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Crease on Peirce in Physics Today January 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)

I’d meant to link to this earlier, but something was going on with the Physics Today website, and supposedly free content was getting hidden behind a paywall, but this is now resolved.  In the December issue, workhorse historian of physics Robert Crease had an article on Charles Sanders Peirce’s involvement in 19th-century metrology.  Peirce (pronounced “purse”) is best-known today for his involvement with American pragmatist philosophy.  However, like William Thomson, and in association with Albert Michelson (as recently discussed at length by Richard Staley), Peirce was also a key figure in the development of precision instrumentation and experimentation.  The article is very timely to recent posts here, and upcoming posts as well, so do have a look if you’re at all interested.

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…)