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Opening New Windows on the Cosmos: Astronomy and Astrophysics in the History of the Max Planck Society

September 06, 2016


06.- 08.09.2016    
Internationaler Workshop zur Geschichte der Astronomie und Astrophysik in der MPG: "Opening New Windows on the Cosmos: Astrophysics and Astronomy in the History of the Max Planck Society" (MPIWG, Berlin)


Luisa Bonolis, Roberto Lalli, Juan-Andres Leon, Jürgen Renn, Florian Schmaltz, Thomas Steinhauser

Content, concept, and goals

In the post-World War II period, the physics landscape dramatically changed. The rapid growth of the physics population as well as the related pace of specialization and information overload deeply affected the relationship between physicists and their fields of research at various levels, both conceptually and sociologically. One of the more striking phenomena occurring in the aftermath of World War II was the sudden expansion and evolution of a set of mutually related fields: cosmic ray research, multiwavelength astronomy, physical cosmology, extra-terrestrial and solar system physics, high-energy astrophysics, and general relativity as a physical theory, fuelling the development of relativistic astrophysics. These developments took place on the background of new technological advances sparked and pushed by WWII and the Cold War in parallel with the development of high speed computers and within the new scientific dimension inaugurated by the advent of the space era. All this resulted in a close relationship between the several observational techniques and instruments typical of astronomy and astrophysics, which established connections to virtually every subfield of physics. These radical changes had deep impact on, and were reflected in, changing organizational structures for pursuing scientific research.

The historical study of the dynamics of the progressive development in astrophysical and astronomical research projects related to the institutional framework of the Max Planck Society is particularly suited to explore in detail the connection between global transformation and local factors in the shaping of scientific activities. With its foundation, the Max Planck Society (MPG) took over institutes and research traditions from its predecessor, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which reflected the developments from the German Empire to the Nazi dictatorship. Gradually the MPG adapted itself as a pillar of the research topography of the young Federal Republic of Germany and began to modify its agenda setting up new arenas of operation. Astrophysics was one of the most significant of these early new research fields, regarding institutional changes, personnel, equipment, and publicity. The onset of the space age, that deeply reoriented the research policy of the MPG, contributed to create the premise for a more general reorganization of the fields of astrophysics and astronomy resulting in the creation of novel dedicated institutes.
Moreover, the MPG continued and intensified this commitment throughout the years until now, enabling its scientists to participate fully in the dramatic development of the field, up to the present branching out into all fields of modern astrophysics, astronomy and physical cosmology. Such an observation raises questions about the co-development of astrophysics and the MPG as an important part of the national and international research system. Obviously, due to the political, military, and economic integration in the Western Bloc of the Cold War the postwar limitations of astrophysical research in the FRG transformed into new opportunities and chances. But there was also the context of the international development of the astrophysical scientific community and new technological advances. And, of course, national and regional research politics as well as personal activities and decisions inside of the MPG also had an influence on the activities of the astrophysical research groups. In the present workshop we bring historians of science and physicists in dialogue in order to explore the relationship between scientific and institutional developments, with the aim to specify the ways in which the specific interplay of the three levels (the international scientific developments, the peculiar political situation of post-War West Germany, the personal decisions of leading actors) affected the performance of the astrophysical research inside of the MPG and its international impact.

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