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Foundations for a history of physics in Spain

Leading researcher: Xavier Roqué
Funding entity: Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación
Duration: 2005 - 2008

Members of the group


Néstor Herran
Assistant lecturer of history of science. CEHIC, UAB

Jordi Sequero
Archivist. Servei d’Arxius de Ciència (Science Archives Service)

Xavier Mañes
Full time PhD student. CEHIC, UAB

Carlos Gámez
Part time PhD student. CEHIC, UAB

Alfonso Carpio
Part time PhD student. CEHIC, UAB

Miquel Terreu
Part time PhD student. CEHIC, UAB

Foundations for a history of physics in Spain is a project aimed at reconstructing the history of this discipline in twentieth century Spain, through the elaboration of case studies, on the one hand, and the identification of available sources, both secondary bibliographies and archives, on the other. The group is led by Xavier Roqué, director of the Centre for the History of Science (CEHIC) at the UAB, and is made up of an associate lecturer in the history of science, the archivist responsible for the Servei d’Arxius de Ciència (Science Archives Service) and four students that are currently writing their PhD dissertations on the subject.

Given the political vicissitudes of twentieth century Spain, the history of Spanish physics has many particularities. In the absence of a uniting figure such as Severo Ochoa in molecular biology, and conversely to other countries, physics was not the leading science during this period. The Civil War that devastated Spain between 1936 and 1939, and above all, the totalitarian regime that followed for 40 years, pose new problems to historical enquiry, such as the continuity of a research culture in the aftermath of the war, or the effects of economic autarchy and isolation on the development of local science.

Given the relative scarcity of historical research into Spanish physics, which is in turn the consequence of the institutionalization of the history of science in Spain around historians of medicine, the general aim of the project was to understand in the broadest sense how physics was constructed in a peripheral country such as Spain. Among its objectives are a clarification of physics’ meaning in this context, and an examination of the way in which physicists entered broader networks of economic, political and industrial interests in the Spanish society of that time.

In accordance with these goals, the first thing the members of the project did was build a database -Historia de la Física en España-, which gathers together all of existing research of the subject that was located by the participants in the project. By October 2008, the database contained 331 entries corresponding to papers, books, chapters, PhD dissertations and any other document considered relevant for an understanding of twentieth century Spanish physics. The systematization and study of the available secondary bibliography –which will continue until the end of the project- allowed the team to outline the state of the art: despite the secondary position occupied by the history of physics in Spain, there have been important studies, mainly related to institutional histories, biographies, bibliometric analysis, studies of the reception and audiences of scientific theories and scientific instruments.

Within this same line of documentary research, throughout the years of the project, the Servei d’Arxius de Ciència (Science Service Archives) was consolidated under the coordination of the CEHIC and funding from the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, the UAB and the Catalan government. The service locates and sometimes catalogues relevant scientists and institutions’ archives. It also runs campaigns to make the scientific community more aware of the importance of preserving their documents, photographs and research instruments.

Making a bibliographic database, and thus finding out about what had been done before, led to the identification of some important gaps in historical research into Spanish physics, which in turn suggested new approaches and potentially interesting case studies, some of which members of the project have already worked on. In fact, the second axis of the project Basis for a history of physics in Spain is the undertaking of specific case studies on the history of twentieth century Spanish physics following the tradition of the Centre for the History of Science at the UAB, which from its very foundation has been especially focused on the history of this discipline.

Members of the group have researched the history of the Grupo Interuniversitario de Física Teórica (Inter-University group of theoretical physics, GIFT) during the sixties and seventies, the training of Catalan physicists in France during the Franco period, the Instituto de Radiactividad (Radioactivity Institute) at the University of Madrid, and the introduction to Spain of crystallography and X ray diffraction before and after the Civil War. All these studies share their interest in such alternative sources as oral history, which occupies a leading position on this project’s research agenda. Other common features are questions posed, such as scientific education, reasons for engaging in a scientific career, informal networks as a result of the inefficiency of scientific authorities, and relationships between physics and other disciplines and industry. The construction of physics within the Spanish university system and the assimilation, adoption or appropriation of scientific practices have been also leading subjects in the project.

The project’s achievements

- Bibliography on the History of physics in Spain
By October, 2008, there were 331 entries referring to corresponding documents, books, chapters or papers related to the history of Spanish physics. The database offers an overview of who has worked on the subject, in which areas and with which approach. It is constantly being updated and is freely available on the internet.

- Servei d’Arxius de Ciència (Science Archives Service, SAC)
Jointly funded by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, the UAB and the Catalan government, the SAC promotes the conservation of scientific and technical heritage in Catalan speaking territories. It locates and sometimes catalogues and studies existing collections. It also seeks to increase awareness of the importance of conserving the historical heritage of scientists and scientific institutions.

- Carpio Rovira, Alfonso. Ciència i Política Exterior Francesa a l'Espanya De Franco: El Cas Dels Físics Catalans. Treball de recerca, CEHIC, 2005.
This research examines the scientific contacts between Spain and France through a group of physicists trained at the Universitat de Barcelona during the fifties and sixties, and who later migrated to France. It is focused in the importance of international relations in science and the restrictions to which Spanish physicists were subjected in the twentieth century.

- Gámez Pérez, Carlos. El Grupo Interuniversitario De Física Teórica (GIFT). Génesis y Desarrollo Histórico, 1968-1976. Treball de recerca, CEHIC, 2004.
The GIFT is a paradoxical case that shows how abandoning a European research institution such as the CERN led to a greater international recognition of Spanish high energy physics. At the same time, it is an example of how Spanish scientists established international contacts that eventually put this branch of physics in a leading position within an expanding university system.

- Herran, Néstor. Aguas, semillas y radiaciones. El Laboratorio de Radiactividad de la Universidad de Madrid, 1904-1929. Madrid: CSIC, 2008.
This book presents the history of radioactive studies in Spain in the early twentieth century, particularly at the Radioactive Institute at the University of Madrid. The approach aims to establish political, cultural and scientific meanings of this branch of physics through the use of a wide variety of historical sources.

- Herran, Néstor. Radioactividad En España. Ascenso y Declive Del Instituto De Radiactividad, 1904-1929. Tesis doctoral. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 2006.

- Mañes Beltran, Xavier. Determinación De Estructuras Cristalinas en España: Inicios, Desarrollo y Consolidación (1912-1955). Treball de recerca, CEHIC, 2005.
This is a study of the introduction of crystallography and X ray diffraction techniques in a comparable period of time (1912–1955) to the situation before and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).  The work deals with international relations involving Spanish scientists, the effects of centralism during the Franco regime and the limitations of disciplinary approaches, among other aspects.

-Terreu Gascón, Miquel. El CSIC durant l’autarquia. El procés d’adquisició del primer microscopi electrònic. Treball de recerca del Máster en Historia de la Ciencia, Ciencia, historia i sociedad (UAB-UB), 2008.