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Where did all the scientists go? March 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Will Thomas - March 19, 2008

To make me sound less like a render of garments and a gnasher of teeth, let me reframe this idea. I don’t think there was ever some sort of “golden age” when scientists were really bright about history. Rather, in my historical work, I’ve witnessed a lot of old high end discussions about practice, but these discussions haven’t really registered among scientists as topics of historical interest. That’s a gap we now (and really only now) have the power to close.

We can gain a lot from gaining more access to scientists’ debates about practice, and encouraging them to hold them more openly. They can see that many of their debates have deep roots. (This is definitely the case in OR–same damn debate for 50 years now).

2. Brian Sallur - August 13, 2008

I am fed up with listening to narrow minded, fixed focused scientists
carrying on about Dark matter.
Why should the Universe always have to conform to 21St century theories. Astrophysist’s will not be happy until the Universe agrees with them. What arrogance!
Well, as an non professional my theory is every bit as feasible as theirs.
Dark matter is in my opinion, a figment of the Astrophysist’s lack of imagination.
There no hope of them ever seeing or measuring the source of all energies contained within the Universe. The best you can hope for is to see the or measure the results of the transition from the Aether.
By the time you have discovered an energy in the Universe it’s already too late to capture the process.
A scientific theory is a still nothing more than an idea, and it remains so until proved to be a fact.
Scientists would do well to get used to this.


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