Some collections have a little bit of everything – or anyway, they seem like they do.
In November 2013, I was assigned to arrange and describe the Louis B. Slichter Papers (Collection 1880). Slichter was the first director of UCLA’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, and one of the preeminent geophysicists of the 20th century. Slichter Hall, on south campus, is named for him. Early on as I was familiarizing myself with Slichter’s files, I ran across a folder titled “Loch Ness Monster.” Inside the folder were a few clippings, and a collection of newsletters from an organization called the Loch Ness Investigation, with a circular or two addressed to “Dear Member.” This, I thought to myself, is going to be an interesting collection.
I should say up front that most of the material is pretty much what you would expect from the papers of a scientist: numbers, Greek letters, scientific symbols. There are a lot of technical terms, a lot of equations, prose written by experts to be read by other experts. But the Louis B. Slichter Papers aren’t just about science; they’re about Louis B. Slichter, the people he knew, and his times.
Slichter’s professional career as a geophysicist began during the First World War. He had studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and was tutored in math by Max Mason, a protégé of Slichter’s own father, mathematician Charles S. Slichter. When the United States entered the war, Mason was employed by the Navy to devise an apparatus to detect German submarines with an acoustic array that Mason designed. Slichter, by now an Ensign in the U.S. Navy was a member of Mason’s team, and spent much of his time on shipboard, testing the array at sea on destroyers patrolling between New London, Connecticut and Plymouth, England.
When the war ended in 1918, Slichter returned to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied physics under Mason, receiving his Ph.D. in 1922. His association with Mason was profitable as well as academically rewarding. In the 1920s, Mason, Slichter and some other veterans of the anti-submarine program formed a consulting firm to employ the techniques they had used to detect submarines to prospect for ores.