Terminology: Intellectual History May 22, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Friedrich Hayek
This post continues my discussion of historiographical terminology. All definitions are ones I personally adhere to, but the idea is to open questions about useful distinctions and the terms used to describe them.
My previous post was on the “history of ideas,” which I take to be a very general category, applying to the ideas of populations of all sizes, and encompassing both explicitly held ideas, as well as those ideas that reside implicitly in texts and other works (e.g., worldviews, ideologies, customs, values, etc…). In this post, I’ll discuss a subgenre of the history of ideas, intellectual history.
Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Arthur Lovejoy, Carlo Ginzburg, Clifford Geertz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud
One of the drums I like to beat is that historians’ methodological toolkit is well developed, but that we do not use this toolkit as cooperatively and as productively as we might. Part of making good use of tools is having good terminology, which helps us to understand and talk about what tools we have and what they’re good for, and how they can be used selectively and in chorus with each other. It also helps avoid needless disputes, where vague language leads to perceptions of wrong-headedness and naiveté. For example, I like to talk about the need for “synthesis,” which I take to mean an interrelating of historians’ works at the level of their particulars (rather than mere thematic similarity). For me, synthesis is a sign of a healthy historiography, but such calls could be dismissed by others as a call for “Grand Synthesis,” which all right-thinking historians have been taught to shun.
For this reason, I thought it might be useful to suggest some definitions, which I personally follow. In some cases, these are the result of extensive reflection, and, if you go into the archives of this blog, you will find I do not use the terms consistently. And, of course, I don’t suppose my terms are the final word on the subject. The best thing would be if they opened the door for debate and clarification. In this post, I want to talk about:
The History of Ideas
Tags: Abraham Alikhanov, Artem Alikhanian, Carl Anderson, Cecil Powell, Giuseppe Occhialini, Hans Bethe, Patrick Blackett, Robert Marshak
This afternoon, thanks to the initiative of Jim Grozier, I am giving a talk at the weekly High Energy Physics seminar at UCL. The subject will be my work on experimentation in early particle physics. While my “Strategies of Detection” paper mainly concerns the problem of how to build “mesoscopic” histories of experimental practices, my talk will repurpose my argument to discuss how we can articulate and evaluate experimental ingenuity and skill. This jibes with other thoughts I’ve had about whether it could ever be considered legitimate for a professional historian to write a celebratory narrative of scientific progress. The very notion triggers the raising of well-disciplined eyebrows: isn’t it the job of professional historians to problematize celebratory narratives? But, really, I can’t think of a good reason why not, and it seems to me there is substantial opportunity to improve the genre.
Zuckerman on Toulmin on Bernal May 4, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
Tags: Francis Bacon, Hilary Rose, J. D. Bernal, J. G. Crowther, Solly Zuckerman, Stephen Toulmin, Steven Rose, William McGucken
While preparing my last post, I ran into an interesting passage in Solly Zuckerman’s (1904-1993) memoir, From Apes to Warlords (1978), where he discusses the influence of his former friend J. D. Bernal’s (1901-1971) touchstone work in science criticism, The Social Function of Science (1939). Zuckerman spends a full paragraph talking about the importance ascribed to Bernal’s book by philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009). Since it is not every day that a former chief scientific adviser to a government comments on the writing of a philosopher/historian of science, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the confluence of ideas that would allow such an event to occur.
Here’s the passage in full:
Did scientist-critics invent operational research? April 30, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques, Operations Research.
Tags: A. V. Hill, Alan Barlow, Allen Lane, C. H. Waddington, Cyril Darlington, David Edgerton, Edward Carter, Frank Yates, Henry Tizard, Hugh Cott, Hugh Sinclair, J. D. Bernal, J. G. Crowther, J. Z. Young, Louis Rapkine, Lyndall Urwick, Patrick Blackett, Robert Watson Watt, Solly Zuckerman, William Slater
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In my last post, one of the things I discussed was how mid-20th-century British critics held that a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science and its relationship with society was a root cause of a national failure to alleviate social and economic ills, and a cause of national decline more generally. This diagnosis conveniently cast the critic as just the sort of person who could show the way toward a more prosperous and harmonious society.
Such narratives become more credible if a history of prior critical successes can be constructed. As I argue in my work on the history of operational research (OR) and scientific advice, critics understood the development of OR during World War II to be just such a success, helping to forge newly close and constructive relations between scientific researchers and military officers. There is no question that key critics of science-society relations—particularly physicist Patrick Blackett—were important figures in OR. But, the question of the extent to which critics were responsible for OR is actually a challenging interpretive matter with which I have now struggled for a dozen years, since my undergraduate senior thesis.
The urbane zoologist Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993)—who later became the British government’s first chief scientific adviser, from 1964 to 1971—suggested in his 1978 memoir, From Apes to Warlords, that Tots and Quots, the prestigious dining club that he convened, and which counted a number of scientist-critics among its members, was a major force for reforming relations between science, state, and society, including through the development of OR (370-371, my emphasis):
Tags: Bertrand Russell, C. P. Snow, David Bloor, David Edgerton, David Kaiser, Francis Bacon, Hilary Rose, J. D. Bernal, J. G. Crowther, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Mannheim, Steven Rose, Thomas Kuhn
In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.* This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science. These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.
Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after. These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science. C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.
