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Fun with Wikipedia August 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I mentioned a while ago that I was thinking of rewriting the Wikipedia page on the History of Physics from scratch.  And I did. (Archived copy here, in case you’re reading this post from this blog’s archives).  Now, there are a lot of complaints to be made about Wikipedia articles.  In the history of science, they can be almost painfully Whiggish.  In this case, I felt justified because the prior version of the History of Physics article was not only methodologically suspect, but, really, more or less unreadable, and it was clear that piecemeal amendment would not be a useful path and that no one else was going to undertake the project.

So, if an academically-trained historian is going to just swoop in and do this kind of thing, what ought to be taken into account? I feel Wikipedia is an opportunity not only to correct inadequate views, but to create a resource that can serve as both a primer on a topic, as well as a guide to various levels of literature (popular, scholarly overview, detailed scholarly work, etc…).  This can be done, I think, with judicious use of documentation.

I don’t think my take on the history of physics required many references by academic standards, but the Wikipedians can be persnickety about this kind of thing.  The Master of Physics Articles on Wikipedia, known as “Headbomb”, reverted my edit earlier this month, because I hadn’t yet put in new documentation and pictures.  That’s fixed.  I now have used the “Further Reading” section to suggest some general overviews for interested readers, while the “References” section basically serves as a “books about this particular topic” guide rather than as a “this interpretation was first suggested by” list.  On this score, by the way, there’s plenty of room for alteration and improvement, so have at ye, if you like.

Content-wise, I chopped everything prior to Galileo, and put in references to the “history of classical mechanics”, “history of optics”, “history of astronomy”, and “Aristotelian physics” articles; using the argument about the collapsing of the barrier between technical and philosophical subjects in the early 17th century as justification (and cited Dear’s “Discipline and Experience” here, but if there’s a more appropriate reference…).

A lot of Wikipedia contributors tend to have a methodology that defines, say, “physics” to include information included in such-and-such criteria, and then including everything back to prehistory matching or deemed to match those criteria as a “contribution” or “precedent”.  This is particularly a problem in dealing with the enthusiasts of Islamic science.  I’m hazy on what distinctions Islamic scholars drew (as opposed to Scholastics) between philosophy and geometric sciences, but, it seems to me, that their work can definitely be fit in the optics/mechanics/astronomy categories, and would be inappropriate to fit into the “physics” category, the modern version of which was clearly constructed over the course of the 17th and 18th (and really, 19th) centuries.  There’s also an “Islamic science” article, where someone with expertise ought to clarify what categories of knowledge were specific to that scholarly culture.

There’s also a question about what tone one should strike.  I tried to keep the article scholarly but reasonably accessible (which is pretty much what the physics articles do), with references to other articles on most unexplained topics.  These topics are frequently poorly written (“Aristotelian physics” basically reads “here are a bunch of crazy ideas that are wrong and here are people who introduced the modern ideas”–the page dedicated to Aristotle’s book, Physics, is a bit better).  But there’s nothing to be done about this without undertaking some sort of systematic campaign.  My revision is also not a completely satisfying scholarly rendering.  Specifically, I feel there ought to be a section on “Natural Philosophy” to put my discussion of early experimental and theoretical work in a better intellectual context; as well as extended information in my last section on the “Physical Sciences”.

Finally, it will be interesting to check back and see if this new article serves as a scaffold for further contributions, or if it will descend back into the morass of unreadable, disconnected, decontextualized list of “contributions” that it previously was.  In the meantime, if you feel like it, have a look, criticize, amend, etc, and feel free to open up any discussion on how these matters should be dealt with in the future.



1. Thony C. - August 29, 2008

Will; I have read through your article and find it to be a model, clear, concise and informative overview of the history of physics with all the necessary links for those who wish to deepen their knowledge. I do however have some thoughts/criticisms, which I will make here rather than on the discussion page at Wikipedia.
Firstly although I basically agree with your claim that physics, as we understand it today begins in the 17th century with the mathematical or quantative approach to the study of motion this study does have an important pre-history that should at least be mentioned in such an article; otherwise you continue the myth of Galileo pulling modern physics out of his hat with a wave of his magic telescope. I am of course referring in the first instance to the work of the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris “Physicists” in the 14th century and in the second to the work of Cardano, Tataglia and Benedetti amongst others in the 16th century all of which was known to Galileo, who can be shown to have used these researches as a starting point. I know this opens the doors for the Islamic fraction, who will correctly point out that the mediaeval European scholars were building on the work of their “superior” Islamic predecessors. However your article does refer at the beginning to the Islamic scientists and supply a link whereas it ignores the European predecessors.
My second criticism is your total neglect of the first “modern” physicist of the 17th century a man who preceded Galileo, who was highly influential and whom your completely ignore. I am of course thinking of William Gilbert. I know Galileo said that “De magnete” has too little maths but it is a book that influenced almost all physicists in the 17th century from Galileo and Kepler through to Newton and beyond. In the first half of the 17th century it was probably the most influential book on scientific method in the whole of Europe.
If and how you modify your article to accommodate my ‘criticisms’ is up to you but on the whole as I said at the beginning an excellent article and I hope that you don’t have too much trouble with other ill informed Wikipedians trying to ”improve” it.

2. Will Thomas - August 29, 2008

Hi Thony,
Very good criticisms. Arbitrarily putting Galileo first is indeed a sketchy move. Gilbert is very important, and, in terms of setting up the experimental tradition, I neglected to even mention Bacon as well. As for the other European predecessors, it is a bit dicey as to what constitutes physics. One could easily argue that Galileo does not. I tried to draw the line between mechanics and physics by referencing the “scientific revolution”, the critique of the Scholastics, and the rise of the physico-mechanical philosophy, but there’s no real reason not to mention the influences on Galileo.

I’m no real expert on the renaissance and early modern periods, so I’ll probably leave that to others who are most familiar with the various influences on Galileo and others, and the relevant literature on it.

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