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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 1: Atwood’s Machine and the Status of Newton’s Laws at Cambridge September 1, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Atwood's machineThere’s not much time these days for researching and writing posts.  But I do have little bites of time on the bus and Metro going to and from work, which lend themselves pretty nicely to article reading.  I have also come back into possession of all the paper files I put into storage when I went to London, including a big stack of articles written by Simon Schaffer.  Yes, folks, the Schaffer Oeuvre series has returned!

I was specifically inspired to bring the series back by Schaffer’s recent, very nicely crafted BBC documentary, “Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams,” (see a clip here), and by the realization that, when I left the series, I was just about to get to his articles on demonstration devices and automata.  So, with no further ado, let’s dive right back in with “Machine Philosophy: Demonstration Devices in Georgian Mechanics,” Osiris 9 (1994): 157-182.*

“Machine Philosophy” is about the uses made of mathematician George Atwood’s (1745-1807) demonstration device (right) . The machine’s design employed a clock and counter-balanced weights hung from a low-friction pulley in order to clearly exhibit Newton’s first law of motion, and especially the quantitative predictions made by his second law, which interrelated force, mass, and acceleration.  But the really difficult questions concerned what Atwood’s machine, and related machines, could and could not say concerning the intellectual status of Newton’s laws.


Terminology: Art, Literary, and Music History; History of Philosophy; and History of Scientific Knowledge June 12, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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When we start dividing up sub-categories within the history of thought or the history of ideas, we make distinctions of convenience: between explicit and tacit ideas, for instance, or between different genres of thought.  These distinctions do not get at some internal essence of a form of thought.  What they really do for us is provide us with provisional guidelines as to what forms of analysis are likely to lead to insights into things like: the genesis of an expression (“where did this weird idea come from?”), the circumstances bearing upon the form of expressions (“why did the author choose to publish that pamphlet at that time?”), and its relations with other expressions (“what did that film have to do with that book that appeared a couple of years earlier?”).

In my last post in this series, I marked out “intellectual history” as a sub-genre that can derive insight from the analysis of particular details of particular works, and that is centrally occupied with how works and their creators respond to prior and contemporaneous works.  In this post I will look at some areas that fit in and around the sub-genre of intellectual history: art/literary/music history, the history of philosophy, and the history of scientific knowledge.  As always, no historian need confine themselves to a particular genre, and the comments are open for clarification, dissent, and debate.


Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.


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…)

Traditions of Practice: Mesoscopy, Materiality, and Intercalation July 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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If there are no guides to the construction of the history of science: if the task is more than identifying precedents to the present, if narratives of class interest or other overriding social determinants of scientific knowledge are rejected, and if (as the Great Escape has it) philosophy is no guide to how knowledge develops and spreads, then the danger arises that history drops into a deeply contingent state that can only be successfully analyzed at the most local level.

Arriving in this position, one must resolve the absurdity by asking: what sorts of things can be the subject of historiography?  I would reply that science studies has successfully argued that traditions of practice constitute the possible objects of historical inquiry.  If definable physical conditions can persist through history (mountains are a nicely tangible example), then certain definable practical reactions to those conditions can also persist (climbing the mountain, digging mines, etc…).  Such practices can be broken down into analytically useful categories: technology, technique, tactic, policy, arguments and knowledge claims, rhetoric, imagery, etc.  Properly characterized varieties of these practices can be given useful labels (e.g. “empire-building” as a national policy).

Specific choices  concerning how to deploy these practices in varying situations are informed by the history of ideas.  Ideas may be decoded through a careful analysis of how practices are selected based upon historical appreciations of the character of situations faced (“imperialism” suggests territorial acquisition as a response to international economic (more…)

Projects and Problems as Elements of History April 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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One important theme in the history of science profession is that there is a perceived need for increased methodological sophistication.  “We” (as a profession, and as a society) need to “think about science”, or more broadly, “think about knowledge and practice” in different and exciting new ways in order to really get at the history of science, and the relationship between science, technology, and society, and to avoid being misled by dubious scientific or anti-scientific claims.

