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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.


Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.


Is it idol-smashing time again already?


Sociology, Science Indexing, and Science Indicators in the ’60s and ’70s April 25, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Simultaneously reading a recent Guardian article on the issue of open-access scientific publication, and Robert K. Merton’s “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir” (in The Sociology of Science in Europe, 1977, pp. 3-141) spurred me to wonder whether science studies could aid scientists to transition to a new model of scientific publication that is up-to-date with technology, but that also retains the intellectual and institutional virtues of present models. My answer to this question is: probably not.

The thought occurred to me because of Merton’s consideration of whether or not his 1940s-era understanding of how and why scientific credit is assigned the way it is could have led to the establishment of something like the Science Citation Index (SCI) prior to its actual appearance in 1963.  Merton speculated on why it didn’t, but he also marked a growing contact in the 1960s and ’70s between the historians and sociologists of science, publication indexing, and the rising tide of “science indicators”.  He reckoned this contact would grow as both the sociology of science and science metrics matured.  Unfortunately, the 1970s actually seems to have been its high-water mark.


Tacit Knowledge and Tactile History: Otto Sibum and “Gestural Knowledge” December 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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An 1869 illustration of James Joule's simple, but difficult-to-replicate experiment demonstrating the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This post is the first in a short series on what I call “tactile history”: the practice of historical research that extends beyond examining documents to examining the objects of science and the locations they inhabited, and to the actual reenactment of historical scientific research.  The objective of tactile history is to recover aspects of historical work that would not have survived in the form of a written report.  In this vein, tactile history could be seen as a step beyond “notebook studies” — say, Gerald Holton on Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiments,* or Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995) — which look beyond scientific publication to recover the messier day-to-day practices of scientific life.

Where laboratory notebooks merely recover otherwise hidden practices, tactile history attempts to recover something that was never expressed in any form, and is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”.  This could be an inexpressible Fingerspitzengefühl (a fine-tuned hands-on knowledge), a lack of understanding of why an experiment works, pattern recognition, or an unreasoned premonition about what new scientific knowledge will look like.  In the 1980s, tacit knowledge became a crucial part of the “controversy studies” literature, because it was understood to be elemental in successfully replicating an experiment.  By studying controversies surrounding replication, one could uncover the many tacit preconditions underlying successful replication. (more…)

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…)

Primer: Einstein! September 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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OK, I fess up, I’m pulling out my reserve tank of things I can write about if I haven’t given sufficient thought to the weekly Hump-Day History post.  Having been a teaching assistant in a course called the “Einsteinian Revolution”, I think I can rattle off a quick 900-1,000 words on the guy!

AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates

Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, W. F. Meggers Gallery of Nobel Laureates

There is, of course, a historiographical industry surrounding Einstein.  Legions of science history enthusiasts are well-aware of his personal biography, his scientific work, his role as a scientific diplomat, his political advocacy.  There’s nothing that I can write here that would be considered remotely new or exciting, so this one goes out to all those who haven’t yet joined the thousands of Einstein groupies out there, those who know him mostly as an icon.  (Certified groupies may feel free to cluck their tongues at the insufficient characterizations offered here).

Let’s focus on the significance and genius of Albert Einstein.  As he himself often pointed out, as a day-to-day physicist, he was comparable in talent to the best minds of the theoretical physics community of his day.  Where Einstein needs to be considered the best mind of his era is in his ability to conceptualize the fundamental questions at the heart of physical inquiry.  Conceptually, there were only a few other physicists in his time who could even really be considered in his league.

Einstein’s interest in the conceptual problems of physics extends from his snotty lack of regard for the graduate training in physics he received (more…)