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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.


Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.

“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980).  It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted.  Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.

Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays.  (more…)

Schaffer Turns to Practice April 7, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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The two articles we are looking at today are among the best-known works of Simon Schaffer:

(1) “Astronomers Mark Time: Discipline and the Personal Equation,” Science in Context 2 (1988): 115-145.

(2) “Glass Works: Newton’s Prisms and the Uses of Experiment,” in The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences (1989), edited by David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer.

19th-century glass factory

19th-century glass factory

The articles stand at an important turning point in Schaffer’s oeuvre, and their style should be very familiar to history of science professionals working in the last 20 years, because both depart from Schaffer’s early concern with the construction of systems of ideas, and both put a specific epistemic practice under the microscope, in this case: striving for precision in observation, and replicating experimental results.  At the time, though, these kinds of studies were reasonably novel.  The Uses of Experiment volume, in particular, was an (more…)

Primer: Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Color December 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post is written by frequent visitor Thony Christie, a dedicated amateur historian who “once had a semi-professional background”.  He has approved a few editorial truncations and rephrasings.

Update: Not long after this blog post, Thony started his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.

In 1672 the still relatively young and unknown Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, published his first piece of experimental philosophy: “A Serie’s of Quere’s Propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be Determin’d by Experiments, Positively and Directly Concluding His New Theory of Light and Colours; and Here Recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they Were Generously Imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the Said Mr. Newtons of July 8.1672”  in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  The work became a touchstone in the establishment of the short report of experimental results in a serialized publication as a major means of scientific communication.  The Philosophical Transactions had existed for seven years prior to Newton’s contribution, but had been dedicated primarily to reporting the Royal Society’s regular piecemeal correspondence rather than the systematic presentation of experiments and observations, which was at that time accomplished mainly in the book format.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

As to the content of Newton’s first publication, it reported a series of simple but elegant experiments with a beam of sunlight and a couple of glass prisms, in which Newton demonstrated that light is not homogeneous and white, but heterogeneous, and made up of different colours each of which (more…)


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