Kathryn Olesko retraces history with a modern lens

As science historian, Kathryn Olesko learned how to read pre-20th century German script — a style of cursive handwriting that uses differently shaped letters. (Photo: Carrie Madren)

Last year, when she discovered original 1960s fallout shelter signs on eBay, AAAS member Kathy Olesko, 61, didn't hesitate to snatch up as many of the artifacts as she could. For a science historian interested in the Atomic Age, finding remnants such as authentic signs, Civil Defense booklets, and radiation dosimeters was like uncovering gold.

Now, one of those black-and-yellow signs — an ominous reminder of past threats — perches on her bookcase at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches history of science, modern European intellectual history, and World History with an emphasis on exploration (where students study events from the Out of Africa hypothesis to Christopher Columbus's voyages, all through the modern lenses of archeology, environmental pressures, genetics, and more).

Another popular class, on the culture of the Atomic Age, focuses on the popular and ethical cultures that emerged during that era, and features an anticipated movie week with films ranging from a documentary about atomic testing on the Marshall Islands to "Godzilla.\  Her husband, Wayne Davis, is also a professor at Georgetown University (he teaches philosophy of science). The scholarly couple lives on a wooded acre in northern Virginia where they've planted a thousand azaleas that bloom March through July.

Among her areas of expertise is the myth of precision in measurement (for property tax mapping, military surveys, and weights and measures) in Prussia — long lauded for its meticulous accuracy — from 1648 to 1947. "Most people believe that precision and Prussia go together like hand and glove," she says, but in scientific and mathematical reality, short cuts spelled military disaster when late 19th and early 20th century German military maps — based largely on Prussia's — did not match with the more precise maps of other nations. Other research includes studying hydraulic engineering in the 18th century Prussian frontier and penning a book that explores scientific measuring practices from Galileo to NIST.

For her research, Olesko scours archives from the Library of Congress to collections in Germany, Poland, and Russia. Reading archived European manuscripts required her to learn pre-20th century German script — a style of cursive handwriting that uses differently shaped letters. "It takes about a year to become proficient in reading German script," says Olesko, who's fluent in reading the old German handwriting and no longer recognizes the difference between German and Latin script (which we use when we write longhand today).

She began visiting East German archives in 1977 and continued through the Cold War. "Traveling to communist countries in those days was exceedingly difficult," remembers Olesko, who says that her passport would be confiscated for days and agents followed her. "I'm sure the Stasi had a record on me."

She still takes annual research trips, which became easier after the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain fell, as she could then access archives in Poland and parts of Russia. Olesko uncovered a unique cache of documents in German archives: letters from students to professors about their experiences in becoming physicists in the 19th century.

Her fascination with history began in college at Cornell University: Olesko started out a physics and mathematics major but a History of Science class with William Provine during her sophomore year changed everything. "I was sold from day one," she says.

In addition, history was playing out all around her at Cornell: During her undergrad years in the early 1970s, Cornell was in turmoil because of the Vietnam War — brought close to home by the 1969 armed student takeover of the Cornell student union. Olesko served on a committee charged with helping bring stability back to the university; that committee was led by nuclear physicist Hans Bethe, who had just won the Nobel Prize and had headed the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

Bethe once lectured her undergraduate quantum mechanics class on the Golden Age of Physics — a day that Olesko remembers with wonder. Olesko remembers sitting in awe as he spoke to the class; she later completed her senior thesis on Bethe, interviewing him about his days as a student under Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich and as a young physicist working on energy production in stars.

That fascination with the history of science grew as she learned from other professors at Cornell who studied science history — such as Henry Guerlac, the great Newton scholar — or who had been a part of the Manhattan Project, like her adviser Lyman Parrott. "There was an intellectual excitement that was amplified by the presence of individuals who had been principal actors in that movement," she says.

Throughout her career, much of her research has surrounded the history of science education — the study of individuals and their transformations. "I opened up the way to look at the interaction between teacher and pupil ... how science becomes a calling, something that is imbedded in one's deeper being and motivates one to continue to study the natural world," says Olesko, who enjoys Nordic walking around her neighborhood — and while on research trips to Europe — in preparation for cross-country skiing season.

"We live in a world where mainstream historians tend to shun the inclusion of science and technology in history, yet we live in a science and technology culture," she continues. "It's important to study the history of science not just to understand our own culture (and the role of science and technology in it), but also to expand our toolbox as historians."

Related Links:

  • Explore the history of science by reading AAASMC's blog Scientia