All you ever wanted to know about Swedish physics

Center on the Periphery
August 4, 1995

The history of 20th-century Swedish physics? Not, at first sight, a particularly promising subject. Indeed, editor-in-chief Svante Lindqvist admits as much in his introduction to this collection of essays. The very idea of a "Swedish physics" will strike many as strange. And few of us will have more than a passing acquaintance with 20th-century Swedish history. Yet Sweden has played an important part in the history of science, having produced several Nobel prizewinners - and, of course, the Nobel prize institution itself (the first prizes were awarded in 1901 and the ceremonies still take place annually in Stockholm).

So why has Swedish physics apparently had such a poor press? Not unlike their colleagues elsewhere, Swedish historians of science have tended to focus on periods when their own nation's science occupied (or seems to have occupied) centre stage. And Sweden's apparent position on the geographical - and, by extension, cultural and scientific - periphery of 20th-century Europe has to a large extent shaped the research agenda of Swedish science historians. As Sven Widmalm points out, for example, there is a time-honoured tradition of studying the introduction of scientific ideas or material technologies into Sweden from outside. "Historians", as he puts it, "have therefore found it convenient to study how Swedish science and culture have reacted to events in the leading countries of western civilisation".

But times are changing. Scholars like Tore Frangsmyr, professor of the history of science at Uppsala, have done much to make Swedish history of science accessible to scholars elsewhere. With this extended collection of essays, Lindqvist, professor of the history of technology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, follows in Frangsmyr's footsteps in promoting Swedish history of science abroad. The result of an interdisciplinary project financed jointly by the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSPR) and the Swedish Natural Science Research Council (NFR), the volume seeks to bring together as many Swedish-oriented scholars as possible, and to make research in and on Sweden accessible to a larger international audience. In that, it is eminently successful. No less than 17 Swedish scholars (including a number of newcomers) are joined by three Americans and a Dutchman in presenting a rich and varied sample of the perspectives, problems and approaches relevant to the historian of Swedish physics today.

In creating this space of possibilities, Lindqvist identifies four themes under which the various contributions are classified: cultural and social histories of science; the institutions and politics of Big Science; international networks of communication; and science as applied technology. Whether these categories are particularly useful or appropriate is arguable. Anticipating such an objection, however, Lindqvist is quick to point out that the volume is intended above all "to illustrate the connection that exists between the history of physics and the cultural and social history of 20th-century Sweden" - an important point, for historians of modern science are increasingly interested in integrating their work into other kinds of historical practice.

How, though, is such an integration to be achieved? By theorising Sweden's place in the cultural geography of science in terms of the "centre-periphery" model famously deployed by sociologist Edward Shils and others, the contributors to this volume seek to give Swedish scientific culture a much more active role in the scheme of things, and to explore not just the appropriations but also the transformations of developments from elsewhere and the importance of "indigenous" innovations. In so doing, they usefully extend the notion of a national physics community deployed in Daniel Kevles's pathbreaking 1977 book The Physicists, a comprehensive study of the emergence and development of the American physics community. Unlike many earlier analysts, for example, Lindqvist and his contributors are alert to the complex multiplicity of perspectives involved in the creation and maintenance of "centres" and "peripheries", shedding interesting light on Sweden's changing role in international scientific affairs and on the attitudes and orientations of Swedish physicists to their colleagues elsewhere.

Given such laudable aims, the essays themselves are, perhaps inevitably, rather mixed in character and quality. A lack of homogeneity is doubtless unavoidable in a book of this size and scope, but several of the essays are little more than historical vignettes, leaving the reader wanting both more substantive material and fuller interpretation. But there are also some gems. Among the highlights, Urban Wrakberg nicely links an organisational analysis of Arctic science with the realities of Scandinavian geopolitics to explain the decline of Swedish polar research in the early part of this century. Likewise, Sven Widmalm's mature essay on Sweden and CERN II is a careful case study of the politics of national scientific development in an international context. And Lindqvist's own exemplary study of the engagement of Swedish author Harry Martinson with atomic physics and the Bomb shows what might be achieved at the intersection of science studies and cultural history. A comprehensive bibliography of the history of Swedish physics and physicists is added for good measure, and makes the book a useful starting point for further research, as well as a review of current work.

Notwithstanding the high quality of many of the contributions, it is perhaps in terms of its methodological and historiographical contribution to the history of physics that the book succeeds best. Although the editors' catholic interpretation of "physics" (the contributions include essays on philosophy, chemistry, biology and, as we have seen, polar research) will be regarded (wrongly) by some as a failing, it instantiates the increasing trend towards multidisciplinarity in historical studies of science today. Moreover, the emphasis on the social and cultural history of physics draws attention towards a (still) relatively neglected dimension of the subject. It is easy to forget (and too often forgotten) that physics, often seen as the hardest of the "hard" sciences, has a social and cultural history too.

In a sense, then, what the contributions in this volume seek to do is to develop ways of writing about the history of physics that remind us of its essential character as a human activity. More generally, the book makes an important contribution to the understanding of science in its national and international context in the 20th century by bringing issues of spatiality to the fore in the social and cultural analysis of science. In so doing, it undoubtedly succeeds in its goal of placing the history of Swedish physics firmly back on the map.

Jeff Hughes is a lecturer in the history of science, University of Manchester.

Center on the Periphery: Historical Aspects of 20th-Century Swedish Physics

Editor - Svante Lindqvist
ISBN - 0 88135 157 1
Publisher - Science History Publications
Price - $50.00
Pages - 516

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments