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HSS Highlights, Pt. 1 November 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been on two trips since Pittsburgh (Ann Arbor to visit friends and see the Northwestern Wildcats manufacture a sloppy, soggy victory over Michigan–go ‘Cats!–and Maine for an oral history interview).  So, doing a recap of highlights of sessions I saw seems less like “hot news” than it might have been.  In fact, it seems like ancient history.  But I think a recap post is actually better with a slight time delay.  One, I promised some folks I wasn’t a conference insta-blogger, and, two, it reduces the ephemerality of the conference experience to come back to it a couple weeks later.

First off, while I’ve sometimes characterized conference presentations here as working along a “colloquium-journal-edited volume” axis of disconnected scholarship, this is more a general criticism of the form.  I think it’s OK to pick apart Isis articles from time to time, since it is the flagship journal of the history of science, after all.  But picking apart conference talks seems unfair to the tentative nature of the conference talk form, so we won’t be doing that.  I will, however, just briefly mention as a lowlight the weirdly rude non-reception given to the welcoming speech by Pitt’s provost.  What was up with that?

On highlights, the first thing I want to throw out there is the co-location with the Philosophy of Science Association conference.  I think it’s fair to say that for the past two or three decades, the history of science has been much more closely connected to the sociology of science than the philosophy of science, and I think it’s a good project to try and bring the philosophers back in.

I dropped in on some PSA sessions.  At a glance, I like the way the philosophers talk and argue: their linguistic precision and the degree to which they engage with problematic issues in a constructive fashion is something from which historians could learn.  I don’t think I’d want to be a philosopher, though.  One reason I think we lost touch with them over the years is that the theories serve more to dissect the structure of arguments than to illustrate or explain historical practice.  It’s also interesting what a motley group the philosophers are.  Some philosophers’ work seemed familiar enough, while others’ looked more like the operations research work I study (Bayesian decision processes and such) rather than the historiography I practice.  It’ll be worth throwing some further speculation about the relationship between philosophy, sociology, and history on the long-term agenda for this blog.

My favorite sessions were probably those dedicated to the history of physics, a traditionally much-loved, recently little-loved field, which seems to be gaining a new methodology.  On Friday, there was a good session on “Divergent Struggles in the Evolution of Relativity” with Alberto Martinez, Scott Walter, and Daniel Kennefick, with commentary by Richard Staley.  Martinez’s talk gave a broad outline history of 19th-century kinematics, which really functioned along the lines of what I’ve been calling a “fluid taxonomy”—lots of actors, lots of variations on an intellectual theme, veering from practical engineering to the abstract theorization on the relativity of motion that Einstein picked up on.  This is historical work at its most useful, in my opinion, charting out little-known, but probably very important territories.

Walter’s work focused on the reception of relativity research enlivened in the 1990s by Andy Warwick.  This was less expansive than Martinez’s talk, but still focused on the content of scientific oeuvres rather than the creation of specific works, which is an important trend on the rise in the history of science.  I also liked the challenge to some of Warwick’s more particular conclusions about the pre-1918 “understanding” of relativity in Britain.  Kennefick’s talk was also good, as was Staley’s commentary, which focused on historiographical method.  Staley has a forthcoming book called Einstein’s Generation, which promises further focus on community and oeuvres.  We are scheduled to review it here.

On Sunday, there was also a good Heisenberg session with Suman Seth, Kristian Camilleri, Cathryn Carson, and David Cassidy, whose Uncertainty biography is a touchstone in the Heisenberg studies subfield.  I’m of the opinion that the historiographical balance is already pretty heavily weighted toward Heisenberg, but these talks show that there continues to be new questions to be asked, new methods to apply, and new material to be examined.  As Carson mentioned to me, there is a strong new emphasis on characterizing the day-to-day practice of physics and overall oeuvres (her talk had an interesting take on the “philosophical” nature of Heisenberg’s methodology).  This is methodologically complementary with say, Walter’s take on relativity, mentioned above.

I missed Seth’s talk, unfortunately, because I was dropping in on Princeton grad student Lindy Bowles’ talk on the history of the journal Nature.  I’ve seen a little of her work before from the Princeton-Harvard “PhunDay” workshop, and I like the way it’s shaping up as an examination of the evolving function of Nature in the scientific community.  Again, an emphasis on communities of actors where the details matter—as with Martinez’s talk, it needed a guide to the actors to keep things straight, which is the way things should be.

When I pick this post up in Pt. 2, I’ll give a quick shout-out to some work pertinent to my own interests before moving on to a session on 18th-century scientific spectacles. which I attended because of the reading on Schaffer I’ve been doing for this site.  I’ll also offer a few quick thoughts on Steven Shapin’s distinguished lecture, which will serve to open up a longer discussion of his work on this blog, including a book club series on his latest.

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