Writing my first book, long ago, I faced a challenge. In the first half of the 20th century, researchers from various fields—astrophysics, geophysics, meteorology, geochemistry, and geology—were seeking to better understand the nature of the solar system. They were few: less than a dozen were active in North America and Europe at any one time. Sputnik’s launch in 1957, at the start of the space age, lay in the future. These researchers worked at different universities and institutions. But their interests were interdisciplinary, and they repeatedly created “transient institutions,” which lasted days, months, and sometimes years, that permitted intense collaboration between them on problems of mutual interest. Transient institutions mattered, I asserted, because they were prolific in this field when permanent institutions were not, shaped the questions that were asked, and helped convince colleagues their inquiries were worthwhile.

Transient Institutions/Invisible Colleges

My then-emerging ideas about transient institutions did not directly stem from my interactions with Larry Friedman, one of my mentors when I had earned a Master’s in American Studies at Bowling Green State University (before Friedman’s remarkably productive period at Indiana University Bloomington). Or so I then thought. I credited them to Spencer R. Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (then in New York City) where I was a postdoctoral fellow in the early 1990s. Over noon-time sandwiches, Weart had led spirited conversations with me and visiting scholars about another form of transient institution, the idea of “invisible colleges” first introduced in the history of science by Derek J. de Solla Price and published in 1963 with his collection of lectures titled Little Science, Big Science, then extended by the sociologist Diana Crane in her 1972 book Invisible Colleges: Infusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities.

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Weart had used “transient institution” to describe interactions he had discerned among solid-state physicists from the 1920s through the 1950s—or so I recalled. The term, I now find, did not actually appear in his contribution to his own book on this issue, but it did crystallize insights from our discussions.

Friedman, I now appreciate, influenced how I came to approach history more than I realized at that time. He did so through our continued interactions when I became a PhD student in the Program for History of Science at Princeton University. Friedman also influenced me decades later by creating, nurturing, and sustaining a transient institution of his own: the annual Conference on Public Intellectuals, held at Harvard University in the first half of the 2010s, after Friedman became associated with that university’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative. The Public Intellectuals gatherings created an invisible college that enhanced the careers and productivity of those who actively participated in them. A key insight emerged from these gatherings: A crucial ingredient has been missing from the narratives of many historians who deal with elites, affecting intellectual and diplomatic history, and perhaps most of all the field on which I focus—the history of science.

My Mentors on the Business of Storytelling

Graduate students in history, if they are lucky (my own bias revealed), quickly learn that they are in the business of storytelling. As the environmental historian William Cronon (1992) has declared, historians “configure the events of the past into causal sequences—stories—that order and simplify [events] to give them new meanings. We do so because the narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality” (p. 1349). Narrative, he continued, “is fundamental to the way we humans organize our experience” (Cronon, 1992, p. 1349). The kinds of stories we tell also matter. Thomas Kohut (2020) has recently argued that historians ought not to rely on evidence, logic, and reason alone but should also incorporate “imagination, insight, sensitivity to people, emotional intelligence, and even emotional resonance” (p. 2). Empathy, he declared, is crucial, if the goal is to “make the practice of history a fascinating, creative, and fully human enterprise” (Kohut, 2020, p. 2).

But how do they—we—learn which stories are possible? Realistic? Adequately and faithfully capture how people lived, thought, behaved, and dreamed in earlier times? In the history of

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recent science, we want to tell good stories about ways that elites organized, communicated, met, schemed, maintained contacts, debated ideas, formed friendships, dealt with adversaries, and told their own stories about themselves and their achievements. We learn from reading articles and books, of course, as well as from our fellow graduate students. But we also learn from our mentors—both what they teach us and particularly their lived examples. If friends, family, or colleagues ask us how our mentors affected us, we often volunteer anecdotes.

This is an important and helpful way of storytelling too often seen as distinct from historical narration, but vivid memories are what come back to me now. Princeton’s dean of History of Science, Charles C. Gillispie, told us in a seminar that he knew individual members of the 19th century French Académie des Sciences (French Academy of Sciences) such as Gaspard Monge far better than any of us. It stung but allowed us to understand the extent to which biographical inquiry could reconstruct personalities and motives. Soon after that, Stanley N. Katz—the most caring mentor I could ever imagine—introduced me to a supportive community of scholars deeply interested in the impact of private foundations on modern society. He found funds that allowed me to explore how the Rockefeller Foundation had refashioned Princeton as a graduate university and straightened my tie while standing beside me at a university event. Stanley nurtured those of us privileged to be “Stan’s people,” continuing this after he took the helm of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1986, at a difficult moment in its history.

