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Warren Weaver, Planned Science, and the Lessons of World War II, Pt. 1 May 31, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Warren Weaver

Warren Weaver

Via Twitter, Audra Wolfe has called my attention to a passage in intellectual historian David Hollinger’s Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century Intellectual History (1998), in which he discusses the debate over federal policy for the funding of scientific research in the immediate postwar period.

The specific issue at hand is a letter from the Director of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver (1894-1978), to the New York Times, written at the end of August 1945, in which he argues against proponents of the strategic planning of scientific research who had criticized Vannever Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier report.  

According to Hollinger, Weaver argued in his letter that, during the war, (in Hollinger’s words):

the sciences had not been advanced by government coordination at all.  The recently exploded atomic bomb was not a product of government science. Contrary to popular belief, the Organization for [sic, “Office of”] Scientific Research and Development was not a model for doing scientific research; what his office had done during the war was merely to coordinate the “practical application of basic scientific knowledge.”

The statement—particularly the bit about the atomic bomb—is extraordinary, in that it appears to reveal Weaver to be an ideologue for scientific freedom, willing to badly distort the record of activities of the OSRD and the Manhattan Project in order to advance his views.  Hollinger’s claim has been repeated by Jon Agar in his Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (2012).  However, the passage neither accurately reflects Weaver’s actual words, nor, more broadly, the terms of the postwar debate over the planning of science, the reality of “basic” or “pure” science, and the need for scientific freedom.


Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Hasok Chang

In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).

In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.  You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.

Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science.  However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.”  There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.”  Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”


Hawks, Doves, and Various Avian Hybrids February 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The earliest version of this post embarrassingly misrepresented the AEC General Advisory Committee’s 1949 position on hydrogen bomb developmentHaving caught out my error, I have inserted a correction below. —Will

There is an interesting post by Darin over at PACHSmörgåsbord discussing a recent PACHS colloquium given by Terry Christensen on physicists and Cold War politics, with commentary by Erik Rau (one of the few other historians who has written much about the history of operations research).  I’m a little bummed not to have seen the talk.  I obviously can’t comment on specific points.  But I gather from Darin’s summary that it had mainly to do with why Edward Teller (1908-2003) has a bad historical reputation, where fellow Cold War hawk John Wheeler (1911-2008) (about whom Christensen has written) does not.  The postwar government activities of physicists is a frequently-visited topic, but it has not been systematically addressed, and, in all but the most sophisticated accounts, it is still rather coarsely-parsed.  I’ve been gathering information on it lately, and thought I would offer a few preliminary thoughts about the complex relationship between physicists and American Cold War militarism.

Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Gift of Carlo Wick


Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 2 December 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Forgetting is integral to scientific advance, but neither our understanding of the process of science nor our appreciation of its historical development can accept the limitations imposed by such forgetfulness. (Einstein’s Generation, p. 420)

David Edgerton has introduced the term “anti-history” to describe inadequacies of past historical accounts, which, for the sake of advocating some point, were systematically neglectful in portraying the history of the subject they were addressing.  Edgerton’s central concern is the history of science in Britain, and especially the history of the relationship between science, technology, and the British state.  “Anti-historian” commentators, he argues, had cause to systematically portray the history of state science and expertise in terms of its inadequacy or absence, because they viewed the further and proper deployment of science, technology, and modernization by the state as key to future social and national progress.  (See his Warfare State, 2006, and “C. P. Snow as Anti-Historian of British Science: Revisiting the Technocratic Moment, 1959-1964” History of Science 2005: 187-208).

As strong of an advocate for Edgerton’s historiographical insights as I am, I feel that the “anti-history” critique is somewhat unfair, mainly since it focuses on historical actors’ failure to be good historians, which distracts from the points they were trying to make (regardless of those points’ validity).  The real force of Edgerton’s critique lands on the genealogy of historians who have continued to take those historical narratives and their terms at face value, rather than recognizing them for the instruments of commentary and advocacy that they were.  In other words, the term “anti-history” fails to make a distinction between the instrumental uses of history made in everyday life and the task of the professional historian.

(I have argued on this blog that historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights, and that this has seeped into the historical narratives we professionally produce.  Edgerton made a similar point in 1993 for the specific case of the “Social Construction of Technology” program.)

