The Early History of Scientia

By
Ronny Wells
9 September 2008

Solomon Bochner died in May of 1982 after having served as a Lovett Professor of Mathematics for a number of years at Rice after his retirement from Princeton. He was the focal point for the creation of Scientia: An Institute for the history of science and culture. Two years before his death, he had a modest conflict with another Rice faculty member, Al van Helden. The conflict was simply that both wanted to use the collected works of Kepler in their research, but there was only one volume available in the library. So they made a modest suggestion to the university administration: to get a joint carrel in the Fondren library. The University, in its wisdom, said that this was not possible; however, it would be possible for these two professors to found an Institute and to get a room in the library with some additional funding. With this strange request Scientia was founded.

Al van Helden and Solomon Bochner chose the name Scientia and got a room in the Fondren library and a modest amount of funding from the university administration. They decided to have some lectures and to invite three other Rice professes to join them. I was one of those three chosen, along with Jane Chance, and Mark Kulstad. All three of us had an interest in the history of science and culture; I had written a book with Howard Resnikoff on mathematical history, Jane chance had done a lot of research on medieval history and Solomon Bochner had been very interested in her research, and Mark Kulstadt was and is a Leibniz expert.

We had several public lectures moderated by Solomon Bochner, who was the Director of Scientia. One of the most significant lectures in this series was one given by Bochner himself on Einstein's 100 th birthday. I will never forget that everyone in the audience went to learn about Einstein and wound up learning an awful lot about Solomon Bochner, who was as so very impressive that evening.

After Bochner unexpectedly passed away during a routine cataract operation, and after a period of mourning, the four of us who were still part of Scientia met and tried to decide what we should do. We decided several things, and these became actionable items and formed the background of what evolved into the Scientia we know today. The basic items, we decided, were:

  • To draft a charter to be approved by the administration at the Provost level.
  • To have a series of Scientia lectures during the course of the academic year, meeting in the Kyle Morrow room at 4 PM on a given day in the Fondren library.
  • To have a single Bochner lecture, named in honor of Solomon Bochner, which would be an evening special event once a year.
  • To publish occasionally results of the lecture series.
  • To recruit new Members of Scientia, who would be drawn from the Rice faculty
  • To create and recruit what we called Fellows of Scientia.
  • I would be the initial Director of the new Scientia with its new charter and mission

I drafted the charter, which we approved jointly, and took it to the Provost, Bill Gordon, and he approved the charter, and we were now an official part of the university. We planned our first lecture series for the following year and had a series of good lectures. Our first Bochner lecturer was Bernard I Cohen, a professor of history of science from Harvard. Other Bochner lecturers in the following years included Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, and many others.

After our first full year of operation, we decided to publish the lectures from that first year. I gathered the manuscripts and organized the publication, and this became the first volume of the new Rice University Press. I went on leave to the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1983-1984 and asked Jane Chance to be acting director while I was gone. Together we organized the book formally, published it, and were coeditors of the resulting publication, which was called Mapping the Cosmos.

I served as Director for five years, and after that others took on the responsibility, including Sidney Burrus, Franz Brotzen, Susan McIntosh. The lecture series became more and more popular over the years, and the Bochner lecturers were also highlights of the academic year.

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