Larry Friedman similarly taught me in those years—partly through his writings, even more by his personal example. In particular, he showed me how one could learn from individuals through direct, open, honest conversations. In the mid-1980s Friedman recounted his then-ongoing study of the Menninger Clinic at a History of Science colloquium at Princeton. These talks regularly attracted program faculty and graduate students, but on that day an unfamiliar, middle-aged man, jittery and agitated, also sat at the seminar table. Friedman finished speaking, and the man announced that he had been working at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, apparently eager to challenge Friedman’s narrative. “Ah! Tell me about your own experiences,” Friedman responded, leaning in to listen. The visitor shared his story, relaxed, and a lively conversation followed. At the time I was just beginning to learn the craft of

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biographical oral history interviewing and felt disquieted when senior colleagues voiced that I was spending too much time chasing memories of childhood, secondary school, and university experiences. I still worry about that—at least a little. But seeing Friedman off that evening on the platform of the Princeton Junction station, I felt validated, confirmed, and on the right track.

Enriching Knowledge and Relationships at these Harvard

Although the Conference on Public Intellectuals began some 20 years after I received my PhD, it now seems part of a long arc involving ways to improve historical narratives. A future historian looking at the printed programs would learn about the venues (Harvard’s William James Hall, later its Science Center) and discover that Damon Freeman, then at Penn and one of Friedman’s former students, was a co-convener. Session themes at the first gathering included “Public Intellectuals as Cultural Icons,” “Religion, Science, and Tolerance,” and “Race, Gender, and Protest.” Participating scholars arrived from Berkeley, Brandeis, Smith, North Carolina, and the University of Florida. Four years on, the conference had a more international cast, with scholars from Portugal, Switzerland, and Holland. It retained its focus on addressing key questions rather than themes. Careful researchers could find evidence that the conferences had begun influencing scholarship: Odile Heynder’s Writers as Public Intellectuals: Literature, Celebrity, Democracy (2016) included a heartfelt call-out to these gatherings, as well as a special Public Intellectuals event held in Lisbon, also initiated by Friedman, that included testimony from dissident Portuguese writers.

What such future accounts might well miss—if they embrace what the historian Fred Weinstein has labeled a positivist approach to history—was how I, and fellow participants, felt about these gatherings. Even now, as I write, I feel the familiar restraints historians place on themselves: This is not how we ought to narrate the past. But obeying normative standards would leave out several crucial “good bits,” in historian Inga Clendinnen’s artful phrase. The Harvard conferences on Public Intellectuals were a rare treat. They combined the intensity of a favorite graduate seminar with the excitement of finding seats beside world-class scholars whose writings had motivated us. Junior scholars came more and more. Some became friends. Our networks grew. Presentations were jumbled, happy blurs. Discussions went deep but never grew heated. “Keep

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it friendly,” Larry Friedman admonished. We welcomed assignments to read draft chapters; we encouraged one another. Throughout the gatherings, Friedman was the grand master and our maître d’ at the final evening dinner. “We want this conference to push the boundaries,” Damon Freeman urged, reminding us that Friedman wanted participants to “define the term public intellectual broadly” and “include anyone who may be a traditional academic, an activist, an artist or poet, an athlete, entertainer, or comedian, a blogger” (Damon Freeman, personal communication, January 8, 2010). In those years it was part magic, part Camelot, and part reminder of what, at the start of our graduate careers, we dared imagine could happen.

Each of us also came away from the Harvard conferences with private memories. Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis, whose Culture of the Cold War (1991) had helped frame questions I wished to pursue as a postdoc, gave me hope that my second book project was worth pursuing. There was also a chilly Saturday evening amid the first gathering when I walked from William James Hall to the Harvard Square Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Station Red Line in the company of Mary Catherine Bateson. Before that moment, I had known of Bateson as a gifted writer and cultural anthropologist, and I knew she was the daughter of two anthropologists who had shaped an earlier era, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Earlier that afternoon, joining the sociologist Nancy J. Chodorow, Bateson had shared memories in a “Career Reflections” panel that Friedman had organized. I have no idea what we discussed, but I remember feeling connected to something previously abstract and bloodless, and I realized something I had not known before.

Exploring the Glue Holding Invisible Colleges Together

The Public Intellectuals conferences were immensely satisfying and affirmed for me the importance and significance of small-group interactions. But I believe there also is a much larger insight here if applied to the past. What is the glue that holds invisible colleges together? Shared intellectual insights, surely. Diana Crane (1971) argued that researchers “maintain continual contact with each other in order to monitor recent developments in the area and adjust their activities accordingly” (p. 585). Belver C. Griffith and Nicholas C. Mullins (1972) similarly observed that when scholars felt challenged, they organize to reach “certain objectives, voluntarily and self-consciously, as a coherent and activist group” (p. 959).

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Rational thinking, objective reasoning, and careful planning were central to these accounts.

But is this enough for a sufficiently good story? “The stories we write,” Bill Cronon (1992) has maintained, “are judged not just as narratives, but as nonfictions” (p. 1373). Missing from many realms of historical work, I would argue, particularly the histories of elites and elite practices, is an appreciation of the role of emotion and personality as guiding forces. This issue had long been apparent to historians attracted to biographical narratives. Like Weinstein and Kohut, James W. Anderson has emphasized the value of examining not just the practiced ways that people present themselves to the world, but also the more hidden “inner self.” Anderson (1981) argues that “Any biographer must admit that he does not know the last word, but what psychology offers the biographer is the hope of approaching closer to the human heart” (p. 475).

