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Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.

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Schaffer on Gestural Knowledge and Philosophical Ideologies, and Their Historiographical Ramifications October 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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In “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium” (1997), Simon Schaffer makes a set of ambitious arguments concerning how 18th-century natural philosophy regarded knowledge that is dependent upon, and sometimes tacit within, manual labor. His entryway into this problem is the frequently ineffable manual skill required in early electrical experimentation, and the intriguing coincidence that two of the most prominent early 18th-century electrical experimenters, Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Charles Dufay (1698-1739), were, respectively, a former Canterbury cloth dyer and overseer of the Gobelins dye works in Paris.

dying silk

From Hellot, Macquer, and Le Pileur d’Apligny, The Art of Dying Wool, Silk, and Cotton, 1789 English edition

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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. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

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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.

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Thomas Gieryn’s Criticism of Post-Mertonian Science Studies March 20, 2012

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This post is about: Thomas Gieryn, “Relativist/Constructivist Programmes in the Sociology of Science: Redundance and Retreat” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 279-297.

The richness, honesty, and critical depth of many of the debates in the social studies of science in the late ’70s and early ’80s continues to surprise me, since their full contours were not very well preserved in later rehearsals.  In this blog’s most recent swing through this history, we noted Harry Collins’s early-’80s articulation of a “methodological relativism” which sought to develop a pure sociology of scientific knowledge unburdened by epistemological baggage.  This program contrasted with Karin Knorr Cetina’s belief that the pursuit of general sociological knowledge was unlikely to turn up much, and that the way forward was in localized ethnographic studies.

Now, I have always just assumed that the sociologist Thomas Gieryn identified with such radical (if divergent) postures.  Gieryn pretty much initiated the still-popular strategy of analyzing “boundaries” in science studies.  And, in the 1983 article in which he did so, he made explicit use of Michael Mulkay’s argument that science’s Mertonian “norms” were mainly rhetoric that scientists used to establish an “ideology” around themselves.  Although I did not suppose Gieryn so radical as Mulkay, I did not expect what I found in Gieryn 1982  — an energetic criticism of Collins’s “relativism”, of Knorr Cetina’s “constructivism”, and of any pretensions that sociology was making a radical escape from the program of Robert Merton.

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Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.

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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…)

Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 2 August 20, 2011

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In my previous post on Harry Collins’ ideas about “methodological relativism”, I discussed how in the early 1980s Collins began explicitly using relativism as a “natural attitude” that could be used to produce “sociological explanations” of scientists’ behavior.  Methodological relativism was premised on a clear delineation of tasks, which makes it appropriate for the sociologist, but not for scientists.

However, this delineation of tasks remained incomplete: in particular, the relationship between sociology, philosophy, and history of science remained confusingly unresolved.  Further, it was unclear what sociological fruits would actually be obtained via methodological relativism.  Finally, it left unclear what the relationship was supposed to be between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the more general sociology of knowledge, upon which STS appears to be based.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 1 July 19, 2011

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When I was at SEESHOP5 in Cardiff last month, I had an opportunity to talk a little with Harry Collins about the history of his work, its relationship to the history of science, relativism, radicalism, and STS.

People involved in Collins’ “Sociology of Expertise and Experience” (SEE) project would like their work to inform future STS scholarship.  However, by their estimate, STS has been reluctant to take up SEE.  This has led the SEE crowd to chart their own course, distinguishing their work as committed to a constructive deliberation about the nature and social operation of expertise, which they would contrast to an argumentation-averse, and ultimately nonconstructive critical orthodoxy prevailing in STS.

Now, STS distinguishes itself by a sort of ambivalently* radical relativist intellectual position, descending from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) project of the late-1970s and 1980s.  By attempting to define the bounds of expert authority, the SEE project is often taken to be a retreat from STS-brand radicalism to a more traditional set of ideas about expertise.  It has sometimes been paired with Bruno Latour’s own apparent retreat (pdf) around the same time as the SEE project got started, in the early 2000s.

Collins denies that SEE represents any shift in his critical position: for him it is just a shift to a different methodology and a different sort of problem.  (more…)