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Merton on the Reception of Watson’s The Double Helix September 15, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For many decades now, various critics have supposed that the relations between science and society suffer because of the prevalence of an unrealistic view of science as something that is abstract and dehumanized. This supposition licenses the critics to deploy therapeutically realistic images of science to deliver their audience from their false idols into a state of mature understanding.

In his paper, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” Science 183 (1974): 1164-1172, Stephen Brush supposed the history of science could play just such a “subversive” role in science education. At that same time, according to some stories, the history of science itself had to be rescued from ne’er-do-well myth-spinners working as philosophers of science, Mertonian sociologists, and, of course, American scientists justifying their work to society and Congress.

All of this overlooks the fact that our entire society had already been freed from its illusions by James Watson’s best-selling 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.


Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Primer: Siderius Nuncius February 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Up until 1610, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) had made his living as a university mathematician, first at Pisa then at Padua near Venice.  At that time, mathematics was a relatively low university subject, primarily studied as a path toward an education in medicine, law, or theology and philosophy (Scholastic philosophy).  Subjects within the rubric of mathematics included the sciences of mechanics, optics, and astronomy.  The development of geometric and mathematical theories within these sciences constituted logical arguments, but were considered descriptive of the behaviors—rather than explanatory of the natures—of things.  Astronomy, for example, largely involved  the deployment of geometrical methods of predicting future positions of the sun, moon, and planets, leaving their physical qualities, habits of motion, and arrangement to the philosophers.

Galileo’s work in mathematics and mechanics was wide-ranging and ambitious, challenging philosophical assumptions such as that heavier objects fall more quickly, and making use of experimental trials.  He also became aware of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe (1543) while a mathematician.  Still, as a university mathematician, however much he felt his work bore upon philosophical forms of knowledge, he was not in a (more…)

Primer: Pierre Gassendi’s Natural Philosophy January 29, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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Pierre Gassendi (b. 1592, d. 1655) was born at Digne, France, became a priest in 1617, and later a professor of philosophy at Aix while still in his mid-twenties.  As Saul Fisher notes in his excellent Pierre Gassendi’s Philosophy And Science: Atomism for Empiricists (Brill, 2007), “Gassendi’s career as a priest is a crucial intellectual facet of intellectual constitution: his writings reflect an unbending allegiance to Holy Scripture and Church teachings, though not necessarily in orthodox doctrinal lights” (1.)   In 1624, he met Mersenne, and between 1629 to 1630, while traveling in the Low Countries, he met Isaac Beeckman.  In his 1632 work, Mercurius in sole visus,  he described his 1631 observation of the transit of Mercury as a confirmation of Kepler’s theories.  In 1632, after returning to Digne, he began a study of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Gassendi spent the remaining twenty or so years of his life going between Provence and Paris due to his involvement with a group of philosophers who had gathered around the French philosopher Mersenne.  As Fisher details, in the Mersenne circle, “debates ranged over numerous topics central to the dismantling of the Aristotelian and Scholastic world-views” (3.) Mersenne, an associate of Descartes, was instrumental in allowing Gassendi’s objection to Descartes’ Meditations to be included in the published appendix entitled Objections and Replies.

While some historians consider Gassendi’s signature achievement to be his revival of ancient atomism, a complete (more…)