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For My Zilsel Friends, The Dissenting Sciences April 13, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. Some Opening Thoughts On My Motivations

My friends at Zilsel have invited me to speak on a topic which I have been working on for quite some time, through my various researches in biosocial anthropology and human behavioral ecology, behavior genetics and public choice economics (in the work of Gordon Tullock especially) the “dissenting sciences.” I keep changing my mind on what to call them, having referred to them as “heterodox” and “pariah” sciences.    

I am a bit in a muddle and I have decided to write my way out of this confusion. I have submitted two introductions to introduce my case studies.  This is a version of those introductions.

Writing on the Pseudosciences

I do this because our field not only suffers from the privacy of criticism but also the privacy of ideas.  As Will has written about many times, historians of science are too concerned with only publishing their very polished thoughts. This means that much of the knowledge of the profession is hidden from public view. This behavior is elitist.  

And now everyone reading this hopefully has a better sense of my motivations.  My thoughts on pseudoscience are a bit of a muddle, I am using this blog as a way to puzzle out this muddle, as a prelude to puzzling out some of my confusions in a talk on Tuesday.  I am deliberately not holding back my unpolished thoughts in the hopes that others will do so.  (more…)

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“Decisions and Dynamics”: An Ad Hoc Exploration of Intellectual and Institutional History January 3, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Weintraub, MIT and American Economics

This post offers some background information on my new paper, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics.”

The 2013 “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” conference was one of those conferences where the invitation arrives years before the event. When I agreed to attend, I thought I would just offer a complement to the conference’s focus on MIT economics with a discussion of the early history of operations research at MIT, a subject I already knew a lot about.

What I didn’t realize until the run-up to the conference was that it was part of the annual series, which results in the publication of the annual supplementary volume to the journal History of Political Economy. I had already published pretty much all my material on MIT in my 2009 Science in Context article on Jay Forrester’s industrial dynamics, and in my 2012 Business History Review article on OR at MIT and Arthur D. Little. So, that scuppered my plans for an easy recycling job.

The obvious direction in which to go was to discuss the intellectual relationship between economics and operations research. The problem with this plan was that, while there are many interesting things to say about that relationship, the relationship at MIT was pretty thin throughout the 1950s, the period I’ve studied carefully. At this point I didn’t have the time to try and suss out any subsequent relationship (if it was even substantial) through the publications record, nor, being based in London at the time, did I have much chance to do new archival research.

What did seem like a good opportunity was to engage with the thinking of the only historian to publish on the relationship between OR and economics, Phil Mirowski.

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The “MIT and the Transformation of American Economics” Conference and Maturation in the the Historiography of Economic Thought December 29, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought.
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Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

Paul Samuelson (1915–2009), doyen of MIT economics

I have a new article out, “Decisions and Dynamics: Postwar Theoretical Problems and the MIT Style of Economics,” in the 2014 annual supplement to History of Political Economy on MIT and the Transformation of American Economics. Following tradition, I’ll talk a little bit about the thinking behind the article in a separate post. However, I would like to start with a few words about the 2013 conference that the supplement was based on.

In short, it was almost certainly the best conference I have attended. To understand why, it will be useful to understand the peculiarities of the development of the field of the history of economic thought (HET), and how it seems to be reaching a new state of maturity.

For some time now HET has been having something of an identity crisis. Traditionally strongly affiliated with economics departments, HET, even more so than economic history, has had problems maintaining its status within the economics profession. Concurrently, HET has moved away methodologically from exegesis on the economic canon (“What did Smith/Keynes mean when they wrote X?”), and more toward something people working in the history of science would be familiar and comfortable with.

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A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Pt. 2: Recent History August 4, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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This post continues my post from May, which was written to lend some historical background to the recently released news that the large marine glaciers emptying into the Amundsen Sea seem to have passed a point of no return, and will continue to collapse until they are gone, whereupon the rest of the West Antarctic Ice Sheeet (WAIS) may well follow. Total sea level rises should be 2–3m within a few centuries, though the exact timescales could be faster or slower.  The above video from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory features Eric Rignot, one of the leaders of the two teams who have reached this conclusion.  (The other team is led by the University of Washington’s Ian Joughin, on whom more below.)

The history in Pt. 1 concluded circa 1980, when geologist John Mercer (1922-1987) connected the prospect of WAIS collapsing to global warming.  Shortly thereafter the University of Maine’s Terry Hughes—who had previously linked future WAIS collapse to an ongoing global retreat from the Last Glacial Maximum (18,000 years ago)—identified (pdf) the Amundsen Sea glaciers as WAIS’s “weak underbelly,” which would be the “mechanism for disintegration of [WAIS] during a proposed Super Interglaciation triggered by CO2-induced climatic warming.” This post addresses what occurred in the intervening decades to convince the glaciological community of the assertion.

