Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2)

When we thought about the possibility of creating an academic blog more than one year ago, we immediately thought of what is for us one of the best references on the subject: Ether Wave Propaganda (EWP), a history of science blog created by Will Thomas in 2008 co-animated since then with his colleague Christopher Donohue. Their posts deals with various subjects on the history of science and technology; they are always informative and well-argued, frequently caustic and constantly uncompromising. The reading of EWP has been a breath of fresh air for us, and we tried to replicate what we understood from this side of the Atlantic as a productive and ambitious “thought-collective”. We too wrote our Zilselian “manifesto “ (a contre-manifeste!) and we strive to implement it in all our posts. And that is why we decided to conduct an interview with our colleagues of EWP, focusing on a series of issues that we all confront in our research, as we shall see in the next paragraphs. We wished to identify Will and Christopher’s motivations; we also wanted to understand the history of their project since the very beginning, and finally their positioning within the field of Science and Technology Studies in the U.S. The following questions were prepared by the entire team of the Carnet Zilsel (Thomas Béraud, Volny Fages, Morgan Jouvenet, Jérôme Lamy, and Arnaud Saint-Martin). We’ve left the responses in English in order to preserve the freshness of the words and their possible double meanings (!). We are quite excited that it has been possible to create such a transatlantic conversation. The interview is divided in two parts. The second part will be published next week.

First of all, could you explain to us the genesis of EWP? In which intellectual and professional context did you create the blog? What were the initial motivations and the problems you wanted to cover? You have already written this story (cf. here and there), but it would be interesting to go back on it because maybe your perception evolved since then…

Will Thomas (WT): I finished my PhD at Harvard University in June 2007 and took up a three-year postdoc at the American Institute of Physics in September. At that time I had become frustrated by the tendency of the historical literature, which others (I later learned) had also noticed and described as “fractured.” There simply wasn’t much engagement or coherence among historians’ books and papers, among their projects and interests, except maybe at a very broad, thematic level, although I think even that is more feigned than real. I had also found much of the prior professional literature on my dissertation (now my book) topic misleading. That created space for me to make (I think) some strong contributions, but it was also, in some ways, disillusioning to discover that I couldn’t trust the professional literature.

 Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)
Ether pur, Tubes Sterilises Clin, Musée Somme 1916 (copyright: Great War Observer, 2013, via Flickr)

The AIP postdoc also traditionally did some teaching at the University of Maryland, so I took the opportunity to do an introductory history of science class in the spring of 2008. I had a really difficult time finding any straightforward, synthetic literature to guide my studies of periods and subjects I hadn’t previously concentrated much on. That, too, seemed to me symptomatic of larger methodological issues that I didn’t think were being addressed. Chris Donohue, then a master’s student, was assigned to be my teaching assistant for that course, and he can talk more about that experience and how he got involved with EWP.

Anyway, it seemed to me that, while there was some methodological discussion in the literature, there was no way of having sustained, probing methodological discussions. With most people, you really didn’t even know if they had noticed the things I was noticing, or if they had opinions about them. I had become aware of blogging, and it seemed like a good way to have sustained, informal, heuristic conversations. I started EWP on New Year’s Day 2008. There were a couple of history of science blogs already, but the phenomenon really only took off a couple years later. Even now, I think EWP remains in a distinct minority as far as its heuristic and methodological orientation is concerned.

It is encouraging that Michael Bycroft’s Double Réfraction and Carnet Zilsel have picked up on this general style. I don’t think Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data follows EWP in quite the same way. Alex was a colleague of mine at Harvard, and was my successor in the AIP postdoc position. I admire what he is doing with his blog. It is in the same spirit of learning, and probing the boundaries of what we know. A lot of blogs simply replicate the same non-heuristic “show-and-tell” spirit of scholarship that EWP was reacting against. Popularization is a legitimate use for blogs, but it’s not the peculiar potential that I saw in the medium.

Christopher Donohue (CD): I was Will’s teaching assistant at the University of Maryland in his history of science class, in, I believe, 2005. Although now we agree broadly on the connections between history and philosophy of science and the problems in the academic community, when Etherwave Propaganda began, there was no such consensus or even clarity of approach. Will brought me on to Etherwave when I was his research assistant at the American Institute of Physics, but the conversations which began that started much earlier. Continuer la lecture de Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2)