Robert Fox: “Mapping the Universe of Knowledge: Internationalism and National Interest in Modern Science”

Robert Fox

Robert Fox

On November 14, 2013, Robert Fox presented “Mapping the Universe of Knowledge: Internationalism and National Interest in Modern Science.”

The concept of “information overload” is nothing new. It began as the printing press inexorably increased publication, and by the later 19th century the feeling of “overload” had become intolerable for many. In response Paul Otlet (1868−1944) established the International Bibliographical Institute in Brussels in 1895. Otlet’s database incorporated an elaborate system of call numbers and record cards—more than 15 million by the time the project folded in 1934.

In this talk Robert Fox set Otlet’s initiative in the context of the universalist and humanitarian ideals prevalent in the 40 years before World War I. Pacifism, anticolonialism, feminism, and socialism were accompanied by an explosion in efforts to internationalize science through agreements on such aspects as physical standards and units and nomenclature (notably in chemistry). But the war undermined such ideals, and science in the interwar years increasingly served national interests. Universalism, though, has reasserted itself through the Google Books Library Project, which Fox sees as a latter-day manifestation of the ideals that inspired Otlet, even though the controversy surrounding the project reminds us of the obstacles universalism still encounters.

About the Speaker

Robert Fox is an emeritus professor of the history of science at the University of Oxford, where he held the chair of the history of science from 1988 to 2006. He is also an emeritus fellow of Linacre College and an honorary fellow of Oriel College. Since his retirement from the chair he has held visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins University, East Carolina University, and the Czech National Technical University. He currently edits Notes and Records of the Royal Society. His main research interests are in the history of the physical sciences and technology in Europe since the 18th century, with special reference to France. Among his recent publications are The Savant and the State: Science and Cultural Politics in Nineteenth-Century France and an edited volume of essays arising from the annual Thomas Harriot lectures at Oriel College: Thomas Harriot and His World: Mathematics, Exploration, and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England. His latest book, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics, which he edited with Jed Z. Buchwald, will be published this month.

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