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Canonical: Buchwald on the Wave Theory of Light February 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I’m a little hesitant to include Jed Buchwald’s Rise of the Wave Theory of Light (1989) in my physics canon, not because of any flaws in the book—it very nicely accomplishes what it sets out to do—but because it’s so focused on its argument concerning the rise of the wave theory.  This means it focuses tightly on people directly involved with the rise of the wave theory, notably Augustin Jean Fresnel, and leaves some other important figures, Thomas Young for example, at the margins.

Since we haven’t done the Canonical series in a while, it’ll be useful to refresh the point of the exercise.  It is not to offer a “best of” in history of science writing or argumentation; rather it is books one can concentrate on to get a good, sophisticated overview of what happened in history.  Thus, reading Buchwald’s book, one should be aware that one is getting an explanation for the rise of the wave theory, not a history of the wave “idea”, or a tour of early 19th-century optics, which would be most useful from the “Canonical” perspective.  But, seeing as I know of no other book that covers the subject in a detailed and sophisticated way, canonical Rise of the Wave Theory of Light shall be.  We can always go back and replace it, or supplement it with a journal article or two, at a later date.

The bulk of the action in the book takes place between 1810 and 1830, which, readers should be aware, stretches across a fault line in the history of physics (i.e., read Warwick and early chapters of Jungnickel & McCormmach first; and (more…)

Canonical: Jungnickel and McCormmach November 3, 2008

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I wanted to consider the canonical cases for Matters of Exchange and Christa Jungnickel and Russell McCormmach’s two-volume Intellectual Mastery of Nature: Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein (1986) back-to-back.  Even though the two works are on starkly different topics, they make for excellent comparison simply because stylistically they are almost polar opposites.  Jungnickel and McCormmach is anything but elegant, and would be almost unreadable to a popular audience.  It is also an absolutely indispensable resource for anyone who plans to do any scholarly work in the history of 19th-century German physics.  (“German” or “Germany” are nowhere in the title, but the book’s focus on German university physics is explicit.)

I would divide the books into three parts: chapters 1 and 2; chapters 3 to 23, and chapters 24 to 27.  Unless readers have a firm background in the history of physics from the late 1700s and early 1800s, I would advocate moving very quickly through the first two chapters, because their object seems to be to set up the story to come and so they make constant references to people, ideas, experiments, and instruments with little-to-no explanation of who or what they were.  This tendency continues only somewhat abated throughout the two volumes, with explanations veering well into the skeletal when dealing with the contributions of those from outside the German-speaking world.  However, the narrative does slow down long enough once you hit the 1830s or so, so as to at least allow (more…)

Canonical: Matters of Exchange October 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building, EWP Book Club.
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Building off of my preliminary reaction to Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, the key to understanding how the book works is to take notice of its lack of authorial voice.  Evidence of intense and skilled scholarship is to be found everywhere in the numerous detailed and intertwined narratives that Cook presents (what I referred to as an “elegant” style).  But commentary to help readers understand what the scholarship has revealed is generally not to be found.  Thus, the book is not very argument-intensive.  When Cook does show up to offer commentary, it is usually pretty unadventurous.  Some variation on “a lot of different people had to come together to make this work happen” pops up for a couple of paragraphs at the end of most chapters.  Until the end, anyway….

“Just the simple, curious, unexpected facts” ma’am

As I pointed out, the book does put forward what we can call the “commerce thesis” about facts being produced by the agreements necessary in a culture of commerce and connoisseurship.  Straightforward enough.  However, commenter Loïc (of the History of Economics Playground) expressed serious reservations about the elegant style allowing for an unannounced stacking of the deck in favor of the argument.  I felt the book was responsible enough, but am now thinking that Loïc has a point that applies here, too.  In the last chapter and conclusion of the book, Cook unfurls an aggressively old-fashioned argument about the rise of science—what he calls a “new science” or a “new philosophy” in contrast to “old ways of knowing”.

Cook is very explicit in the importance he attaches to the rise of empirical knowledge obtained via the senses and communicated through networks of trusted sources and its overtaking of a natural philosophy based upon authority and theorization that was closely connected to moral philosophy and theology.  This “new science could lay claim to being a universal method of investigation, even when those participating in it hesitated or disagreed about its conceptual (more…)

Biography and Canon-Building July 9, 2008

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Crosbie Smith’s Science of Energy probably takes the place in the canon of 19th century physics history writing from Energy and Empire, a biography of William Thomson that Smith co-wrote with Norton Wise. The latter is an excellent book, and would be replaced not for any defects in quality, but more because the former is more compact and also broader in its scope–more essential.

