology. A postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation allowed me to transition to the history of recent science and technology. I spent three years as an ‘Associate Historian’ at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. This was a great place to work although sometimes mail sent to me came addressed to the Center for History of Psychics. It reminds me that, as in historical research, details matter.
Details about the books I’ve written recently are described here. Each was extraordinarily fun to write and each posed challenges in terms of gathering evidence and creating narrative. And, at some point in writing every one of them, I promised myself and anyone who would listen that if I could finish it, I would never write another. I haven’t kept the promise. The research for all of my books has taken me to some great places: from museums in Venice to observatories in Chile and Hawaii to rifling through boxes of correspondence in Silicon Valley. I sometimes joke with my students that one of the great things about being a historian is that you get to read (legally) other people’s mail.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have many opportunities offered to me. I recently spent time as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The American Association for the Advancement of Science elected me as a Fellow and so did the American Physical Society. Since there aren’t many humanists, relatively speaking, as AAAS or APS Fellows, this was pretty cool. If you want more details about my professional career, check out my c.v..
I don’t know what my next book project will be but I have some ideas. I am hoping that some of the things I write for my Leaping Robot Blog will help lead me to it. Thanks for taking the time to read so much about me. If you’re into social media, I’m on Twitter (@LeapingRobot). If you’re interested in hosting me as a speaker, feel free to contact me.