5 questions with… Distinguished University Professor and history scholar Alan Rocke

Alan RockeAlan Rocke is retiring, but it’s a little hard to tell.

“There’s not much free time looking forward,” said Rocke, who taught the history of the physical sciences as a Distinguished University Professor and the Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History. “Things won’t change much.”

Though Rocke will step away from teaching at the university or serving on committees, he will teach a class this fall with the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program and continue to serve as an editor of both the academic journal Ambix and A Cultural History of Chemistry (a reference set from Bloomsbury Press) while also pursuing personal projects in research and public affairs.

Rocke has researched and taught for 38 years at Case Western Reserve (47 years total at the university level) about the emergence of science during the 19th and 20th centuries—mostly in Europe—including astronomy, chemistry, geology, physics and oceanography.

“I did as good a job as I could,” said Rocke, whose last day at the university is June 30. “I have a conviction that it’s a good thing to let younger people have a chance to have this job.”

Still active in historical research that requires travel, Rocke will continue to visit archives and libraries in Germany and elsewhere in Europe at least once a year.

“By no means is everything digitized, so I must travel to study, which I love,” he said.

“Professors are in the business of learning ourselves. The impression that we simply impart our knowledge—that is far from true,” added Rocke, who published From the Molecular World: A Nineteenth Century Science Fantasy in 2012, among other books throughout his career.

Recognized as one of the foremost international scholars of the history of the sciences, Rocke was honored last year by the Annals of Science, a prestigious journal that dedicated an entire issue to him—a rare event in academia.

He’s also garnered numerous honors, including being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Chemical Society, and served the university in a variety of roles, including six years as chair of the Department of History.

“This department is a dream,” he said. “We have excellent faculty, and they’re not only excellent as professors, but they’re also fine people. We feel a family connection, and I’ll miss them very much.”

As his retirement approaches, find out more about Alan Rocke in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s the best way to spend a summer day in Cleveland?

The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a wonderful way to see a bit of nature. You can do whatever you like: bike, walk, run. It’s long, starting in Cleveland and going all the way to Akron, and more is on the way. It’s beautiful.

2. What motivates you to work hard?

In research, it’s the fascination with a subject and the pleasure of finding out something new that drives me. We human beings are curious. Studying history is valuable and justifiable on its own terms. It’s a fascinating pursuit.

In teaching, it’s the pleasure of interacting with young minds and thinking I might have some valuable role to play in mentoring young people.

3. Who is your favorite character from a book, TV show or movie?

In the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, which are short and not hard to read, there’s a character: Mma (Mrs.) Ramotswe. She is the principal character in a novel series called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which are set in Botswana. She has the best-developed heart and mind; very clever, but she’s also a wonderful person and deeply human.

4. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?

In the middle of graduate school, I was studying chemistry [at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] in a PhD program for two years. I began taking courses in a history of science department, and when I started to do that, I decided “this is me” and felt completely convinced this is what I wanted to do in my life. I took a leap.

That was daring because job prospects for chemists were very good but [prospects for] historians were very bad. My father was doubtful. A lot of people told me, “Alan, don’t do that. You’re on a good trajectory; this doesn’t look right.”

Turns out that my feeling was justified. It turned out pretty well.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

I love Case Western Reserve University—it’s the best of both worlds: an outstanding research university, with the feel of a small college environment. We also have such close contact with students and colleagues across fields.