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New Article in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences December 5, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverMy new article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Practices in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42 (2012): 389-431, is out.  Click here to download a free pdf copy (15MB—lots of images).  I’ll talk more about the contents of the paper in future posts. For the moment, I’d just like to publicly jot down some thoughts about the origins and thinking behind the paper, which I think is a useful exercise to do for all new publications.

The paper is self-consciously a testing ground for ideas about how to build a more synthetic historiography. First, it’s an attempt to develop a way to find interesting historical “objects” to periodize and interrelate in the history of scientific practice. In doing this, I am trying to build explicitly on the foundations for “mesoscopic” history that were laid by Peter Galison (my PhD advisor) in his big book,Image and Logic (1997). Other attempts to do this sort of thing have tended to look for very large “objects”, such as John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing” or Galison and Lorraine Daston’s attempt to classify and periodize concepts of “objectivity”. I am arguing for the importance of looking at things that are smaller, but which are not simply “local”, and things that are less “epistemic” in nature, but which nevertheless provide us with insight into past scientific arguments. These are the titular “strategies of detection”.

Second, the paper is also an attempt to summarize the already considerable past gains in the historiography of experimentation in particle physics (which is dominated by Image and Logic), and then to go deeper, retaining and extending some gains while challenging and revising others. If we imagine historiographical progress as existing along two axes of “depth” and “breadth”, this paper aims to further progress along the depth axis, while contributing only slightly to the breadth axis. But I started work on this paper while putting together the topic guide on particle physics for my Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource, which looks for new gains mainly along the breadth axis. So, in my mind, ACAP and “Strategies of Detection” are complementary branches of my thinking about the central problem of historiographical synthesis.

A few notes on the paper’s origins below the fold.

This is my first publication not stemming directly from my PhD work on operations research (OR) and related sciences. At the moment , though, this is something of a one-off project for me. Seeing as the American Institute of Physics was good enough to employ me for three years, I really wanted to have some official academic work in the history of physics to show for it. I do hope to extend the work in the future, but that will depend on me finding myself in circumstances where it’s proper to spend a lot of time on the subject matter.

However, the paper’s deepest origins go back some ways. I first read Image and Logic in 2003, in preparation for my general exams. I don’t think Peter ever actually asks about his own work on general exams—in fact, it’s worth pointing out that he never used his position as an advisor as a means of spreading his own ideas—so I probably read the book more closely than I should have. But I didn’t suffer for it: it struck me immediately as an example of good history-writing craftsmanship, and it stuck with me as something that demanded that what constituted good craftsmanship was something that should be better articulated.

Before I settled into my dissertation work, I also thought seriously about working in the history of physics. As an undergraduate, I studied a lot of physics, and, in my first year of PhD work, I took a course on particle physics in Harvard’s physics department with John Huth. One of the assignments in that class was either to build a particle detector,* or to do a presentation on a historical particle detection technology. Seeing as I was interested in the physicist Patrick Blackett from my undergraduate thesis on OR—and seeing as I wasn’t about to build a particle detector while being in the middle of a PhD program in history—I opted to look at Blackett’s work on cloud chambers.

Working on that project (which turned out terribly), I noticed a curious parallel in the language Blackett used in his foreword to a cloud chamber atlas and in an article he wrote on his wartime work in OR, referring to what was necessary to reveal the “hitherto unknown”. This led to a larger meditation on Blackett’s notions of “scientific method,” which became one of the pillars in my 2007 BJHS paper, “Heuristics of War”.

There were a few nagging reasons why I decided to revisit the subject. First, I don’t think my discussion of Blackett’s interpretive practices in “Heuristics of War” is especially good. In particular, my portrait of the intricacies of the interpretation process implied that experimenters were able to arrive at reliable interpretations. Most notably, I didn’t let on that when Blackett identified positrons in his chamber, he was no doubt actually seeing a lot of muons, too, but didn’t realize it (seeing as they hadn’t been “discovered”). You could charitably say I was being careful not to be ahistorical, but it’s more honest to chalk it up to incomplete understanding on my part. In fact, the interpretive process was even more heuristic than I argued!

Another issue that nagged at me was the stark epistemic divide that Galison drew between the “image” and “logic” traditions, which is at the center of my disagreements with Galison’s history in my new paper. I remember thinking on my first reading of the book that people in the logic tradition always seemed to be trying to coax as much spatial resolution as they could out of their counter arrays, suggesting that their mentality was not so different from image-tradition experimenters as Galison seemed to suggest. I didn’t dwell on this until, when putting together a post for this blog, I ran across philosopher Kent Staley’s 1999 critique of the image-logic divide. He made the opposite point, that, implicitly or explicitly, both traditions used statistical forms of argument. I posted on Staley’s critique in 2009, and, if you read that post, you can see that that post was the kernel for my new paper. (There will be more on Staley’s critique in a follow-up post, as this actually ended up getting played down in my final draft.)

Shortly after that post, I reflected on this blog at some length (beginning here) on the arguments in Galison and Daston’s Objectivity (2007). It was that summer that I became more sensitive to the way that Galison has been trying to reconcile history with epistemology, which seems to have come from the general sense in the post-1980s historiography that the history of science was irreconcilable with the philosophy of science, and that new solutions to the problem of good epistemology would also serve as solutions to the problem of good history. In attempting to understand what would make for better history through this blog, this was just the presumption that I was beginning to feel needed to be highlighted and seriously questioned.

