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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.

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A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Pt. 2: Recent History August 4, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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This post continues my post from May, which was written to lend some historical background to the recently released news that the large marine glaciers emptying into the Amundsen Sea seem to have passed a point of no return, and will continue to collapse until they are gone, whereupon the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheeet (WAIS) may well follow. Total sea level rises should be 2–3m within a few centuries, though the exact timescales could be faster or slower.  The above video from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory features Eric Rignot, one of the leaders of the two teams who have reached this conclusion.  (The other team is led by the University of Washington’s Ian Joughin, on whom more below.)

The history in Pt. 1 concluded circa 1980, when geologist John Mercer (1922-1987) connected the prospect of WAIS collapsing to global warming.  Shortly thereafter the University of Maine’s Terry Hughes—who had previously linked future WAIS collapse to an ongoing global retreat from the Last Glacial Maximum (18,000 years ago)—identified (pdf) the Amundsen Sea glaciers as WAIS’s “weak underbelly,” which would be the “mechanism for disintegration of [WAIS] during a proposed Super Interglaciation triggered by CO2-induced climatic warming.” This post addresses what occurred in the intervening decades to convince the glaciological community of the assertion.

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From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.

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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 2 June 1, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The real roadmap for postwar science?

The real roadmap for postwar science?

In August 1945, the sense that the war held important lessons for how peacetime science should be organized was dramatically augmented by the atomic bombing of Japan, and the release of the Smyth report, detailing the massive collective scientific and engineering effort that went into producing the bomb.

In an editorial entitled “The Lesson of the Bomb,” published August 19, 1945—a week after the Smyth report’s release—the New York Times immediately spelled out the ramifications.  It observed, “The Western democracies at least have been rudely awakened to what the ‘social impact’ of science means. Books enough have been written on the subject, but it took the bomb to make us realize that the discussions were not just academic.”

The Times noted that scientists had always organized scientific conventions to share their work, This time they were organized to solve an urgent problem. They solved it not in the fifty years expected before the war but in three, and they solved it so rapidly because they were organized and competently directed. Why,” the editorial asked, “should not the same principle be followed in peace?”

The era of demanding a “Manhattan Project” to solve this or that problem had begun.

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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, "Office of"] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.

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A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Part 1: Early History May 22, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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Two new papers, in Science, and in Geophysical Research Letters, demonstrate that Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica has reached a point of instability, which, at some point in the future, will lead to the collapse of that part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), and, eventually, the rest of it as well.  Over a period of some centuries, sea level rises will be catastrophic.  The video above is by NASA, discussing some of the key points.

Various reports on this subject have traced work on this question back to geologist John Mercer (1922-1987), either to a well-known paper he published in Nature in 1978 linking WAIS collapse to anthropogenic global warming, or to a more obscure paper he published in 1968, in which he posited that WAIS was the source of higher sea levels during the Sangamon interglacial 120,000 years ago.  That earlier paper also mentioned possible future danger from “industrial pollution,” but only tangentially within a larger focus on Antarctica’s glacial history.

Having published on the history of this subject, I’d like to develop the available narrative somewhat, both to expand on its roots, but also to discuss some of the twists and turns that have led us from an initial suspicion that WAIS could rapidly collapse to the disquieting conclusion at which glaciologists have now arrived. (more…)

Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.

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ACAP Will Return March 21, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Update (5/3/14): Thanks to the efforts of the good people at AIP, ACAP is now back up and running at this address.  There are still a few bugs remaining after the transition.  At the moment, links to AIP’s photo library no longer work, since the library has migrated to a new platform.  We’ll work to restore full functionality, and, in the longer term, make some improvements. However, I’m pleased to say that all of the site’s pages are currently accessible once again.

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.

Mt-Wilson-B29-setup

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.

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.

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