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Writing about Scientific Culture: Hentschel March 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I did my 19th century physics lecture yesterday. Mostly I used Mary Jo Nye’s invaluable Before Big Science overview, which also does a nice job of keeping the histories of physics and chemistry interlinked. I was planning on saying more about spectral analysis, but, 19th century physics being kind of a big topic, I didn’t even get the chance to bring up Kirchhoff–so it was basically: “the wave-like properties of light had been an important part of scientific practice for some time, like in the analysis of spectra [45 second description of spectra]. Now, here’s Hertz!”

But, preparing the lecture, I found two books on spectra, McGucken’s 1969 Nineteenth-Century Spectroscopy and Klaus Hentschel’s 2002 Mapping the Spectrum: Techniques of Visual Representation in Research and Teaching. Hentschel’s book is definitely going on my to-read-in-full list. Based on a preliminary survey, this looks like really exciting history. Here’s why I think so.

1) Significance is clear. If you know anything about practice in physics, astronomy, and chemistry after 1850 or so, you’ll know that spectral analysis is absolutely central. Given its centrality, there seems to be an absurdly small amount of literature on it.
2) The internal significance of method is clear. Hentschel differentiates himself from McGucken by noting that McG doesn’t really discuss spectroscopy as a visual culture–yet it very clearly is.
3) He follows cultural traditions–this isn’t a snapshot that says: visual culture is a part of spectroscopy (that much is obvious). It says, here’s how visual culture is an integral part of the history of spectroscopy. (That “research and teaching” bit in the subtitle is important–for some reason you can usually hit a home run talking about pedagogy).

One of the greatest challenges we have is to write about science as culture. The sociology of science has undoubtedly helped us to do that. (I think reception studies have probably benefited the most). But, in my mind, it’s not enough to simply portray science as a culture and call it day; you have to make a case for how culture changed and why. It’s difficult to escape discussing epistemological convictions in such cases.

Can this be done in short form? Is it the case that our books are good and our articles are bad? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. If it is the case, I definitely don’t think it has to be that way. In my class I have now systematically abused every facet of science from the medieval era to the 1800s by chopping them up into snappy 45-5o minute overviews, but I think I’ve managed to assemble a big picture of cultural change, where you can see different traditions flowing and interacting in the production of disciplines and knowledge. From a personal perspective, it’s been massively educational!

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