CHF’s Marketing Specialist Monica Fonorow recently spoke with Brigitte Van Tiggelen about her research, her work with CHF, and the importance of studying the history of science.
You’re a familiar face to this organization: You were a Beckman Center fellow in 2006 and in 2009. What keeps bringing you back?
What first brought me to CHF are the vast and important collections. CHF also provided an inspiring environment in which to work. As time went by, I discovered other facets of the organization, like its outreach and preservation of the past through active collecting of memories, papers, and objects related to the sciences and their development. And the spectrum of audiences, from historians to scientists to curious non-specialists, makes this place distinctive.
For the past year and a half you’ve been serving as CHF’s director of European operations and outreach while continuing to volunteer your time and talents as the director of Mémosciences. How do you foresee CHF’s operations in Europe developing?
Through my experience with Mémosciences, I have realized how easily non-historians—be it teachers or chemists curious about their past—can become engaged with this work once you give them a taste of good history of science. CHF already engages a plurality of audiences in a way that other foundations and institutions around the world do not. So we have a wonderful opportunity to grow internationally by serving both as a template and a catalyst in Europe.
You research—among other things—romantic couples working in the sciences. What drew you to that subject in particular?
Usually couples are assessed in individual terms. But while using papers gathered from one couple for my research into the discovery of elements 43 (technetium) and 75 (rhenium), I was struck by the existence of a working unit, with its own center of gravity and public face; a unit existing beyond the individuals that also didn’t dissolve the individual components. To some extent it’s like atoms in molecules.
Why is the history of science important?
At every moment in history both science and society are changing, along with the connection between them. To be a scientist is to live within a swirl of change; to be a human connected to society is equally challenging. A historical perspective is indispensable to make sense of it all. We historians take the records and evidence left by working scientists and their contemporaries—we describe what happened, how and why it happened, how it impacted the science and the society they lived in, and how it still impacts the world we live in today. Whatever occurs in the disciplines of chemistry or biology or physics in the future, historians will keep describing this exciting human adventure.