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How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.


Projects and Problems as Elements of History April 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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One important theme in the history of science profession is that there is a perceived need for increased methodological sophistication.  “We” (as a profession, and as a society) need to “think about science”, or more broadly, “think about knowledge and practice” in different and exciting new ways in order to really get at the history of science, and the relationship between science, technology, and society, and to avoid being misled by dubious scientific or anti-scientific claims.

Methodological sophistication is important.  It has only been methodological reflection that warns us against, for example, necessarily regarding “religion” as a “constraint” on “science”, when, for example, theological issues might have been a “resource” in a natural philosophical cosmology.  Or, we can now appreciate that the world did not “resist” Einstein’s relativity for some years, but rather that different communities did not understand it as important or germane to their physical projects (following Andrew Warwick on Cambridge physicists, or Peter Galison on Poincaré).

In my opinion, though, methodologically we are generally pretty sound, and have been for at least two decades, if not longer.  To continue to act as though methodology were still our most pressing problem is to ignore the question of how we might attain and retain understanding through better historiographical craft.  In this respect, there are some areas where we are doing very well, which need to be highlighted for those not working in them, and there are areas where we seem to be actually losing knowledge (as a community, anyway).

Rather than go into specific examples in this post, I would like to lay out what I view as the essential problems of good historiographical craft—the charting of the relationship between historical projects, “problems” in those projects, and the proper handling of the nature and role of context. (more…)

Canonical: Buchwald on the Wave Theory of Light February 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I’m a little hesitant to include Jed Buchwald’s Rise of the Wave Theory of Light (1989) in my physics canon, not because of any flaws in the book—it very nicely accomplishes what it sets out to do—but because it’s so focused on its argument concerning the rise of the wave theory.  This means it focuses tightly on people directly involved with the rise of the wave theory, notably Augustin Jean Fresnel, and leaves some other important figures, Thomas Young for example, at the margins.

Since we haven’t done the Canonical series in a while, it’ll be useful to refresh the point of the exercise.  It is not to offer a “best of” in history of science writing or argumentation; rather it is books one can concentrate on to get a good, sophisticated overview of what happened in history.  Thus, reading Buchwald’s book, one should be aware that one is getting an explanation for the rise of the wave theory, not a history of the wave “idea”, or a tour of early 19th-century optics, which would be most useful from the “Canonical” perspective.  But, seeing as I know of no other book that covers the subject in a detailed and sophisticated way, canonical Rise of the Wave Theory of Light shall be.  We can always go back and replace it, or supplement it with a journal article or two, at a later date.

The bulk of the action in the book takes place between 1810 and 1830, which, readers should be aware, stretches across a fault line in the history of physics (i.e., read Warwick and early chapters of Jungnickel & McCormmach first; and (more…)

Primer: Augustin Jean Fresnel February 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) was a French engineer and physicist who was a key figure in the move from an “emission” theory of light to a “wave” theory of light in the optical physics of the early-nineteenth century.  Where a “ray” of light was generally taken to be a physical, if imperceptible, thing, which could (in theory) be counted, the new wave theory took a ray to be only a geometrical construct connecting a luminous source with a point on a wave front as it traveled through an ethereal medium (ether wave propagation!).

Fresnel was the son of an architect who, having a penchant for mathematics, began training at the new Ecole Polytechnique in Paris at the age of seventeen, where he received extensive instruction in methods of mathematical analysis, chemistry, and physics—an education that gave him both a background in natural philosophical conceptualizations as well as in practical technique.

Eager to make a “discovery” of any sort, he bounced between fields early on.  After he left the Ecole in 1806, he worked as an engineer with the elite Corps des Ponts et Chausées (Bridges and Roadworks Corps) for three years, and in 1810 he (more…)

Primer: The British Association December 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In 1830, Britain was on the cusp of one of its most famous eras of scientific activity.  The year before Charles Darwin unassumingly set out aboard the Beagle, the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology came off the printing press to wide and immediate acclaim.  The experimentation of Michael Faraday and James Joule in the 1830s would help spark the development of modern electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics in the ensuing decades.  The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos was already beginning to churn out rigorously prepared physical theorists.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

However, the future, as always, was unclear, and there were a number of people who were gloomy about the state of affairs in British science.  One was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Charles Babbage, who was frustrated in his search for funding for a calculating engine he had designed (and for which he would be most remembered thanks to the folk history of computing).  In 1830 he gave vent to his gloom and frustration through a book entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes, which was picked up by the Edinburgh experimentalist and scientific journal editor David Brewster (best known today as the name behind Brewster’s angle), who ran extracts in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and published his own screed in the Quarterly Review.

Babbage and Brewster were concerned that British science, unsupported by the state (which had just dissolved the Admiralty’s floundering Board of Longitude in 1828), was well behind the Continent, particularly France, where post-Revolutionary governments generously supported science and (more…)


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