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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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Charles Weiner and the Oral History of Physics February 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Having just submitted an article in which oral histories conducted by Charles Weiner play a major role, I was surprised and saddened this morning to learn of his death a few days ago at the age of 80.  I did not know Weiner personally — for an overview of his life, and personal recollections of him, please see this very good post written by his son-in-law, Scott Underwood.  I would, however, like to take a moment to reflect on his work in the oral history of physics.

Weiner was the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics from 1965 to 1974, before moving to MIT where he spent the rest of his career.  I was a postdoctoral historian at the Center from 2007 to 2010 (albeit at a new facility in College Park, Maryland; not the New York City offices where Weiner worked).  During my time there, the co-located Niels Bohr Library and Archives began putting its oral history collections online, and I was asked to pick out some audio samples to complement these.  Spencer Weart, Weiner’s successor and still the director of the Center at that time, suggested that Weiner’s interviews were engaging, and would certainly provide good material.  And indeed they were, and they did.

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