Where did all the scientists go? March 19, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: David Kaiser, James Conant
A bedtime story.
Once upon a time, most historians of scientists were Scientists who took an interest in history. They had a close relationship to the Philosophers. In fact, the origins of the field are usually traced to Harvard President James B. Conant’s desire to find out How Science Works. They did some pretty good work, but took too many things to be Obvious that were actually quite Problematic. So, some Analysts became involved, and made some Notable Contributions. Soon the Analysts only wanted to talk amongst themselves, and eventually the Science Wars broke out, and this made the Scientists go away, and thus the Analysts had the history of science all to themselves. The End.
I think most everyone now agrees that the science wars were absurd; but I haven’t heard much talk of rebuilding from the rubble. Frankly, I miss the scientists (yes, of course, there are plenty who are still around, but we’re painting in broad strokes here). Sure, they weren’t the best historians in the world, and most of them weren’t willing to follow the rest of us into some really interesting questions, but there are a lot of deep thinkers out there among their ranks. Here at the AIP, we are actually closer to them than to academic science studies. But much of the talk seems to be “heritage this” and “preservation that” (commensurate with the fact that the History Center is basically a co-entity with the fabulous Niels Bohr Library and Archives). Going back to square one, there’s a reason why there was so much enthusiasm for the history of science after World War II, and it wasn’t all about justifying public expenditure. I’ll compact the way I see it into a pithy sentence: history makes us more aware of the assumptions underlying practices (whether in history or today).
I think we need to put more effort into putting out the kinds of studies that scientists actually find professionally interesting. Personally, I know Dave Kaiser’s work on Feynman diagrams, which is read in the physics community, and also managed to receive the HSS Pfizer Prize. Hopefully if we do good enough work and practice good enough outreach, we might see some more interesting discussions about practice in the scientific communities as well. Then maybe the philosophers can come in from the cold, too. That’s not really my field, though. I just don’t want scientists to think of what I do as an antiquarian enterprise.