Methodological sophistication is important.  It has only been methodological reflection that warns us against, for example, necessarily regarding “religion” as a “constraint” on “science”, when, for example, theological issues might have been a “resource” in a natural philosophical cosmology.  Or, we can now appreciate that the world did not “resist” Einstein’s relativity for some years, but rather that different communities did not understand it as important or germane to their physical projects (following Andrew Warwick on Cambridge physicists, or Peter Galison on Poincaré).

In my opinion, though, methodologically we are generally pretty sound, and have been for at least two decades, if not longer.  To continue to act as though methodology were still our most pressing problem is to ignore the question of how we might attain and retain understanding through better historiographical craft.  In this respect, there are some areas where we are doing very well, which need to be highlighted for those not working in them, and there are areas where we seem to be actually losing knowledge (as a community, anyway).

Rather than go into specific examples in this post, I would like to lay out what I view as the essential problems of good historiographical craft—the charting of the relationship between historical projects, “problems” in those projects, and the proper handling of the nature and role of context. (more…)

HSS Highlights, Pt. 1 November 24, 2008

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I’ve been on two trips since Pittsburgh (Ann Arbor to visit friends and see the Northwestern Wildcats manufacture a sloppy, soggy victory over Michigan–go ‘Cats!–and Maine for an oral history interview).  So, doing a recap of highlights of sessions I saw seems less like “hot news” than it might have been.  In fact, it seems like ancient history.  But I think a recap post is actually better with a slight time delay.  One, I promised some folks I wasn’t a conference insta-blogger, and, two, it reduces the ephemerality of the conference experience to come back to it a couple weeks later.

First off, while I’ve sometimes characterized conference presentations here as working along a “colloquium-journal-edited volume” axis of disconnected scholarship, this is more a general criticism of the form.  I think it’s OK to pick apart Isis articles from time to time, since it is the flagship journal of the history of science, after all.  But picking apart conference talks seems unfair to the tentative nature of the conference talk form, so we won’t be doing that.  I will, however, just briefly mention as a lowlight the weirdly rude non-reception given to the welcoming speech by Pitt’s provost.  What was up with that?

On highlights, the first thing I want to throw out there is the co-location with the Philosophy of Science Association conference.  I think it’s fair to say that for the past two or three decades, the history of science has been much more closely connected to the sociology of science than the philosophy of science, and I think it’s a good project to try and bring the philosophers back in.

I dropped in on some PSA sessions.  At a glance, I like the way the philosophers talk and argue: their linguistic precision and the degree to which they engage with problematic issues in a constructive fashion (more…)

Primer: Cambridge Tripos Coaches October 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In the 1700s, calculus quickly became the most powerful tool for those practicing “mixed mathematics”, a diverse field of analysis dealing with the motions created by known forces.  Throughout that century, it was used by a relatively narrow class of elite mathematicians, primarily to predict celestial motions, but also to analyze problems in ordinary mechanics and hydrodynamics.  Increasingly, its development was centered on France, but in the 1800s it was adopted by large new groups of British and German physicists, who used it to establish the new fields of thermodynamics and electromagnetism.

The Cambridge Senate House today

The Cambridge Senate House today

The expansion in the population of calculus-users was made possible by new methods of mathematical training.  At Cambridge University, the center of new physics developments in England, the mathematical “tripos” examination, taken in the Cambridge Senate House at the end of students’ course of studies, shifted from an oral examination to a written one in the late 1700s, and began adopting Continental mathematics in the early 1800s.  Exam results were listed in an “order of merit” with the “wranglers” at the top (the “senior wrangler” being the highest rank), down through senior and junior “optimes” to the unranked “hoi polloi”.  The competitiveness of these exams, and the sophistication of response that could be recorded on paper, allowed the exams to become unprecedentedly difficult over the course of the 19th century, often including cutting edge results.

To cope with the difficulty of these exams, students preparing for the tripos had to undertake continual study, not only to absorb the mathematics, but to train their abilities to use it appropriately.  College lectures proved sorely inadequate for the task.  Students instead turned to private tutors, or “coaches”.

The term coach came from the speedy horse-drawn coaches that could, in the decade or so prior to the widespread use of the train, transport wealthy students between London and Cambridge (about 60 miles) in (more…)

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.