In Einstein’s Generation, and exemplified by the quote above, Richard Staley recognizes the crucial function that narrative-building plays for historical actors as they attempt to comprehend and develop what they are doing, focusing on the distinction built in the early 1900s between “classical” and “modern” physics, which has subsequently been taken for granted by generations of historians. (more…)

Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 1 December 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Richard Staley’s 2008 book Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution is an exemplary work of progressive historiographical craftsmanship, and is very high on my personal list of best history of science books written this past decade.  The book is an unabashed work of scholarship, using past historiography constructively to pose and answer a startling variety of questions that both deepen current professional understanding of certain events, and expand that understanding into largely unexplored territories.  It is demanding, and will most reward those with at least some understanding of physics and of prior scholarship on both Einstein and the history of late 19th-century physics.

Einsteins’ Generation works as scholarship in subtle, but, I think, significant ways that will not necessarily be apparent at first reading, so I want to use this post to try and unpack this book’s argumentative strategies and analyze their power.  The first thing I want to note is that the book doesn’t follow a “sandwich” strategy: asserting a central argument in the introduction and  conclusion, and then offering a series of cases, or a long narrative, that bolsters that argument.

There are hints of a centralized anti-straw-man argument, which deflates the view of a single, radical break between a “classical” physics based dogmatically on Newton’s foundation, and a “modern” physics based on relativity and the quantum, but I don’t think this is Staley’s main intent.  More to the point, I think what Staley is trying to do is use a certain style of narrative and historical analysis to create a new view of cutting-edge physics around the turn of the century, which builds on prior scholarship while departing from it in important ways. (more…)

Primer: Leo Szilard June 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

I had another post planned for today, but got waylaid when, working on my physicist web project, I had to piece together the career of Leo Szilard.  The idea behind the project is to gather skeletal information on physicists to help trace career paths, but this doesn’t work very well for Szilard, who was a sort of a physicist vagabond who seems to have cobbled his career together out of temporary and part-time positions, meager patent revenues, and a penchant for a modest existence.  So, I’ve been spending my day immersed in journalist and policy analyst William Lanouette’s Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (1992), trying to sift out what I can.  Since I’m learning more than enough for a post, I thought I’d just write something up on him while I was at it.

Szilard, the son of an engineer, was born Leo Spitz in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898.  (His family changed their name in 1900.)  Out of a sense of practicality, Szilard aimed to become an engineer himself, enrolling in the Technical Institute of Budapest, but was drafted into the army during World War I.  After the war, political conditions became difficult for Szilard, on account of his Jewish heritage, and he moved from Hungary to Berlin to continue his education there, first at the Technical Institute and then the University.  In Berlin, Szilard decided to indulge his intellect and study physics in an environment rich in the some of the greatest talent of his day, notably Max von Laue and Albert Einstein.  Submitting a manuscript detailing a new conceptualization of thermodynamics that impressed both these men (and was decades later recognized as a contribution to the integration of thermodynamics and information theory), he was granted his doctorate in 1922.

The key characteristic of Szilard’s work and career was his restless and penetrating intellect, which accepted no boundaries and precious little institutional restraint, and drove him to travel constantly.  He devoted his thinking to (more…)

Primer: Einstein! September 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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OK, I fess up, I’m pulling out my reserve tank of things I can write about if I haven’t given sufficient thought to the weekly Hump-Day History post.  Having been a teaching assistant in a course called the “Einsteinian Revolution”, I think I can rattle off a quick 900-1,000 words on the guy!

AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates

Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates

There is, of course, a historiographical industry surrounding Einstein.  Legions of science history enthusiasts are well-aware of his personal biography, his scientific work, his role as a scientific diplomat, his political advocacy.  There’s nothing that I can write here that would be considered remotely new or exciting, so this one goes out to all those who haven’t yet joined the thousands of Einstein groupies out there, those who know him mostly as an icon.  (Certified groupies may feel free to cluck their tongues at the insufficient characterizations offered here).

Let’s focus on the significance and genius of Albert Einstein.  As he himself often pointed out, as a day-to-day physicist, he was comparable in talent to the best minds of the theoretical physics community of his day.  Where Einstein needs to be considered the best mind of his era is in his ability to conceptualize the fundamental questions at the heart of physical inquiry.  Conceptually, there were only a few other physicists in his time who could even really be considered in his league.

Einstein’s interest in the conceptual problems of physics extends from his snotty lack of regard for the graduate training in physics he received (more…)