The “Shoebox” papers of Paul A.M. Dirac

The following is the first of two posts from Dr. Kathy Clark, a professor here at FSU in the College of Education. For the past several years, she’s been involved in the digitization and description of a set of papers in the Dirac Collection that are known collectively as the “shoebox” papers. These materials are available online and will shortly benefit from enhanced description from Dr. Clark.

In early 2012 I was curious what sort of materials were available in the Dirac Papers held at Florida State University (FSU), and began to page through various boxes and folders of the different series. I tried to narrow my initial search a bit by looking for mathematical papers, problems, calculations, and the like. And, after many months of visiting the Special Collections & Archives, I settled upon a deeper investigation into what was noted as “shoebox papers.”

Listing permutations of five elements chosen from five
An example from the “Shoebox Papers”

The “shoebox papers” were apparently just that: accumulated – yet mostly unsorted – pages or scraps of paper that contained some form of mathematical doodling (as we have referred to previously in Clark and Harrington, 2015). The initial intent of our work with the “shoebox papers” was two-fold: we wanted to investigate mathematical problems and concepts that were present in the papers, and we were interested in sharing a small part of the Dirac Papers with scholars and researchers who may have an interest in the collection. The project that was generously funded by the History of Mathematics Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America (HOMSIGMAA) in 2013 and 2014 had several components, and this short communication provides a brief overview of the project work.

The funds provided by HOMSIGMAA were used for both preservation and digitization project work. At the same time that I began investigating the Dirac Papers collection, FSU Libraries were in the process of redesigning and launching a more comprehensive digital library platform. In doing so, FSU digital archivists, librarians, and administrators sought to highlight several of the library’s more interesting, and in many ways, precious holdings. Thus, scanning materials in order to digitally archive them was a priority. One of the collections needing such digital preservation were the Dirac Papers; however, the collection is quite extensive, and beginning with a project to highlight particular specimens (of mathematical interest) also coincided with the work that we had begun in Fall 2013.

In the next post, Dr, Clark will look at the work of her talented student assistant and what they accomplished with the digitized versions of the “shoebox” papers.

References

Clark, K., & Harrington, E. (2015). Deciphering the doodlings of the “shoebox collection” of the Paul A. M. Dirac papers. In E. Barbin, U. T. Jankvist, & T. H. Kjeldsen (Eds.), Seventh European Summer University on the History and Epistemology in Mathematics Education (ESU-7) (pp. 735-744). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.

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