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ACAP Will Return March 21, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Just in case you might be googling for it and not finding it, this is a very quick note about the status of the American Institute of Physics’s Array of Contemporary American Physicists website, which I created and remain responsible for editing.  ACAP has been down for a couple of months following the migration of the AIP site to a new server. The configuration of the new server must be updated to accommodate the site’s coding, which was done in JSP to accommodate the peculiarities of the old server. I am working with AIP on the issue, and hope the site will reappear before too long.

The Observatory and the B-29s February 19, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rational Action is back with the press. Part of my recent improvements involved figuring out what images I was going to use, which involved taking a day to run to the National Archives (living near Washington, DC has definite advantages). There I got some pictures that I remembered as cool-looking, but hadn’t previously bothered to get copies of. These related to experiments that the Applied Mathematics Panel (AMP), a wartime organization, did in 1944 in collaboration with the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena.


Staff setting up the experiment in a local school gymnasium

Now, however, I have many more photographs than I can possibly use, and the experiments they describe occupy only about two sentences in my book, so I thought I’d share them with you here.


Document: The Butt Report (1941) January 3, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

My book manuscript, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960 is now under contract with the MIT Press.  I will be revising and formatting the manuscript through mid-February, so expect to continue hearing little from me until then. I do, however, want to start trying some new experiments with this blog, one of which is to make certain unpublished government documents more widely available.

Today’s document is the so-called “Butt Report” found at The National Archives of the UK, Public Record Office, AIR 14/1218.  Issued in August 1941, the report detailed, on the basis of photographic evidence, the extreme inability of RAF bomber crews to locate, let alone strike, targets in the dark. This investigation was ordered by Winston Churchill’s friend and adviser, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, and was undertaken by his assistant, David Bensusan-Butt.  The Butt Report is well known, having played a role in shaping subsequent debate over the aims of British bombing policy in view of technical limitations.  However, I do not believe it has previously been made available in full (or nearly in full, as the last page appears to be missing).

Please excuse the state of the pdf file, as I have not bothered to process the photographs I took at the archives into a very professional-looking form:

Update: I have discovered that the UK National Archives, unlike the US National Archives, does not allow copies of their records to be publicly distributed without a large fee. It does, however, allow transcriptions. Once I have had an opportunity to transcribe the Butt Report, hopefully with OCR, I will repost it here.

Hiatus: Operations Research on the Brain November 17, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.

I have a number of things blog-related, some of them fairly exciting, that are cooking at the moment.  That said, site stats indicate there’s not as much interest in new posts as there was a year or two ago.  I don’t know if this is an across-the-board phenomenon with history of science blogs, or if it’s just a reflection of EWP posts’ current pace and subject matter.  But, at any rate, it doesn’t seem like anyone will be terribly disappointed if I put new posts on the back-burner until the new year.

My main reason for doing this is that I have to commit my now-precious spare time to working on my longstanding interest in the intertwined histories of operations research, systems analysis, decision theory, and the proliferation of scientific advisory positions during and after World War II.  Happily, I am now in a position where I have to format my book manuscript, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960, for publication. Coincidentally, I have also recently been named to the History and Traditions Committee of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), which should also take up a little time.  So, in addition to “machine philosophy” and other topics of the moment, look for a number of operations research-related goings-on in 2014.

New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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B_SPR390_CLIM_00009.inddI am pleased to say that my article, “Research Agendas in Climate Studies: The Case of West Antarctic Ice Sheet Research,” has appeared in its Online First edition in the journal Climatic Change. It is behind a paywall, but Springer’s rules do allow me to post a prior submitted version* of the article, accompanied by the statement: “The final publication is available at http://link.springer.com.”  Click here to access the prior version.

This was a secondary project for me that I have long wanted to turn into a more sustained research program.  The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has a special interest for climate scientists because it rests on bedrock that is below sea level, and may well therefore be unstable.  It could disintegrate even though the ambient temperature is—and will continue to be—continually below freezing.  (Thus, WAIS is a rather different beast from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on bedrock that is above sea level, but is prone to melting.)  If WAIS were to disintegrate it would raise sea levels by at least 3 meters.  The trouble is that the long-term glaciological behavior of such “marine” ice sheets is not especially well understood.  So nobody knows for certain how stable WAIS really is, or how long it would take to disintegrate. It could be only a few centuries, or it could be millenia.


It was important to me that I try to reach scientific audiences with this paper. However, I was not really interested in conveying a particular “humanities” approach—I wanted to try and develop a historical picture that would have a more natural appeal to scientific audiences by engaging with the intellectual substance of their work.  Thus, I used history here to illuminate some of the contours, or “agendas,” of research that have shaped scientists’ understanding of WAIS.  Scientists are generally aware of the existence of such contours.  But those contours seem to inhabit an intellectual space above the level of the individual scientific paper, and yet they are not typically captured in review articles.  Thus they are ill-articulated, and play an ill-defined role in scientific work.  This then seemed to me an ideal place for the history of science to play a role.