That said, I also shared Galison’s and Daston’s frustration with the historiography of case studies, and was interested in and sympathetic to their attempts to grapple with it through the program of “historical epistemology”. While I wasn’t convinced by the epistemological idealism seemingly at work in Image and Logic and Objectivity—I felt it made scientists’ thinking too “automated”—I was convinced by Galison’s argument in How Experiments End (1987) that experimenters’ interpretations of results were not well described in terms of a theory bias, and his extension of that idea in Image and Logic to make interpretive practices the subject of mesoscopic tradition-mapping. (More on historical epistemology when I address the Staley critique.)

So, these were the ideas provided the analytical framework for “Strategies of Detection,” while the actual content stems from reading a broad array of physics papers, which I originally did to put together the timeline in the aforementioned topic guide, and which I supplemented after arriving at Imperial. As I have had to do this project in between my main projects, I didn’t get a chance to flesh out the picture with thorough archive work. However, I think it would be fun to do a day in the Blackett archives at the Royal Society here in London, and maybe a day at the Cecil Powell archives in Bristol to see how my arguments shake out at the laboratory notebook level. Maybe I’ll have a chance to do this in the new year, in which case look for a supplement here.

*One student actually built a detector, and it is my one experience actually “seeing” cosmic rays in-person. Go to 3:20 in this video to see the same thing; watch the rest of the video to learn how to build your own very rudimentary cloud chamber.


1. Jim Grozier - December 16, 2012

Thanks Will – it’s so refreshing to read a bit of actual history-of-science for a change, instead of all those studies that seem to tiptoe around the science and then concentrate on the peripheral stuff instead (not that context isn’t important, but context without content makes no sense at all).

You should have been at the meeting in Edinburgh a week ago which celebrated the centenary of the cloud chamber and the discovery of cosmic rays. Don Perkins (who in 1947 was a fairly junior member of Powell’s team, though the first pion observation is credited to him) was there, fit as a fiddle at 87, as were Sir Arnold Wolfendale and Alan Watson. Malcolm Longair also gave a cracking talk. They had working cloud chambers too!

It was interesting to hear, at that meeting, that Anderson was encouraged to publish his positron observation by his mentor, the ambitious Millikan, and hence got the credit ahead of Blackett and Occhialini, despite the fact that they had apparently seen pair production before Anderson saw his positron. Blackett must have learnt a lesson from this, because 15 years later he was the one urging the “conservative” (according to Wolfendale) Rochester and Butler to publish their “V particle” result.

If you’re planning to look at the Powell archives, why not talk to Perkins too, while you still can?

Jim Grozier.

Will Thomas - December 16, 2012

Thanks for the comments, Jim — I’m glad you enjoyed it! Also thanks very much for the account of the Edinburgh conference. It sounds like it was really wonderful. I hadn’t even heard about it, though it was so close to me returning to the US for the holidays I probably couldn’t have made it. I recently had to miss a conference in Germany on cosmic rays as well, which had a lot of physicists at it. And, I would LOVE to see a working expansion cloud chamber.

It would indeed be a very good idea to talk to Perkins. He’s written a few historical retrospectives, but I haven’t seen an oral history. On the V particles, I was just recently reading an account, by Rochester I think, which said that Blackett was fairly conservative there, too. They first spotted them in 1946, but they didn’t publish on them until 1947, after they had spotted two more examples. (The same account also noted that Anderson’s 30-odd instances from 1949 were not of such high quality as to settle the issue.) On the positron, one of the things I love is how they could see all kinds of examples of pair production, and only see electrons and protons in them. Blackett’s missed Nobel Prize over that is probably the best known, but I’ve seen other accounts of people kicking themselves over missing the positron, too. Also interesting is that there are fewer stories of missing the muon, even though they’re all over the place.

EDIT: The above-mentioned account was actually by Clifford Butler, a 1999 piece on Blackett in Notes and Records of the Royal Society. Here’s what he says about the V-particles: “When the neutral V-event was found in the autumn of 1946, its interpretation was widely discussed in the laboratory. Blackett was soon fairly convinced that it was due to a new decay process, but he would not allow immediate publication. After the discovery of the second event in May 1947, urgent publication was agreed. Nevertheless, the preparation of the short paper for Nature took several months.”

2. Jim Grozier - December 16, 2012

Well, I managed to get Melanie Keane to allow me 300 words in Viewpoint for a report of the Edinburgh conference – not that you can say much in 300 words! So don’t hold your breath!

It was Wolfendale who spoke about Blackett urging the other two on – but he was not terribly sure about it. He said he knew Rochester quite well, having followed him to Durham (where he, Wolfendale, still is).

The cloud chamber was a diffusion type made by Phywe of Gottingen – it seems there is quite a market for them nowadays because of all the outreach work and people wanting kids to see stuff. Actually there was also a smaller one on display, courtesy I think of Alan Walker, a local prof. What amused me about that was that the temperature gradient was maintained by ice at the bottom and a hot water bottle on the top!

Will you get a chance to do a lecture on this topic in the 20th century history option of the MSc? (Not that I’m planning to do that, but I think it would be a very welcome addition!)

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