In recent years, several diplomatic historians have also endorsed this approach. Frank Costigliola (2016), analyzing the actions of George Kennan, whose ideas shaped the origin and development of the Cold War, declared that “policy recommendations, traditionally explained in rational terms, can be decoded by looking at the emotions surrounding them,” adding that a “consensus among neuroscientists and humanists holds that expressed thought is, inextricably, both emotional and rational” (p. 1076). Similarly, Barbara Keys (January 2020) has argued that better and more accurate stories about foreign relations can be told: “Like other myths, the notion that diplomats and leaders can think and act on the basis of a state-centered mind endures despite lack of proof and in the face of counterevidence” (p. 3).

Recent historical, sociological, and anthropological inquiries into modern science also are warming to what Costigliola (2016) has termed the “emerging ‘emotional turn’ in history” (p. 1076). In the early 1970s, a member of a research community, Crane, provided a pioneering account of invisible colleges, and complained about an irritating omission: they had been portrayed without emotion, “almost as if they were not human” (Rogers, 1972, p. 638). The historian-turned-anthropologist Sharon Traweek (2005) has lamented that physicists “often disparage the histories of their field written by professional historians” if based solely on traditional sources (p. 358). “They often talk a lot about the past, telling stories,” Traweek (2005) observed about physicists, highlighting the artificiality of “slicing people into reason, emotion, and

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determination” (p. 358). In a similar vein, Danish historian of science Thomas Söderqvist has noted that he had consulted therapist George Moritis (who specialized in working with biographers) while preparing his account of the immunologist Niels Jerne. “I am surprised that there is so little written about the problem of writing lives of recent scientists,” Söderqvist (2006) declared, but he voiced hope that the situation was improving (p. 123).

In Conclusion in Regard to Larry Friedman

Larry Friedman has made many important contributions through his books, teaching, and mentoring, but the invisible college he created ought to be remembered as well. There is perhaps a parallel. As the historian of technology, Paul Israel has noted, Thomas Edison justly deserves credit for developing systems of electrical light and power, sound recording, storage batteries, and motion pictures—but one of his least-remembered yet important inventions was the industrial research laboratory he created in Menlo Park, New Jersey, an “invention factory” that was the model for major research laboratories in the decades that followed. Friedman, of course, did not invent the annual seminar series. But as the atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (as cited in Kaiser, 2005) once remarked, “The best way to send information is to wrap it up in a person” (p. 357). Witnessing this first-hand is a gift, both professionally and emotionally.

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  • Anderson, James W. (1981). The methodology of psychological biography. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 11(3), 455-475. https://doi.org/10.2307/203628
  • Costigliola, Frank (2016). “I react intensely to everything”: Russia and the frustrated emotions of George F. Kennan, 1933-1958. The Journal of American History, 102(4), 1075-1101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44287212
  • Crane, Diane (1971). Transnational networks in basic science. International Organization, 25(3), 585-601. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706058
  • Cronon, William (1992). A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History, 78(4), 1347-1376. https://doi.org/10.2307/2079346
  • Griffith, Belver C., & Mullins, Nicholas C. (1972). Coherent social groups in scientific change. Science, 177(4053), 959-964. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1734125
  • Kaiser, David (2005). Drawing theories apart: The dispersion of Feynman diagrams in postwar physics. University of Chicago Press.
  • Keys, Barbara (January 2020). The diplomat’s two minds: Deconstructing a foreign policy myth. Diplomatic History, 44(1), 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhz053
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  • Rogers, Everett M. (1972). [Review of the book Invisible Colleges: Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities, by Diana Crane.] Rural Sociology, 37(4), 638-639.
  • Söderqvist, Thomas (2006). What is the use of writing lives of recent scientists? In Ronald E. Doel and Thomas Söderqvist (Eds.), The Historiography of Recent Science, Technology, and Medicine: Writing Recent Science (pp. 99-127). Routledge.
  • Traweek, Sharon (2005). Generating high energy physics in Japan: Moral imperative of a future pluperfect. In David Kaiser (Ed.), Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (pp. 357-392). MIT Press.


Ronald E. Doel

Ronald E. Doel, PhD, Associate Professor of History at Florida State University, took his master’s degree in American Studies at Bowling Green State University and his doctoral degree in history at Princeton University. He has written on scientific internationalism, the influence of military patronage on the Cold War physical environmental sciences, and the discovery of climate change. He served as Project Leader for “Colony, Empire, Environment: A Comparative International History of the Twentieth Century Arctic Science” (nine members, seven nations, BOREAS initiative, European Science Foundation) and is grateful for the chance to have been an Erskine Fellow (University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ) as well as a Rachel Carson Center fellow (LMU, Munich, Germany). He may be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Doel, R. E. (2023). Invisible colleges: How Friedman contributed to the production and diffusion of knowledge and strengthened storytelling. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 281-289.

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