Price, Derek John De Solla (1922-1983)

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Derek John Price was born on January 22, 1922, in Leyton, a suburb of London, England, to Fanny Marie de Solla, a singer, and Philip Price, a tailor. Both of his parents were descended from Jewish immigrant families. Price added de Solla as a middle name in 1950. His early interest in science was derived in part from reading science-fiction pulp magazines. In 1938, he became a physics laboratory assistant at South West Essex Technical College and received a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics in 1942 and a doctorate in physics in 1946 from the University of London. During World War II, he did research in the optics of hot and molten metals and taught various adult education evening courses and armed forces training programs while completing his doctoral studies. He spent the 1946-1947 academic year at Princeton University as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in mathematical physics and married Ellen Hjorth of Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1947. They had two sons and a daughter.

The period from 1947 to 1950 marked a shift for Price from work in physics to work in the history of science while he served as a lecturer in applied mathematics at Raffles College in Singapore. During that period, he read through the volumes (beginning with 1665) of the PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society and not only became aware of the evolutionary nature and the historical aspects of science and technology but also developed his theory of the exponential growth of the scientific literature. He first presented a paper on this theory at a history of science congress in 1950 in Amsterdam. His second doctorate (awarded in 1954) was in the area of the history of science, and it was completed at Cambridge University, where his earlier experience with laboratory apparatus led to an interest in the history of scientific instruments. In the 1955-1956 period, he received a Nuffield Foundation award for research in the history of scientific instruments and prepared a catalog of the instrument collection of the British Museum, as well as a catalog of all astrolabes known to him. In 1957, he moved to the United States as a consultant on the history of physics and astronomy for the Smithsonian Institution. He then served as a Donaldson Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, studying ancient astronomy, and finally went to Yale University in 1959. At Yale, Price held the Avalon Chair for History of Science until his death on September 3, 1983. He was the recipient of the Leonardo da Vinci Medal from the Society for the History of Technology (1976), the John Desmond Bernal Award from the Society for Social Studies of Science (1981), and was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1983). He worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a science policy advisor and was interested in exploring the social and policy dimensions of science and technology.

Price's background in mathematics led him to focus on the quantitative analysis of science and scientific development and laid the foundation for a new field of inquiry: the science of science (i.e., scientometrics). Two books of lectures, Science Since Babylon (1961) and Little Science, Big Science (1963), explored themes such as the growth and development of the publishing scientific community and caught the attention of a wide audience, including those interested in scientific information and communication. Through these and subsequent publications, he sought to turn the tools of science on science itself, measuring scientific personnel, literature, expenditure, and other indicators on a national and international scale. His research included establishing and interpreting the magnitudes of growth in the size of science, such as noting that of all the scientists throughout history, 80 percent to 90 percent were active in the twentieth century. He was an early user of the Science Citation Index, which records the links created when authors cite earlier works, as a source of data for investigating networks of scientific papers. He clearly demonstrated the broad patterns that scientists follow in referring to previously published documents and, by inference, something about the way in which new science builds on recorded knowledge. He suggested that relationships within and among disciplinary literatures could be identified and measured via their mode and degree of citation to one another.

In the realm of scientific communication, he explored the concept of the "invisible college" as a channel for informal communication among scientists. He observed that small groups of scientists at the forefront of a research area, but working at different institutions and possibly in different countries, stay in close touch through such mechanisms as conferences, summer schools, and distribution of preprints of papers. Price approached science as a social activity that can be modeled mathematically, and he sought to understand changes over time. His contributions included mapping the structure of science and measuring the size of science. His pioneering role—connecting the history of science, scientometrics, and information science—made a significant effect on the study of scientific communication.

See also:Research Methods in Information Studies.


Beaver, Donald. (1985). "Eloge: Derek John de Solla Price." ISIS 76:371-374.

Bedini, Silvio A. (1984). "Memorial: Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983). " Technology and Culture 25:701-705.

Kochen, Manfred. (1984). "Toward a Paradigm for Information Science: The Influence of Derek de Solla Price." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 35:147-148.

Mackay, Alan. (1984). "Derek John de Solla Price: AnAppreciation." Social Studies of Science 14:315-320.

Price, Derek de Solla. (1961 [1975]). Science Since Babylon, enlarged edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Price, Derek J. de Solla. (1963 [1986]). Little Science, Big Science… and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.

Linda C. Smith

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Price, Derek John De Solla (1922-1983)

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