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In Praise of Praise: How Historians Could Improve Celebratory History May 10, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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This afternoon, thanks to the initiative of Jim Grozier, I am giving a talk at the weekly High Energy Physics seminar at UCL.  The subject will be my work on experimentation in early particle physics.  While my “Strategies of Detection” paper mainly concerns the problem of how to build “mesoscopic” histories of experimental practices, my talk will repurpose my argument to discuss how we can articulate and evaluate experimental ingenuity and skill.  This jibes with other thoughts I’ve had about whether it could ever be considered legitimate for a professional historian to write a celebratory narrative of scientific progress.  The very notion triggers the raising of well-disciplined eyebrows: isn’t it the job of professional historians to problematize celebratory narratives?  But, really, I can’t think of a good reason why not, and it seems to me there is substantial opportunity to improve the genre.

The celebratory genre, I think we can argue, remains in an undeveloped state, constrained by the domineering influence of citation practices.  The objective of citation is to identify where credit is to be allotted, or where more information can be obtained, about a particular claim in a scientific paper.  Typically, a citation is concerned with the claim itself.  How the claim was developed may be discussed, but mainly if the claim is considered dubious or in need of qualification.  Prizes, likewise, are usually given for achieving a particular result, or making a particular discovery.  Whether the result or discovery was largely the product of serendipity, or great experimental skill and ingenuity may be taken into account.  However, discussion is likely to be limited to a description of an experimental setup, or use terms such as “elegant”, devoid of contextual discussion of what would constitute a typical, mediocre experimental setup.  I have seen few inquiries into what is considered to constitute “skillfulness” or “ingenuity” or “elegance,” and how that changes with time in various experimental cultures.

By defining what these sorts of terms mean, it may be possible to recognize, and more easily teach, what makes an experimenter—or theorist, for that matter—a good experimenter, theorist, etc., over the course of their body of work, even if they never made a historic discovery.

To a certain extent, we can get away with talking about the precision of instrumentation, but a very good experimenter, it seems to me, will develop a good sense of understanding what sorts of things need to be measured to make useful contributions to a body of knowledge, what sorts of things can be measured to a useful degree of precision, and then being aware of and being able to marshal various available experimental resources to those ends.  There are, no doubt, other facets of experimental skill, but this encapsulates the facet I try to capture in my paper.

As is well established, when Carl Anderson discovered the positron, he was actually attempting to measure the energy spectrum of the secondary cosmic radiation.  I argue that his methods for doing so were imprecise, but nevertheless represented a pathbreaking use of inferential reasoning.  Within this work, Anderson’s discovery of the positron was, effectively, serendipitous.  He was not looking for new particles, as, indeed, the inferential methods he used in making his energy measurements precluded discovery.  However, his use of those methods also made it possible to identify particles that simply could not be interpreted as a known particle.  The identification of the particle as a positive equivalent of the electron was by no means established (and was, in fact, subjected to subsequent experiments), but it was, after that point, difficult to deny that what was sometimes generically called the “hitherto unknown” had been seen.  But, as I also argue, it was Patrick Blackett and Giuseppe Occhialini’s ability to aggregate evidence that made it clear that positrons were not simply those particles that could not otherwise be explained away as protons or electrons, that they were, in fact, very prevalent.

I would also point to Cecil Powell’s experimental and interpretive technique as particularly skillful.  Aside from his work in developing the technology of the nuclear emulsion (in cooperation with industrial manufacturers of photographic film), his understanding of nuclear physics and the nuclear interactions that could take place in his emulsions, allowed him to make a deeply elaborate argument that the “primary” and “secondary” mesons he identified in his emulsions differed in mass.  This was an extraordinarily important accomplishment because it was able to bring confidence to an interpretive matter that was at that time fraught with specious claims to the detection of particles of irregular mass.  Once Robert Marshak and Hans Bethe’s work on Marshak’s “two meson” theory established that tracks with no evident nuclear disintegration were, indeed, very likely spontaneous decays, the Powell group was well prepared to make new discoveries by observing particles’ “decay modes”.  Meanwhile, the imprecise counter experiments of Alikhanian and Alikhanov might well have been accepted as evidence of the “hitherto unknown,” but that method of experimentation would prove inadequate in an age of more rapid discovery.

While I would hesitate to presume that historians and philosophers can make major contributions to present-day experimental practices by helping to articulate experimenters’ strategies, I do believe clarifying and articulating the strategies experimenters used in the past could encourage scientists to speak more precisely and frequently about how experimental technique has evolved.  This would, I think, make the persuasive power of experimental results more widely understood, both within and beyond the scientific community.  It might also encourage the awarding of prizes for scientific skill, rather than just the results those skills produce.


1. Thony Christie - May 10, 2013

As you know Will I’m the last person in the world who would start gushing about Galileo Galilei however his experimental set up for determining the laws of fall shows a level of ingenuity that certainly deserves praise even from the most critical and objective of historians.

Another example would be Newton’s ingenuity in polishing a spherical telescope mirror that actually functioned. A process for which he invented new metallic alloys and completely new polishing techniques.