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A Historical Primer on WAIS Collapse, Part 1: Early History May 22, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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Two new papers, in Science, and in Geophysical Research Letters, demonstrate that Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica has reached a point of instability, which, at some point in the future, will lead to the collapse of that part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), and, eventually, the rest of it as well.  Over a period of some centuries, sea level rises will be catastrophic.  The video above is by NASA, discussing some of the key points.

Various reports on this subject have traced work on this question back to geologist John Mercer (1922-1987), either to a well-known paper he published in Nature in 1978 linking WAIS collapse to anthropogenic global warming, or to a more obscure paper he published in 1968, in which he posited that WAIS was the source of higher sea levels during the Sangamon interglacial 120,000 years ago.  That earlier paper also mentioned possible future danger from “industrial pollution,” but only tangentially within a larger focus on Antarctica’s glacial history.

Having published on the history of this subject, I’d like to develop the available narrative somewhat, both to expand on its roots, but also to discuss some of the twists and turns that have led us from an initial suspicion that WAIS could rapidly collapse to the disquieting conclusion at which glaciologists have now arrived. (more…)

New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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B_SPR390_CLIM_00009.inddI am pleased to say that my article, “Research Agendas in Climate Studies: The Case of West Antarctic Ice Sheet Research,” has appeared in its Online First edition in the journal Climatic Change. It is behind a paywall, but Springer’s rules do allow me to post a prior submitted version* of the article, accompanied by the statement: “The final publication is available at http://link.springer.com.”  Click here to access the prior version.

This was a secondary project for me that I have long wanted to turn into a more sustained research program.  The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has a special interest for climate scientists because it rests on bedrock that is below sea level, and may well therefore be unstable.  It could disintegrate even though the ambient temperature is—and will continue to be—continually below freezing.  (Thus, WAIS is a rather different beast from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on bedrock that is above sea level, but is prone to melting.)  If WAIS were to disintegrate it would raise sea levels by at least 3 meters.  The trouble is that the long-term glaciological behavior of such “marine” ice sheets is not especially well understood.  So nobody knows for certain how stable WAIS really is, or how long it would take to disintegrate. It could be only a few centuries, or it could be millenia.

Goals

It was important to me that I try to reach scientific audiences with this paper. However, I was not really interested in conveying a particular “humanities” approach—I wanted to try and develop a historical picture that would have a more natural appeal to scientific audiences by engaging with the intellectual substance of their work.  Thus, I used history here to illuminate some of the contours, or “agendas,” of research that have shaped scientists’ understanding of WAIS.  Scientists are generally aware of the existence of such contours.  But those contours seem to inhabit an intellectual space above the level of the individual scientific paper, and yet they are not typically captured in review articles.  Thus they are ill-articulated, and play an ill-defined role in scientific work.  This then seemed to me an ideal place for the history of science to play a role.

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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.

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Historical Scientific Standards, or: The Career of the “Varytron” April 14, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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Alichanian, apparatus

While Robert Millikan thought, circa 1930, that signs of the synthesis of the elements could be gleaned from the energy spectrum of the cosmic radiation, in the late 1940s Armenian physicists (and brothers) Artem Alikhanian and Abraham Alikhanov thought that the way forward in the nascent field of particle physics was by measuring the cosmic radiation’s mass spectrum. It turned out that they were right that unknown particles existed within that spectrum, but wrong that measuring that spectrum was the best path to take to stake discovery claims to them.

Alikhanian and Alikhanov’s work on cosmic radiation dates—remarkably, given that they were Soviet—to World War II, when, like Italians working at the same time (Monaldi, “Life of µ”), they used counter devices to measure the radiation’s properties. In the early postwar years, they (with a third reseracher, A. Weissenberg, on whom I have found little information) assembled counters in tiers (diagram at right*) so that they could make a rough measurement of the deflection of particles in a magnetic field, and make estimates of particle mass. Doing so, they measured a large number of particle masses, which, they argued, were much heavier than the known meson (or “mesotron”, now known as the muon, or µ), and yet lighter than the proton. Because these new particles seemed to have a variety of masses, Alikhanian and Alikhanov gave them the unitary name, “varytron”.

Subsequently, using a larger magnetic field, Alikhanian and Alikhanov were able to resolve the spectrum of varytron masses into discrete clusters, ostensibly representing individual particles. Working high in the Armenian mountains, previously unacknowledged particles, especially pions, probably were passing through their apparatus. However, in those days, when particle physics began to emerge from nuclear physics and cosmic-ray studies, not only were the brothers never credited with the discovery of any new particles, this work seems to have had very little influence at all. To understand why, we need to attend to the intricacies of the sorts of scientific arguments that prevailed at that time—the sort of task I emphasized in my recent series on history-philosophy relations.

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverIn my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly.  In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work.  At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles.  To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord.  To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950”.

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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.

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