Research

 

Current research:

Ever since the days of J.C. Kapteyn in the late nineteenth century, Dutch astronomers have been considered world-class. Kapteyn, De Sitter, Pannekoek, Minnaert and Oort are amongst the great names of modern astronomy, just as the Westerbork radio telescope and the recently commissioned LOFAR telescope complex. Dutch astronomers have also played a prominent role in international astronomical organizations such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

It is not obvious why this is the case. The geographical circumstances in the Netherlands are highly unfavorable for astronomy (cloudy climate, no mountains). The research project 'Dutch Astronomy from Kapteyn to LOFAR' tries to answert the question how Dutch astronomy became so successful.

Of course, the presence of talented scientists is important, but part of the answer probably lies in the way the astronomical community is organized, the institutional infrastructures and the pedagogical culture (the education of new generations of astronomers). For example, astronomy is often described as 'the oldest science', but specialized university programs only appeared in the twentieth century. Dutch universities were leading in this respect, which made Dutch astronomy students much sought after internationally.

Astronomy is a science with high cultural visibility. Popular and political support for astronomy in the twentieth century was solid and sustained. A closer look at the relations between astronomy, culture and politics reveals that they are much more complex than they appear at first glance, however. Why, for example, did the Dutch government spend so much money on such a 'useless' science during the difficult years of recovery after the Second World War?

Throughout the twentieth century, the development of astronomy has been influenced by science, education and industrial policy, national prestige, international politics, and national security (think for example of space research during the Cold War). In this project, I will try to unravel these influences and assess their importance.

This research project is jointly funded by the NWO divisions for Humanities and Physical Sciences.

Previous research:

I am interested in the history of modern science in its social, cultural and political context.

In my dissertation Synthetisch Denken (Utrecht University, 2008), I analyzed debates about the role of science and technology in modern society in the early twentieth-century Netherlands. The spectacular development of science and technology led to debates about its social and cultural consequences. Didn't it go to fast? Was 'cold', disinterested science a threat to other cultural values? Or could science provide a solution to the problems of modern society? These questions are still relevant today; a century ago they were at the core of intellectual debates.

Many Dutch scientists struggled with these issues. They searched for a new balance, both in their research as in education. Their quest led them to new visions about the role of experts and intellectuals in society. I have analyzed the debates about these issues from the turn of the century into the inter-war years, especially focussing on the contributions of scientists and engineers. One of the recurrent themes was the quest for an all-encompassing 'synthesis'.

My other main research subject is the history of modern astronomy. As a postdoc in Leiden, I have looked at the history of astronomy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially the development of the astronomical community and the training of new generations of astronomers. Besides, I catalogued the Leiden Observatory Archives. As Guggenheim Fellow at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, I investigated American-Dutch cooperation in space research during the Cold War.

I have studied history in Groningen. After graduating, I wrote a small book about the history of the faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Groningen. I have spent several months at the University of Aarhus (Denmark) and Imperial College, London.

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