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Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.

Useful Scientist-Written History

To this point in this post, I have considered the cases of scientists who have fully committed themselves to the social, philosophical, and historical study of science.

In general, though, scientist-writers are not a domesticated species. They are apt to write about subjects that interest them, with greater or lesser degrees of insight, often with a particular program of advocacy in mind, and very often with only a cursory knowledge of existing literature. What is to be done with such creatures?

My principal advice is that we must take from them what we can. Much of what follows will doubtless be unsatisfactory to my colleagues who study long-past periods, who are faced with writers constantly trampling on their territory with little to give in return. My examples will also be drawn primarily from the major literature that I know best, the history of modern physics; experience may differ in the historiography of other subjects.

Abraham Pais, 1918-2000. Photo by Ingbert Gruttner, Rockefeller University. Source: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Abraham Pais. Photo by Ingbert Gruttner, Rockefeller University. Source: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

First, we should acknowledge that scientists frequently are the first ones to map out history. When I was in grad school, Emilio Segrè’s From X-Rays to Quarks (1980) and Abraham Pais’s Inward Bound (1986) were still on the general exam reading list for the history of twentieth-century physics. Although avowedly “constructivist,” the bulk of Andy Pickering’s Constructing Quarks (1984) followed a surprisingly traditionalist line, punctuated by more radical moments. Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations (1999) also followed scientists’ lead. Indeed, for much of post-1960 physics, Kragh forthrightly noted the utility of participants’ “more or less historically informed recollections,” and of the magazine Physics Today.

Likewise, scientists have often done serious spadework in corners of history that historians have simply not found worth their time. Large swaths of history remain charted only by review articles and obituaries. Indeed, in a time when (non-Einstein, non-quantum revolution) history of modern physics is nearly moribund (with a few exceptions, particularly in Continental Europe), Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences could make a serious case for being the hottest journal in the field.

Lillian Hoddeson and Emilio Segrè at the Fermilab conference on the history of particle physics. Photograph by Tony Frelo.

Lillian Hoddeson and Emilio Segrè at the Fermilab conference on the history of particle physics. Photograph by Tony Frelo.

Occasionally, scientists’ and historians’ histories have even come close to intertwining. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Laurie Brown and Lillian Hoddeson organized a trio of symposia at Fermilab and SLAC on the history of particle physics, published in three volumes. While relations at these symposia were not exactly frictionless, it was nevertheless an achievement. Historians and physicists have interacted since then, such as through the APS Forum on the History of Physics, but I am aware of no recent effort of similar scale.

weinberg and richter

Steven Weinberg and Burton Richter at the SLAC conference on the history of the Standard Model. Photo by Joe Faust. 

I have also found that scientists sometimes have historical knowledge of work in earlier centuries of which I have certainly been unaware (I can’t speak for every historian). Michael Barany noted in his comment on my prior post that mathematicians are often avid scholars of mathematics history. I myself was recently told by a scientist about Francis Galton’s work on the application of statistical methods to trans-Atlantic navigation. Sometimes scientists’ knowledge in older history is basically trivia, sometimes it is more substantial, but it is, in any event, a resource historians should be open to using.

Because we cannot ask scientists to write history on demand, or in a style of which we approve (such control may not be desirable anyway), it will, and should, be the responsibility of historians to be aware of, and to distill scientists’ history into an integrated, critical historiography.*


Finally, what are we to do about factual and interpretive disagreements, and methodological tensions between scientists and historians? First, extending from my previous post, I think it’s important that we not simply assume that they derive from fundamental ideological differences about the nature of science and its place in society.

In my own experience, I have found scientists’ accounts to be frequently idiosyncratic and sometimes in error, understandably interested in celebration, but rarely insistent on idealization. On the question of whether scientists should find our accounts recognizable, I naturally wouldn’t require their imprimatur, but I do believe objections should be entertained. As I mentioned in my last post, I think some objections to historians’ attitudes and practices may be justified, if not perfectly articulated. In any event, we should not use others’ imperfect articulation of their objections as an excuse to dismiss them out of hand.

It is no doubt true that scientists do favor accounts of scientific success, but it is not so unnatural that this is what moves them to write. I have also found that historians favor accounts that accentuate the utility of their favored themes and analytical tools. Although we may worry more about scientists’ accounts because of their higher profile in society, personally I have always been more disturbed by historians’ biases because they bear directly on our professional integrity. There is no one to police us but ourselves.