As a historian I see no problem in giving praise where praise is due.

Michael Weiss - May 10, 2013

It’s worth noting that in the early part of the 20th century, some historians maintained, for a priori reasons, that Galileo hadn’t actually performed the experiments he claimed. Opinions changed when other historians actually replicated some of the disputed experiments (and also delved into his unpublished papers).

Not that Galileo was completely exonerated…

2. Michael Bycroft - May 10, 2013

Very nice post, to which my main response is “why didn’t I think of that?” The celebratory genre you propose seems so obvious once you see the proposal, and yet as you point out it has received very little attention.

My hunch is that the historiographical values that cause people to be suspicious of celebratory narratives are the same values that cause people to study skills rather than discoveries, so that it is rare to find someone who is interested in skills but does not have that generalised suspicion of celebration.

I wonder whether your skills-based approach gets around the standard criticism of celebratory narratives in the history of science, namely that it ignores the collective aspect of science. I guess one could praise the skill or ingenuity of a team of experimenters. But by the same token one could also praise a particular discovery that has been made by a team of experimenters–so the skill-based account is not superior on that score.

Perhaps the skills-based account evades the “individual hero” criticism because, as you suggest, a praiseworthy experimenter may not actually make any influential or “historic” discoveries, which means that the skills-based account does not attribute any special causal efficacy to the people it praises. But presumably you would want to say that praiseworthy experimenters can have special causal efficacy in establishing a tradition of other praiseworthy experimenters. So the skills-based account, if it is to work as a historical narrative, is just as susceptible to the “individual hero” criticism as is the discovery-based account.

Will Thomas - May 10, 2013

Thanks Thony and Michaels,

Michael B., I think you’re right to concentrate on the “collective” aspect of science in attempting to account for antipathy to celebratory narratives, because celebration is tautologically confined to the celebrators, thus excluding wider communities by definition. That said, while studying “boundaries” is a historiographical preference—precisely, I think because it avoids privileging a particular perspective—there is no rule saying that the practices, ideas, and skills of a particular community should not ever be studied in isolation.

In my “Strategies of Detection” paper, I dissect experimental practice into a handful of particular strategies that experimenters use. The skill aspect comes in when a particular scientist chooses a set of strategies for working with a particular instrument to perform a particular task. The degree to which these skills will be accepted/appreciated by others is apt to vary across an inhomogeneous audience, which historians can chart if it seems worthwhile (say, in the case of a particularly consequential experiment). However, historians may also use their own standards to evaluate an experimenter’s skill in selecting strategies, which may have nevertheless resulted in an incorrect result, or were not really celebrated at the time (as I argue with respect to Blackett and Occhialini’s identification of the prevalence of positrons in the cosmic radiation).

I don’t tend to treat these strategies as discrete techniques to be invented by a particular heroic individual (like, say, PCR from Paul Rabinow’s well-known study). Rather, techniques may grow in importance and sophistication through time from unremarkable beginnings. In the case of decay mode analysis, Powell certainly didn’t invent the idea (a decay mode of the muon/mesotron had been identified in a photo before the war), nor did he intentionally use it in identifying the pion (or, more precisely, the mass difference between the primary and secondary mesons in a spontaneous decay). However, it was in the wake of his group’s detection of the pion that decay mode analysis became a prominent strategy in particle detection.

So, what I’m saying, I guess, is that we don’t need to suppose a whig narrative or a heroic contribution by identifying skillful experimentation, but we do need to recognize that we are, of course, confining the definition of skill to the perspective of what Harry Collins would call a “core set”.

3. Michael Weiss - May 10, 2013

“…isn’t it the *job* of professional historians to problematize celebratory narratives?”

I think I detect a satiric edge, but I’m wondering — is this really the standard viewpoint among modern science historians? This strikes me as nearly as tendentious as the old cheerleading approach.

Or maybe ‘problematize’ doesn’t mean what I think it does.

“…a very good experimenter, it seems to me, will develop a good sense of understanding what sorts of things need to be measured to make useful contributions to a body of knowledge, what sorts of things can be measured to a useful degree of precision, and then being aware of and being able to marshal various available experimental resources to those ends.”

Nice description. With small modifications, it also describes a good theorist, or mathematician, or (for that matter) statesman.

Will Thomas - May 10, 2013

It is a bit satirical, but only a bit. I think historians would take “problematize” not to mean “invalidate” so much as it would mean “complicate” or “make to seem less inevitable”. In principle, this involves coming to a more thorough understanding of the factors leading to the acceptance of a particular point of view. Again in principle, then, a problematized narrative can lead to stronger understanding of historical actors’ accomplishments.

That said, problematized narratives often exist in tension with, or as a “corrective” to some baseline celebratory narrative, and therefore tend not to be celebratory themselves. Thus, while, in principle, a problematized narrative can lead to an epistemologically richer account, it usually involves highlighting a “social” component: the tacitly accepted idea, the trusted instrument, the rhetorical skill of scientists in their besting of opponents.

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