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Biography and Canon-Building July 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Crosbie Smith’s Science of Energy probably takes the place in the canon of 19th century physics history writing from Energy and Empire, a biography of William Thomson that Smith co-wrote with Norton Wise. The latter is an excellent book, and would be replaced not for any defects in quality, but more because the former is more compact and also broader in its scope–more essential.

But this brings up a topic I’ve been meaning to address: biography. The best biographies not only place their subjects in their context, but they use their subjects to give the reader a kind of guided tour through that context. Smith and Wise certainly do that, and I mentioned once before that Roger Hahn’s biography of Laplace is also good. I think I’ve also suggested that it’s possible that historians of science are now really very good at writing books, but aren’t quite sure what to do with the short form. If that’s true, then the best books are probably biographies. If I’m looking for biographical information on a scientist, I’m always glad if there’s something written in the post-1990, and preferably the post-2000 period, because those biographies almost inevitably demonstrate a maturity towards science-writing that is frequently lacking in prior works, which always seem to have something on the precocious childhood, a bit on the school days, some painfully in-depth treatment of some supposedly crucial moment (“did he or didn’t he write this letter before so-and-so knew of the results of XYZ?”), and then maybe a too-detailed account of the science, or, alternatively, an almost total neglect of the science in favor of an account of the proverbial “human side” of science.

Now, it’s probably for most of these aspects of prior works that biography seems to be a sort of embarrassing topic for scholars to address, something that’s historiographically gauche, maybe because in choosing just one individual you inevitably provide them with too much agency, or it’s too much of a foray into pop history, or something similarly naughty.

I’m not too sure that writing a biography was ever the career-killer I’ve sometimes heard it made out to be. A lot of good historians have written pretty definitive biographies (of course, there will never be definitive biographies of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Darwin), but, more to the point, I think, while there will always be lousy biographies, most academic historians have learned the pitfalls and become conscious of the clichés well enough. Personally, I would not hesitate to make a good biography a canonical reference, if there were no other suitable introduction to a historical milieu.

Whose biography should be chosen is another question. Do we need to know the biographies of some of the big names, for example? Darwin, probably, because the length of his significant career is so long. I would hesitate to say Einstein, because he’s sort of an outlying figure in certain ways, so he’s not a particularly good introduction to his scientific context. One should certainly read about relativity, but I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary to read an Einstein biography. Anyway, whose biographies are important is definitely food for further thought.

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