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Lillian Hoddeson named to History of Science Chair at Illinois

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 8/6/2007

Lillian Hoddeson
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Lillian Hoddeson has been named the first Thomas Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois. Hoddeson has been a professor of history at Illinois since 1989.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lillian Hoddeson has been named the first Thomas Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois.

Hoddeson, a professor of history at Illinois since 1989, as well as a research physicist, an affiliate of the Beckman Institute, and a Campus Honors Program professor, holds a doctorate in physics. She has had “a long and distinguished career as a historian of science with commitments to rigorous academic research and to the translation of that work into more popular forms and forums,” said Antoinette Burton, the chair of the history department.

“Lillian is internationally known and well respected not only among historians of science but also among physicists, a rare accomplishment in the field,” Burton said. “Her global reputation has been linked to historicizing the production of scientific knowledge at Illinois and in the state more generally.”

Burton said that as co-author and editor of no fewer than seven books and more than 50 articles in refereed journals and collections in the history of science or technology, Hoddeson is “one of the premier historians of modern physics in the world. The department of history is honored to announce her appointment and is grateful to Thomas Siebel for his generosity in endowing the chair,” Burton said.

Siebel, who earned four degrees at Illinois, made the new chair possible with a $2 million endowment. Hoddeson was chosen by a committee of her peers.

Siebel, the founder and former chairman of Siebel Systems Inc., has made several large gifts to the university over the past decade, including the 225,000-square-foot Siebel Center for Computer Science, a laboratory where physical and digital infrastructures are coupled with humans to create an integrated ecosystem.

Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Urbana campus, described Siebel as “among our most truly accomplished alumni.”

Hoddeson specializes in the history of 20th-century science and technology, including modern physics, electronics, atomic weapons, “big science,” and oral history. Her current research interests also include memory and the nature of scientific creativity, studies that draw on her training in physics, her years of research in the history of science and her research in the 1960s on how children learn science.

Hoddeson is working on three book projects: a biographical study of Stanford Ovshisky, an inventor of alternative energy technologies; a monograph on oral history and human memory; and a study of the discontinued Superconducting SuperCollider project. A history of “megascience” at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is currently in press.

Her most recently published books are a history of the transistor, “Crystal Fire: the Birth of the Information Age,” with Michael Riordan; a biography of John Bardeen, “True Genius: the Life and Science of John Bardeen,” with Vicki Daitch; and the edited collection “No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes.”

In 1999 “Crystal Fire” won the first Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology for the best book on technology in the previous two years aimed at popular and academic audiences. “True Genius” was recognized as one of the best intellectual reads of 2002 by the Times Higher Education Supplement and was the Silver Winner 2002 for Biography in ForeWard Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards.

Hoddeson also is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Center for Advanced Study at Illinois, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2000. She is a 2001 U. of I. Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Faculty Fellow in a Second Discipline, cognitive psychology, and a 2000-2001 U. of I. LAS Alumni Scholar.

Three major themes run through Hoddeson’s research: solid-state physics, “big science,” and, more recently, memory and creativity. Between 1975 and 1980, she explored the roots of industrial research and solid-state physics at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where the first transistor was developed.

In 1980, as research director of the American section of the International Project on the History of Solid-State Physics, she organized the writing of the major history volume, “Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters From the History of Solid-State Physics,” which she co-edited with Ernest Braun, Jürgen Teichmann and Spencer Weart.

She then embarked on the two overlapping projects that resulted in “Crystal Fire” and “True Genius.”

In the course of studying the history of the atomic bomb, Hoddeson helped found the Los Alamos archives and history program and co-write the first technical history of building the A-bomb based on the full complement of classified as well as unclassified documents. That history is titled “Critical Assembly: a History of Los Alamos During the Oppenheimer Years, 1943-1945.”

Hoddeson also established a national archives and history program focused on particle accelerators and particle physics at Fermilab.

With Laurie Brown and others she organized three international symposia on the history of particle physics, which resulted in three edited volumes, “The Birth of Particle Physics,” “Pions to Quarks,” and “The Rise of the Standard Model.”

Hoddeson’s extensive use of oral history interviews as a research tool and her regular graduate seminar on the same subject “have brought her deeply into questions of individual and collective memory,” Burton said. Hoddeson explored this interest in an interdisciplinary collaboration with other historians, as well as with writers, psychologists, engineers, and sociologists in a faculty seminar under the auspices of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and later, the Center for Advanced Study. She currently is working with Thomas Anastasio in the NeuroTech group at the Beckman Institute on an outgrowth of the memory project in a cross-disciplinary study of analogies between the memory processes of neural and social systems.