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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.

Hiatus: Operations Research on the Brain November 17, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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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.

Goals

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.

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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

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