But this brings up a topic I’ve been meaning to address: biography. The best biographies not only place their subjects in their context, but they use their subjects to give the reader a kind of guided tour through that context. Smith and Wise certainly do that, and I mentioned once before that Roger Hahn’s biography of Laplace is also good. I think I’ve also suggested that it’s possible that historians of science are now really very good at writing books, but aren’t quite sure what to do with the short form. If that’s true, then the best books are probably biographies. If I’m looking for biographical information on a scientist, I’m always glad if there’s something written in the post-1990, and preferably the post-2000 period, because those biographies almost inevitably demonstrate a maturity towards science-writing that is frequently lacking in prior works, which always seem to have something on the precocious childhood, a bit on the school days, some painfully in-depth treatment of some supposedly crucial moment (“did he or didn’t he write this letter before so-and-so knew of the results of XYZ?”), and then maybe a too-detailed account of the science, or, alternatively, an almost total neglect of the science in favor of an account of the proverbial “human side” of science.

Now, it’s probably for most of these aspects of prior works that biography seems to be a sort of embarrassing topic for scholars to address, something that’s historiographically gauche, maybe because in choosing just one individual you inevitably provide them with too much agency, or it’s too much of a foray into pop history, or something similarly naughty.

I’m not too sure that writing a biography was ever the career-killer I’ve sometimes heard it made out to be. A lot of good historians have written pretty definitive biographies (of course, there will never be definitive biographies of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Darwin), but, more to the point, I think, while there will always be lousy biographies, most academic historians have learned the pitfalls and become conscious of the clichés well enough. Personally, I would not hesitate to make a good biography a canonical reference, if there were no other suitable introduction to a historical milieu.

Whose biography should be chosen is another question. Do we need to know the biographies of some of the big names, for example? Darwin, probably, because the length of his significant career is so long. I would hesitate to say Einstein, because he’s sort of an outlying figure in certain ways, so he’s not a particularly good introduction to his scientific context. One should certainly read about relativity, but I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary to read an Einstein biography. Anyway, whose biographies are important is definitely food for further thought.

Canonical: Nye, Warwick, Smith June 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Today’s canonical entries in the history of 19th century physics:
1. Mary Jo Nye, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940 (1996)
2. Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003)
3. Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998)

Every good field needs an “orientation” text, and, in my experience, for this corner of history, Nye is it. Read chapters 1, 3, and 4 before Warwick and Smith, if you’re not familiar with the territory. Taking some advanced electricity and magnetism helps, too, to get a little “Fingerspitzengefuehl” in how physicists came to use mathematics in this period.

Warwick and Smith basically cover what has to be the most important shift in the history of physics in the 19th century, which is the importation of 18th century analytical techniques use in what was called “rational mechanics” primarily to study orbits (but also ordinary mechanics and hydrodynamics), as the route to the creation of valid theories. The primary entry point for analysis into non-mechanical physics is the science of energy, which established the fields of thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism. These two books, read in this order, will pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this shift, at least in Britain (German physics will be coming up).

Warwick is in my top 3 favorite history of science books of all-time, and is an excellent account of the cultural and intellectual shifts necessary to make physics into the heavily mathematical science that it has since become. Very few authors ever discuss the uses of mathematics, let alone the experience of using them. Warwick does both in a way that illustrates the watershed shift in what it meant to be a physicist, and what it meant to offer a physical theory, that took place in this period.

Smith (which I’ve actually never read before now) discusses the “program” that provided the entry point for this new kind of physics, the “North British” idea of energy, which drew on Continental engineering theory and the experimentation of James Joule, recruited little-known work by Mayer and Helmholtz on conservation of “Kraft”, systematized it in the fairly new Cambridge mathematical tradition, jibed it with geological theories about the history of the earth and the sun and attendant religious sensibilities, thereby creating an intellectual and social program (we should talk about this word “program” in the future; I find it very useful, but exploring its connotations would be worthwhile) that was capable of cementing a new scientific tradition.

Both works incorporate recent concern for social context in enlightening and highly specific ways. Both are extremely informative narrative accounts of topics of immense importance. Both concentrate largely on Britain, so we’ll need to supplement them with works addressing what was taking place on the Continent (I really would like to find a good source on 19c. French physics–any suggestions?). Still, these books beautifully illustrate what one could argue to be the most important change in physics over the course of the century, and if you had to choose just two books to read on the history of physics in this period, I think you could make a case that these would be the two to read. We’ll look at some good supplements in future posts.

The Canon Game: Preliminary Observations June 17, 2008

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I’d like to start talking now about possible canons, but, before we get started, I want to make a few observations about what I, personally, would expect out of a canon. I think for a lot of people the idea of a canon is a little repulsive, because it suggests that there is a batch of writings (usually old ones) up on a pedestal that cannot and should not be touched or questioned, and that serve as models for all us mere mortals. I also think a lot of people think of a canon as works serving as methodological milestones. Thus, obviously, we’d have to start with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions or something, and move on from there. In my previous post on the Forman thesis, I rejected this view, arguing that milestones, however influential they may have been in their day, are not best suited to guide future inquiry.