Schaffer on Gestural Knowledge and Philosophical Ideologies, and Their Historiographical Ramifications October 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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In “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium” (1997), Simon Schaffer makes a set of ambitious arguments concerning how 18th-century natural philosophy regarded knowledge that is dependent upon, and sometimes tacit within, manual labor. His entryway into this problem is the frequently ineffable manual skill required in early electrical experimentation, and the intriguing coincidence that two of the most prominent early 18th-century electrical experimenters, Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Charles Dufay (1698-1739), were, respectively, a former Canterbury cloth dyer and overseer of the Gobelins dye works in Paris.

dying silk

From Hellot, Macquer, and Le Pileur d’Apligny, The Art of Dying Wool, Silk, and Cotton, 1789 English edition


Schaffer on Stephen Gray and Granville Wheler’s Electric Planetarium October 20, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Over the span of a number of articles Simon Schaffer wrote in the mid-to-late 1990s, he forcefully argued for the existence and importance of a particular historical phenomenon, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was natural philosophers’ and projectors’ use of mechanical devices to attempt to gain intellectual authority over others’ ideas and labor, which was to be accomplished by making that authority appear to emanate from the machines themselves, rather than from the deft manipulation of the social settings in which those machines were deployed.  Although Schaffer only used it a couple of times, I am using his term “machine philosophy” to refer to his conception of this strategy.  I will further explain his arguments concerning machine philosophy—and, of course, offer my opinion of those arguments—in future posts.

I had originally thought I was going to discuss Schaffer’s “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483 (free) in the “Schaffer on Machine Philosophy” series.  However, once I really got into the piece, I realized that he does not regard the “electric planetarium” experiment (above left) in the same vein as he regards, say, Atwood’s Machine.  In Schaffer’s historical schematic, the electric planetarium would not have been part of the machine philosophy rising at that time explicitly because what authority it commanded was held to reside in the embodied skill and social integrity of the experimenter.


John William Draper and Henry Buckle on Law and Causality October 18, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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John William Draper (May 5, 1811 – January 4, 1882)

John William Draper’s own work is astonishingly particular to modern readers.  He and Henry Buckle rigorously examined how mental progress was conditioned by material forces.  They did so by differentiating between two fundamental realms of law.  Buckle observed,  “on the one hand, we have the human mind obeying the laws of its own existence, and, when uncontrolled by external agents, developing itself according to the conditions of its organization. On the other hand, we have what is called Nature, obeying likewise its laws ; but incessantly coming into contact with the minds of men, exciting their passions, stimulating their intellect, and therefore giving to their actions a direction which they would not have taken without such disturbance.Thus we have man modifying nature, and nature modifying man; while out of this reciprocal modification all events must necessarily spring” (History of Civilization in England, 18-19).

The entire purpose of his History of Civilization in England was to understand and to describe the laws of this “double modification” and their connections.  The discovery of these kinds of regularities was important moreover because it provided for free will and allowed for effective social legislation.  Effective social legislation required that there be a “human nature” but that this human nature be not directed by Providence or determinism, since that would render the basic moral assumptions of existing criminal codes null.


James M. Baldwin on Society and Social Heredity October 17, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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James Mark Baldwin (January 12, 1861, Columbia, South Carolina – November 8, 1934, Paris)

James M. Baldwin’s Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development: A Study in Social Psychology (1897)  was noteworthy for its Darwinian argumentative framework, its emphasis on the fundamentally social aspects of mankind, society as being constitutive of the individual, and the argument that the laws of social evolution were distinct from biological evolution.

Baldwin’s work was really motivated by a massive issue: the work of Charles Darwin, particularly that of the Descent of Man (1871) provided an exceptionally attractive explanatory framework for the growth (and sometimes) progress of society.  For Baldwin, however, the laws of evolution could not explain the origin and development of either social action or the development or persistence of institutions.

As he noted in Darwin and the Humanities (1909), “various attempts have been made to state the different genetic stages in the concurrent progress of the individual and society.”  However, “In these attempts, it is plain, the general questions of development and evolution arise again on a different plane, and require solution in view of the fact that in their nature the phenomena are not in a strict sense biological, but psychological and social” (39.)  While it was true that human beings were subject to biological laws, “it does not follow that the psychological and social processes illustrate the same laws, nor even that the action of the biological laws may not be in some way modified with the entrance upon the field of the mental and social factors” (40).

While the work of Baldwin and his contemporaries have been critiqued for their reductionism of social life to biology, in fact, much of turn of the century social theory used Darwinian theory instead to argue for the irreducibility and distinctiveness of social phenomenon, in the same manner as Emile Durkheim and his discussion of “social facts.”


Franz Boas and His Contemporaries October 15, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Franz Boas

Franz Boas’ (July 9, 1858 – December 21, 1942) The Mind of Primitive Man occupies a cherished place in not only the anthropological canon, but also in anthropology’s disciplinary self-understanding.  In its 1938, expanded edition, Boas’ chapters provide a very interesting glimpse at the landscape of ideas which defined early 20th century ethnography and other social sciences.

One of Boas’ most difficult chapters was the fifth, titled: “The Instability of Human Types.”  The roots of this chapter lay in his landmark 1916 essay, “New Evidence in Regard to the Instability of Human Types.”  Building on the claims of not only his work on immigrants and H. P. Bowditch’s important, though forgotten, 1877 study, “The Growth of Children,” he concluded that not only was human stature variable, but more importantly, there existed variability in both the cephalic index and the width of the face.  This led him to consider how far the bodily features of man can be modified by so-called physiological changes brought about by conditions in the physical and social environment.



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