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Scientists and the History of Science: An Alternative View April 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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In my last post, I took issue with the idea that when scientists write history, they are possessed of a need to idealize science, and thereby secure its intellectual and social authority. The burden of this post, therefore, is to develop a framework that accounts for the ways that scientists do write history, and the ways they can contribute to the historiography of science, without supposing they are possessed of such a need, or that they need, in general, to be disabused of their ideas.

Scientists as Historians and Critical Intellects

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Photo by Elliott & Fry, 12 March 1954. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first thing we might note is that the basic idea that we require more realistic portraits of science did not originate in the work of critical outsiders. In the 1960s it was commonly associated with scientists such as Peter Medawar (1915–1987) and John Ziman (1925–2005), and did not, to my knowledge, raise much pique.

Moreover, many historians of science were scientists who migrated into history. An outstanding and well-known example is Martin Rudwick, a geologist by training. His Great Devonian Controversy (1985) was widely considered a crucial document of an era of newly nuanced portraits of scientific development. Yet, in more recent years, Rudwick has written, in large part, with a scientific audience in mind, and has been more critical of historians for their neglect of the course of scientific claims and arguments. I think scientists such as Rudwick can prove, at least in certain respects, to be more sensitive historians than trained historians, provided they are well-read in existing historical research. But, of course, the more general point is that a historiography is simply well served by enrolling people with a diversity of training and experience.

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

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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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.

Available Now in Centaurus: My Review of Helge Kragh’s Higher Speculations October 28, 2011

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I don’t believe I have permission to republish here, but my review of Helge Kragh’s book, Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology is available in Centaurus 53 (2011): 342-343, or online here (paywall, but if your library, like mine, doesn’t subscribe, you can see a scan of about 1/3 of the review for free).

I was very happy to get the chance to review the book, because Kragh’s industriousness, his technical understanding, and his interest in a wide array of subjects make him one of the most exciting historians of physics working today.  My review makes quite a bit of the fact that the volume feels like more of an outline of a future history than a filled-out history along the lines of Kragh’s Cosmology and Controversy (1996).  So it contains a lot of discussion of how these sketches could be pulled together into a more synthetic account.  I would like to repeat a point I make at the end of the review, which is that this is intended more in the vein of engagement than criticism.  If you’re interested in putting the latest multi-verse scenarios into the context of the longstanding history of physical speculation, this is your book.

In Praise of Historiographical Work Horses January 16, 2010

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The consolidation of gains is methodologically progressive

Who are the work horses in your field?  I’ve finished reviewing the data on my big web project at AIP, which at the moment consists of basic career data on over 800 physicists working in America at any point after 1945.  Where the information is actually available, this tells you things like where they were and when, what special posts they held (department chairs, professional society presidencies…), and what major committees they were on.  But you can also turn this around: the resource will also tell you, for certain institutions, who was there and when.  But, to make the resource complete and useful, you need to have a third dimension that links people intellectually rather than institutionally, which will be done via topic guides, on which I am now working.

Unlike gathering all the basic biographical information, which mainly requires tenacity in data mongering, this last task vastly benefits from the guidance of other historians.  And in the history of physics, when you want to find out the basics, it’s remarkable how the same names keep coming up again and again.  Should a chronological problematic ever re-emerge as an organizational principle in historiography, I think these individuals’ methodological importance will be better appreciated.

University of Illinois professor Lillian Hoddeson is everywhere, and constantly in collaboration with physicists and other historians.  She, Adrienne Kolb, and Catherine Westfall have just come out with an early history of Fermilab (2008). (more…)