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Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 2 December 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Forgetting is integral to scientific advance, but neither our understanding of the process of science nor our appreciation of its historical development can accept the limitations imposed by such forgetfulness. (Einstein’s Generation, p. 420)

David Edgerton has introduced the term “anti-history” to describe inadequacies of past historical accounts, which, for the sake of advocating some point, were systematically neglectful in portraying the history of the subject they were addressing.  Edgerton’s central concern is the history of science in Britain, and especially the history of the relationship between science, technology, and the British state.  “Anti-historian” commentators, he argues, had cause to systematically portray the history of state science and expertise in terms of its inadequacy or absence, because they viewed the further and proper deployment of science, technology, and modernization by the state as key to future social and national progress.  (See his Warfare State, 2006, and “C. P. Snow as Anti-Historian of British Science: Revisiting the Technocratic Moment, 1959-1964” History of Science 2005: 187-208).

As strong of an advocate for Edgerton’s historiographical insights as I am, I feel that the “anti-history” critique is somewhat unfair, mainly since it focuses on historical actors’ failure to be good historians, which distracts from the points they were trying to make (regardless of those points’ validity).  The real force of Edgerton’s critique lands on the genealogy of historians who have continued to take those historical narratives and their terms at face value, rather than recognizing them for the instruments of commentary and advocacy that they were.  In other words, the term “anti-history” fails to make a distinction between the instrumental uses of history made in everyday life and the task of the professional historian.

(I have argued on this blog that historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights, and that this has seeped into the historical narratives we professionally produce.  Edgerton made a similar point in 1993 for the specific case of the “Social Construction of Technology” program.)

In Einstein’s Generation, and exemplified by the quote above, Richard Staley recognizes the crucial function that narrative-building plays for historical actors as they attempt to comprehend and develop what they are doing, focusing on the distinction built in the early 1900s between “classical” and “modern” physics, which has subsequently been taken for granted by generations of historians. The conscientious historian will both escape from the terms of actor-constructed history, as well as examine what function that history-building played.  This is a recent and underappreciated, but not entirely new insight.  On this blog, we have already seen how Simon Schaffer made a very similar point with respect to the work of Newton and those who interpreted Newton’s work to advance their own ends.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone until now actually claim that historical actors were well-served by being bad historians.

Staley persuasively argues through the last 130 pages of his book that, even when historical actors do not set out to write history for its own sake, they nevertheless must construct a history to make their actions and advocacy coherent and cogent, both for themselves and for those they wish to persuade.  (By the way, see a related discussion at History of Economics Playground.)  Thus histories of relativity began to be constructed even before relativity emerged as a coherent physical program, and, Staley argues, many of the basic terms of later histories were set by default in these embryonic narratives.

As I noted in pt. 1, it is now well-established that Einstein’s personal path to relativity seems to have had little to do with the Michelson-Morley experiment, despite their traditional association with each other.  Staley shows, though, it was Einstein himself who first portrayed his work as following from that result in a 1907 contribution to Johannes Stark’s Jahrbuch der Radioaktivität und Elektronik (pp. 309-311).  Within the context of the experimental physics of the electron, Einstein’s and Lorentz’s work was often grouped together as a single theory of “relativity”, because of their formal equivalence, including by those who were not persuaded of their equations’ prospects for experimental success.  By the terms of such a history, Einstein figures as a sort of runner-up, or, at best, refiner in the candidature of a possibly important contribution to the burgeoning physics of the electron.

Yet, such a casting of history could be valuable to Einstein.  For scientific work to be understood as a relevant contribution to the work of a scientific community, the community’s work must be understood as proceeding on a path toward the work in question.  Different scientists may follow different paths, and casting one’s own work as a consequence of others’ paths is an important way of gaining attention and acceptance.  As Staley notes, “…Einstein often chooses to write from a perspective that incorporates but is not limited to his own; he writes to represent the perspective of a community.  This generalized voice is at least as powerful and important to the author as his own” (p. 317).

Similarly, it has now long been noted that the mathematician Hermann Minkowski’s 1908 publication of four-dimensional space-time geometry was elemental in persuading some physicists of the conceptual import of Einstein’s particular contribution.  Staley shows that Minkowski, too, had his own history of relativity, which emphasized that it was a missed opportunity for pure mathematicians to make a triumphant contribution to a neighboring discipline by circumventing the tortuous path leading through Lorentz and Einstein.  This narrative also suggested possible future opportunities for mathematicians (pp. 319-324).

If scientific knowledge is built by securing communal assent over the claims made by following individual paths, new contributions must also re-narrate others’ paths so that they lead to that contribution.  Hence, narratives built in support of new contributions must necessarily excise the cacophony of narratives that have led to a present state of affairs, as well as a large number of concerns constitutive to that state of affairs, in order to justify a particular path forward.  I believe Staley means something like this when he claims that “forgetting is integral to scientific advance”.

Staley spends a lot of analytical effort on a truly great narrative coup: the “co-creation” of “classical” and “modern” physics (summarized in Isis 2005: 530-558, pay wall), which defined as belonging to a prior epoch of physics a host of bold, new, philosophically-informed physical approaches that had sprung up in the contexts of energetics, the possibility of an “electromagnetic worldview”, and the persistence of mechanical models of nature.

Staley argues that the rift was neither immediately obvious, nor inherently coherent.  The term “classical” was used sporadically and without firm meaning, and only began to be coherently used at the elite 1911 Solvay Conference.  Its use there was prompted by the need to define a fundamental distinction between Ludwig Boltzmann’s (1844-1906) analytical approach to blackbody radiation and Max Planck’s, but it came to be used more broadly as a way of clarifying the progressive characteristics of relativity and quantized energy, and securing agreement about those characteristics within a crucial audience.  The distinction would come to articulate scientists’ memories of their activities and concerns in that era.  It would also have residual effects such as historiographically consigning James Jeans to the status of “classical” physicist, even though it had been entirely possible to understand him as participating in a radical program with Einstein and Planck (as Paul Ehrenfest did around 1908-9, pp. 391-392).

Staley notes the utility of the classical-modern distinction: “…within the physics community the concept of a classical physics—even of a classical world—would go on to become a potent heuristic foil for the development of a new quantum theory and mechanics of the atom, as Niels Bohr’s work soon began to show” (p. 419).  Useful as the distinction may have been for moving forward, looking backward its terms conceal too many important historical concerns and trends for historians to use as an analytical instrument.  Staley establishes it as its own subject of analysis.



1. Giant’s Shoulders « The Renaissance Mathematicus - January 15, 2010

[…] at Ether Wave Propaganda presents a fascinating two-part review essay on Richard Staley’s book Einstein’s Generation. As always with Will offering the reader much food for […]

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