I’m a believer in the inevitable existence of things that must logically exist whether they are acknowledged or not. The idea of the inevitable rationale underlying policy plays a big role in my research on the policy sciences. I think the same applies to a canon: one always exists whether we want it to or not. Even if we don’t have a specific set of writings we’ve all read, there is a certain constellation (or “model” to borrow once again from C. S. Lewis’ framing of medieval literature) of arguments and strategies that are derived from set of writings, as well as certain key ideas about the “Enlightenment” or the “Victorian era” or the “Cold War” within which we may write. Thus, we are best off to acknowledge the necessity of canonical literature, and to ask the questions: what does it do for us, and is there a better one available?

I believe that a canon should help us mine the available historiography, which is actually very deep, and build on it. One theme I’ve been circling around is the tendency of historians of science to do a remarkable impersonation of 19th century Homesteaders in going further and further afield from the actual history of science to find new land to till. This is fine, but are we exploiting the land we’re already on to its fullest? A properly selected canon can be very revealing of the richness of the historical terrain that is available to us.

This brings up the most important point. We can think of a canon as the tool of specialists or as a general tool for all of us. I lean toward the general tool interpretation. Specialists are obligated to be familiar with an entire literature within a certain area, and would probably be inclined to pick out a game-changing paper, thus bringing us back to the pedestal conception of canon. But I think to the non-specialist these papers don’t resonate as effectively without the necessary background knowledge. A well-chosen canon will allow those who know it to be familiar enough with the terrain to speak competently about it, even if they can’t achieve “wonk” status, and thus be a receptive and discerning audience in areas outside their specialty.

Also, at least from my perspective, the selection of canonical works should focus on familiarity with history rather than methodology. I know there are many who disagree, but I’m of the opinion that unless you know the history, you’re doomed to making absurd statements; cleverness cannot save you. This has been a priority of mine, especially since teaching my intro class last semester. So, rather than start out in an area I’m really familiar with, I’d like to start with something I’m semi-familiar with, but in which I still ought to be much better schooled: 19th century physics.

The New Canon: Contents/Forman Thesis April 7, 2008

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Well, I think my thoughts on the sociology-history link are exhausted for the time being (though I want to get back to SEE later). Today I want to talk about canons, and the fact that as near as I can tell, we have no up-to-date canon in the history of science, whether in individual fields, or across the profession as a whole. I know that preparing for my general exams was a highly arbitrary and undirected process, and that prior to teaching Intro to Hist Sci, my overall factual knowledge of the history of science was embarrassingly limited to a few historical islands. And I’m fairly sure this is typical for most students coming out of grad school today. A good way to develop a broad knowledge, and to have something to talk about with your peers, is to build a canon. Whenever I’ve mentioned a lack of canon, I’ve usually met with some kind approving affirmation that we have loosed ourselves of the bounds of a rigid set of things that constitute the history of science. Who needs a canon? I once asked if there’s some set of books that everyone in my old grad program had read–I’m not sure we got past Leviathan and the Air Pump. This gives me a sort of nervous feeling, so I’d like to explore the issue of the canon.

Well, then, smart guy, what should be in our canon? I really have no idea, so it’s time to start some wild speculation! I’d like to start by asking whether we should have “game changing” texts in our canon. I once heard that everyone in the history of physics needs to read the Forman Thesis (Paul Forman’s 1971, “Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory, 1918-27: adaptation by German physicists and mathematicians to a hostile intellectual environment”). This was one of the first major forays (prior to SSK) in exploring the relationship between science and its external context (edit: or so I am led to believe–there’s a whole Marxist scholarship for example that is doubtless worth a look).

But I’m not so sure we need to read it. I’ve never found it particularly enlightening–why not put one of the several responses to it in the canon in its place? I always liked John Hendry’s 1980 “Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality” in Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies. Not only does it contain a good recap of Forman’s arguments, it presents a much more sophisticated treatment of the relationship between the internal intellectual dynamics of physical theory and broader cultural movements.

Why isn’t Hendry our champion on this subject rather than Forman? I think it’s out of reverence for Forman’s path-breaking achievement. Older scholars seem to remember how differently they thought about the history of quantum mechanics after Forman–he started the debate. That’s fine, but shouldn’t we really be studying the most refined product of this line of thought rather than the foundation stone? Doesn’t it just lead us to reenact arguments that were pretty well settled long ago? I’ve seen a similar attitude in play with regard to Merchant’s Death of Nature. If we read or refer to one text, it seems to me it’s the original, even though the subject of gendered language and science has been handled much more deftly since (see the extended discussion on Merchant’s book in Isis, September ’06). Why don’t we ever anoint a “new champion” like they do in other fields, like literary translation?

Anyway, the Hendry Thesis is in my new canon–the Forman thesis is out.