Then there is the question of how we should react to the problems in scientists’ accounts.When I was looking for a picture of Abraham Pais for this post, I ran into the following quote from Steven Weinberg, who has been much vilified in recent discussions of scientists’ history:

I work and live in the country of physics, but history is the place that I love to visit as a tourist.

That struck me. Having lived in Washington, D.C., and London, I am quite familiar with tourists. It is true: they often act entitled, talk funny, don’t know their way around, and stand on the left side of the escalators. The impulse is to respond by being territorial.

eastwood lawn

But that’s the catharsis talking. The fact is that the tourists are the ones who have decided to use their precious spare time to leave their world, and to venture somewhere unfamiliar. They’re the ones who have to contend with their superficial knowledge of the terrain, and risk encounters with pissy locals. If we don’t want to deal with them, we’re apt to find ourselves alone, delivering devastating—devastating!—critiques to empty chairs where we imagine our enfeebled opponents to sit.

eastwood and chair

Of course, engagement may not be a realistic proposition. Given the discursive realities we live with, my own suggestion is toleration. Meanwhile, make good history as widely available as possible, but don’t be a scold or didactic about it—my guess is that the most successful strategy is to be welcoming, and excited about what you do.

If we insist that people dare not open their mouths until they have located and mastered an obscure and disorganized body of scholarship, that is the exact same sort of epistemological exclusivity that we tend, in other settings, to object to. We shut ourselves off from what is potentially our most receptive audience, as well as an often-legitimate, if somewhat unruly source of historical information.

The test of whether something is of historiographical value is not whether it conforms to preconceived aesthetic criteria defining what constitutes “good history,” but whether we can make profitable use of it.

The alternative vision here is essentially the way constructive relations between scientists and historians have worked, and do sometimes work. However, I think the relations are presently operating in a very low gear. Making those relations operate more fluidly will inevitably be hard work. When we find ways to distance ourselves from scientists, I am less worried about the impression it will make on scientists—though I do worry about that—than I am worried that it will give historians the general idea that cooperating with scientists is simply not, in the terminology of my British friends, the “done thing.”

*One trouble here I’ve noticed is that historians do not like to talk at length about history that they did not write personally. So, “historiography maintenance,” which should be a communal responsibility, is generally neglected.



1. J. D. Martin - April 26, 2015

Thanks, Will. Lucid as always. My general reaction is along the lines of “Yes, but….”

Scientists are almost always the first-drafters, and do a valuable service to both the scientific and historical communities by recording their impressions of the recent past of their specialties. And in practice, it is almost always by building on these accounts that historians get started in new areas.* Historians should absolutely be open to wringing utility from the constructive interest scientists have in their own histories.

Let me push on your tourist analogy and say that tourists aren’t a problem; however, the spaces we create for them sometimes are. In certain quantities, tourism is wonderful. It promotes cross-cultural contact, enlivens the economy, etc. But we’ve all seen those parts of the world where the expectations (and ignorances and weaknesses…) of tourists have Potemkinized what the tourists are ostensibly there to see. These regions attract tourists, but also bottle them them up. As a result, they diminish actual cultural exchange. Concern about the cultural imperialism that sometimes creeps over tourist destinations goes a beyond Eastwoodian grumpiness, because, once they’re established, many people understand the tourist trap as a synecdoche for the larger city or country. My worry is that the history of science has a Bourbon Street, where Texans come for the weekend to misbehave, and which colors how the rest of the world understands who we are and what we do.

Okay, so that was a cheap shot. But it does capture, for me, what lurks behind the backlash against Weinberg. You write: “Although we may worry more about scientists’ accounts because of their higher profile in society, personally I have always been more disturbed by historians’ biases because they bear directly on our professional integrity.” But the higher profile of popular scientific accounts matters if prevalence of such works undercuts the cultural value of humanistic expertise. The backdrop to this debate in the US includes further cuts to the NSF social sciences directorate and the deemphasizing of humanities curricula across higher education, for example. I don’t intend to draw a direct causal connection between books like Weinberg’s and the prevalenter and prevalenter assumption that the humanities are of lesser value than the sciences (and it’s not really fair to heap these anxieties on Weinberg’s shoulders). But, they reflect the same attitudes, and concern about those attitudes can’t be dismissed as quaint parochialism.

“Yes,” again:
Where I suspect we come back into agreement is that I think the way out of this situation is more dialogue between disciplines, not less. That is, we need to sustain contact that goes beyond tourism, in both directions.

* My one concern about this model is that it is one mechanism by which scientists impose their own prestige hierarchies on the history of science, which can be misleading. This has been the case for the history of twentieth-century physics, at least. But that’s another conversation.

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