jump to navigation

Book Review: Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers February 14, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
2 comments

McCray, Visioneers

I have a new book review out in Technology & Culture of Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future (Princeton University Press, 2012). Access the review here. If you can’t get by the paywall, the “excerpt” constitutes virtually the entire review.

The only section excluded is my suggestion of a number of books that complement McCray’s history. The Visioneers is a very able contribution to a growing historiography of activities and ideas that have existed at the edge of mainstream science and technology, often flitting between legitimate, even groundbreaking work, and sheer fantasy. While the book revolves around Gerard O’Neill’s prospective studies of viable space colonies, and K. Eric Drexler’s interest in the development of molecular machines, it is really about a broad, multifaceted culture of technological enthusiasm, which McCray also explores through his Leaping Robot blog. If you are not aware of the blog, please have a look.

Other entries in this historiography might include:

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006)

Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches from Another Future (2010)

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)

Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (2011 – see my Centaurus review)

David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), and

Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (2012).

If you have additional suggestions, please drop them in the comments.

Advertisements

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: , , , ,
4 comments

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.

(more…)

The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
4 comments

Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).

(more…)

The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
3 comments

At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

(more…)

Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

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.”

(more…)

Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
17 comments

The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.

(more…)

Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Collectively, historians know a lot about science and technology during the Cold War.  A significant number of books and articles have been written about the ambitious technological systems developed during the era, the enormous scientific endeavors made possible by expanded state and military funding, the rise of new intellectual programs in fundamental physics and molecular biology, the expansion of geoscience and social science and the development of new methods in them, the global integration of scientific work, and the importance of digital computation, among other subjects.  Accordingly, the present is an excellent time to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, render the history of the era more navigable, and to suggest forward-looking research programs.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s Isis Focus section, edited by David Kaiser and Hunter Heyck did not take the opportunity to do that.  The limit of the section’s synthesis essentially said what the paragraph above said at greater length, and left the rest of the space as a forum for the individual contributors to showcase their own research projects, which are taken to “exemplify” recent research trends.  In this way, this Focus section is little different from past sections, which position themselves as the beginnings of new conversation, present some new empirical work, but mainly simply recapitulate basic ideas that can be considered the agreed-upon points in an aging scholarship, while reciting the perpetual mantra that “more work is needed” for any real understanding to occur.  This blog typically does not take these sections up.  But, since Cold War-era science is my own specialty, I thought a (now rather belated) critique of this particular section might be in order.

(more…)

Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

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

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

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…)

HET and Science Studies January 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , ,
3 comments

This post has a couple of motivations.  I’ve been following with interest the conversations over at the History of Economics Playground about the relationship between the History of Economic Thought (HET) and the science studies disciplines (see here for instance).  I’m particularly struck by the facts that many in the HET camp view the historical analysis of the impact of context as a distraction, and that eminent economists frequently show up to scold the rogues.  This contrasts to the history of other scientific professions falling under the HSS umbrella, where intellectual interaction between historians and scientists is pretty much at a low ebb.

The second motivation is that I’m now pushing toward completion of my book manuscript on operations research and associated “policy sciences”.  While sweeping up my chapter on the rise of OR and decision theory, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything pressing on Kenneth Arrow, (more…)