Becoming Erwin Hiebert's student

Roger H Stuewer was a graduate student (in the first semester of his second year of study, 1963-64) studying for a Master's degree in physics at the University of Wisconsin when he became interested in the history of science through a course on the history of early modern science taught by Robert C Stauffer. He was advised by Stauffer to talk to Erwin Hiebert. The following description of his becoming Hiebert's student is taken from the paper: R H Stuewer, A Personal Appreciation. Erwin Nick Hiebert. The Wisconsin Years, in Mary Jo Nye, Joan L Richards and Roger H Stuewer (eds.), The Invention of Physical Science (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht-Boston-London, 1992), xi-xviii.

Meeting Hiebert

I set up an appointment with him toward the end of the semester. At that time I was unaware of Erwin's high stature in the profession, but I did know that graduate students in the history of science liked him a lot. My first impression of him, however, was not too encouraging. As he invited me to sit down in his office in the old departmental space at 820 Irving Place, he struck me as a harried, nervous person (he even smoked a pipe or occasional cigarette in those days) who seemed to have a million things on his mind and was not terribly interested in adding another graduate student to his responsibilities. That too struck me as somewhat odd, because those were the days when I thought that the life of a graduate student was the most stressful one possible, and that of a professor the epitome of serenity. On his part, Erwin probably saw me as a typically naive young physicist. For some reason, however, probably simply to test my meddle, he suggested that I join his seminar on Mach the following semester, and I took the plunge.

Hiebert's Mach seminar

That seminar had already begun in the fall semester. On the bibliography that Erwin prepared for it was the announcement: "The first seminar meeting will be held 8 p.m. 10 October, at 636 N Frances Street." A serious seminar held in the evening in the professor's home? And, as I soon learned, with the students being served refreshments by wife Elfrieda and being greeted by children Cathy, Margaret, and Tom, and dog Peter. Never before had I experienced anything similar. Moreover, the bibliography for the seminar seemed patently ridiculous to a graduate student in physics who knew that a course requires one and only one textbook. Yet here was a list of five translated works by Mach plus ones by Meyerson, Duhem, and Stallo for every student to buy and read. Furthermore, there followed the instruction: "Each participant in the seminar should choose as soon as possible one of the volumes on Mach's work and thought listed below. Begin analysis of the work for later report." Five of the six volumes were in German, the other one in French. The bibliography concluded by listing "Four other works of similar scope but not in the UW Libraries" - all of which were in German. That was not the end. By the time I joined the seminar in the second semester, Erwin had expanded the works to be discussed to include Alexander's Sensationalism and Scientific Explanation, Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, as well as excerpts from Hertz, Peirce, Planck, Einstein, Frank, Cassirer, Poincare, Campbell, and Enriques. The students then included Carolyn Merchant lItis, Arthur Donovan, Robert McRae, Thomas Hawkins, and Edward Daub. Each of us had to type our reports on ditto masters, run off multiple copies in the departmental office for distribution to everyone else, and lead the discussion. It dawned on me that semester that not only physics graduate students had to learn how to swim to survive. Erwin's seminar was an entirely new intellectual experience for me, and during the next academic year 1964-65 I became more and more convinced that my true research interests lay in the history of physics rather than in physics itself.

Last Updated April 2015