Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus Lecture

Robert Fox

Robert Fox

Date: November 14, 2013
Time: 6:00 p.m. lecture, 7:00 p.m. reception

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
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Join us for a free public lecture by Robert Fox, 2013–2014 Cain Distinguished Fellow in CHF’s Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry. Fox will present “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 sets 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.

More information

For more information contact Rebecca Ortenberg at or 215.873.8247.

About the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry

Now in its 26th year the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the History
of Chemistry
is home to CHF’s fellowship program and the heart of academic
programming within the organization. The Beckman Center has provided
funding for almost 200 fellows working on the history of science, technology,
medicine, and industry. Despite its relative youth the Beckman Center is now
the largest source of non–university based fellowships for historians of science
in the United States.

About the Fellow in Focus Lecture

The Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus Lecture series gives scholars an
opportunity to present their work to a broad audience interested in history,
science, and culture. CHF’s collections include the archives of the Rohm
and Haas Company, a specialty chemicals company headquartered in the
Philadelphia region from 1909 until 2009.

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