A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one. Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).
Tags: Abraham Alikhanov, Artem Alikhanian, Cecil Powell, Charles Weiner, Daniela Monaldi, Hans Bethe, Harry Collins, Jean Daudin, Robert Marshak
While Robert Millikan thought, circa 1930, that signs of the synthesis of the elements could be gleaned from the energy spectrum of the cosmic radiation, in the late 1940s Armenian physicists (and brothers) Artem Alikhanian and Abraham Alikhanov thought that the way forward in the nascent field of particle physics was by measuring the cosmic radiation’s mass spectrum. It turned out that they were right that unknown particles existed within that spectrum, but wrong that measuring that spectrum was the best path to take to stake discovery claims to them.
Alikhanian and Alikhanov’s work on cosmic radiation dates—remarkably, given that they were Soviet—to World War II, when, like Italians working at the same time (Monaldi, “Life of µ”), they used counter devices to measure the radiation’s properties. In the early postwar years, they (with a third reseracher, A. Weissenberg, on whom I have found little information) assembled counters in tiers (diagram at right*) so that they could make a rough measurement of the deflection of particles in a magnetic field, and make estimates of particle mass. Doing so, they measured a large number of particle masses, which, they argued, were much heavier than the known meson (or “mesotron”, now known as the muon, or µ), and yet lighter than the proton. Because these new particles seemed to have a variety of masses, Alikhanian and Alikhanov gave them the unitary name, “varytron”.
Subsequently, using a larger magnetic field, Alikhanian and Alikhanov were able to resolve the spectrum of varytron masses into discrete clusters, ostensibly representing individual particles. Working high in the Armenian mountains, previously unacknowledged particles, especially pions, probably were passing through their apparatus. However, in those days, when particle physics began to emerge from nuclear physics and cosmic-ray studies, not only were the brothers never credited with the discovery of any new particles, this work seems to have had very little influence at all. To understand why, we need to attend to the intricacies of the sorts of scientific arguments that prevailed at that time—the sort of task I emphasized in my recent series on history-philosophy relations.
The “Death Cries” of Dark Matter? April 4, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Current Affairs.
Tags: Peter Galison, Patrick Blackett, Robert Millikan, Carl Anderson, Robert Kargon, Samuel Ting, Dmitri Skobeltsyn, Michelangelo De Maria, Arturo Russo, Paul Dirac, Giuseppe Occhialini, Donald Glaser
The cosmic ray energy spectrum is in the news! The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment (AMS-02), mounted on the International Space Station, is reporting results about the prevalence of positrons in the cosmic radiation, which otherwise comprises mostly protons. This is being touted as newsworthy, because, if there is a drop-off in that prevalence at higher energies, it will corroborate certain theories of dark matter, which propose that the mutual annihilation of dark-matter particles generates positrons of energies up to but not exceeding levels corresponding to those particles’ high mass. Similarly enticing results were reported by the PAMELA (Payload for Anti-Matter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics) experiment in 2008. The sophistication of AMS-02 will hopefully be able to take those measurements further, but, unfortunately, we will have to wait a while for more definitive results from higher-energy parts of the spectrum.
What is intriguing about this story is that it really brings us back to where particle physics began over 80 years ago. In 1930 Robert Millikan (1868-1953), the doyen of physics at the California Institute of Technology, set postdoctoral researcher Carl Anderson (1905-1991) to work on building a cloud chamber in order to measure the same thing AMS-02 is designed to measure, the energy spectrum of cosmic rays. Millikan believed that measuring the spectrum would confirm his controversial (and incorrect) theory that cosmic rays originated as photons produced in the interstellar synthesis of elements, which then created secondary radiation when they encountered atmospheric nuclei. Much in the way that every element emits a characteristic spectrum of light, Millikan figured that the energy spectrum of this secondary radiation would cluster into characteristic bands, observing which would, in effect, be like listening to the “birth cries” of the elements.1
Tags: Imre Lakatos, Karl Popper, Kent Staley, Norwood Russell Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Rudolf Carnap, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Sturm
Perhaps the greatest barrier to more effective relations between the history and philosophy of science is the notion that the two disciplines should have a lot to say to each other.
In my last post, I posited that historians might regard the philosophy of science not as a theory of science and its development, but as a lexicon that we could use selectively to describe both historical actors’ explicit reasoning and arguments, as well as the implicit reasoning informing patterns by which scientific figures have accepted, entertained, and rejected various sorts of claims. The more developed historians’ lexicon is, the more reliably will we be able to capture important intricacies of history.
Of course, this suggestion is hardly original. In 1962, when Norwood Russell Hanson (1924-1967) famously declared that “history of science without philosophy of science is blind,” and that “philosophy of science without history of science is empty” (580), he was not making a vague feel-good suggestion that the disciplines should get together, have a drink, talk more, and really get on the same page. To the contrary, he, like many philosophers, saw crucial differences between the fields, accepting:”The logical relevance of history of science to philosophy of science is nil” (585).
History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
Tags: Allan Franklin, Carl Anderson, Charles Weiner, Daniela Monaldi, Hans Reichenbach, Hilary Putnam, Imre Lakatos, Kent Staley, Paul Oppenheim, Peter Galison, R. A. Fisher
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In my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly. In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work. At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles. To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord. To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950″.