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Schaffer on Stephen Gray and Granville Wheler’s Electric Planetarium October 20, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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electric-planetarium

Over the span of a number of articles Simon Schaffer wrote in the mid-to-late 1990s, he forcefully argued for the existence and importance of a particular historical phenomenon, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was natural philosophers’ and projectors’ use of mechanical devices to attempt to gain intellectual authority over others’ ideas and labor, which was to be accomplished by making that authority appear to emanate from the machines themselves, rather than from the deft manipulation of the social settings in which those machines were deployed.  Although Schaffer only used it a couple of times, I am using his term “machine philosophy” to refer to his conception of this strategy.  I will further explain his arguments concerning machine philosophy—and, of course, offer my opinion of those arguments—in future posts.

I had originally thought I was going to discuss Schaffer’s “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483 (free) in the “Schaffer on Machine Philosophy” series.  However, once I really got into the piece, I realized that he does not regard the “electric planetarium” experiment (above left) in the same vein as he regards, say, Atwood’s Machine.  In Schaffer’s historical schematic, the electric planetarium would not have been part of the machine philosophy rising at that time explicitly because what authority it commanded was held to reside in the embodied skill and social integrity of the experimenter.

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The Natural Philosophy Problem February 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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I have decided that Geoffrey Cantor’s “The Eighteenth Century Problem,” an essay review of 1980’s Ferment of Knowledge collection, is a lost masterpiece [History of Science 20 (1982): 44-63].  I don’t think it’s possible to just pick it up and enjoy it; obviously reading Ferment of Knowledge helps, and knowing a little something about various eighteenth-century sciences helps as well.  But what the piece is really about is differing methods of historiographical presentation, and how they help us digest the scientific work of an era.  Cantor does a lot to help us understand the crucial variations in approach that existed ca. 1980.

What I want to concentrate on is the subsidiary “problem of natural philosophy”.  A common way of analyzing natural philosophy is just to say that “it’s what they used to call science”, but this not only misses the key distinctions and connections between, say, natural philosophy, natural history, mathematics, and other forms of higher learning, it also doesn’t help to explain the fact that a lot of the discussion that falls into natural philosophy comes off as just plain weird.  What are we to make of this?

Cantor observes that nobody seemed entirely sure:

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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…)

Schaffer on the Nebular Hypothesis February 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We’re going to be skipping around in the Schaffer bibliography a little bit now in the hopes of approaching his articles in a way that makes the most sense to me.  Today I want to look at “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” from History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James R. Moore (1989).  This work is fascinating to me for a few reasons.

1850 sketch of the Orion Nebula

1850 illustration of the Orion Nebula by Lord Rosse

First and foremost, it represents Schaffer’s attempt to translate his methodology for studying natural philosophical cosmologies into the era of disciplined science.  Natural philosophical cosmology was not a tightly restrained genre.  While we might say that there were identifiable sub-genres of cosmology that adhered to fairly specific methodologies and cosmological possibilities, the boundaries between these were very porous, and ideas transplanted themselves fairly easily between them.

Schaffer liked to use the term “resource” to describe these ideas.  Certain kinds of philosophical argument became “possible” (though, of course, not (more…)

Primer: Lawrence’s Cyclotron December 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In the early 1930s, the acceleration of electrons and protons was a popular project.  While the spectacular theoretical developments in quantum mechanics had stolen the show in physics in the 1920s, the problem of understanding the atomic nucleus had also become a subject of renewed interest following on experiments performed by Ernest Rutherford and his coterie at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.  They had shown that bombarding nuclei with the natural radiation of radioactive materials could transmute the subject nuclei into different elements.  However, natural radioactive materials were expensive, and their ability to provide incident particles was uncontrolled and inefficient.  It was understood that providing some artificial source of high energy (high velocity) particles would make bombardment easier, and the exploration of atomic nuclei more systematic and reliable.

Edwin McMillan and Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Fermi Film Collection

The obvious means of creating a source was to send particles streaming across a high electrical potential difference (high voltage).  Lightning accelerated electrons in an uncontrolled way between the sky and the ground—and had, in fact, been marshaled as a source of ephemeral high voltages.  The electrical industry had been vigorously seeking ways of creating high voltages so as to transmit electricity over long (more…)

Primer: Dufay and Nollet November 26, 2008

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Frontispiece of Nollet's Essai sur l'electricité des corps

Electricity and electrical phenomena presented a major conceptual problem for 18th-century experimental philosophers, who were tasked with understanding not only the nature of electricity and how it moved, but how (or, in some cases, whether) it related to light, fire, magnetism, lightning, sparks, shocks, phosphoresence, nervous phenomena, and the attractive and repulsive phenomena associated with electrically charged objects.  It was unclear whether electricity and the forces it exerted (what we would think of as charged particles and their fields) were one and the same thing, or how electricity moved about, or how it moved through materials such as glass, air, or vacuum.  The relationship between all of these phenomena and the differing electrical properties of different materials, not to mention electricity’s finicky response to changes in ambient humidity all made electricity an extremely complicated thing to study.  On the surface, Coulomb’s 19th-century late-18th-century law (the force of attraction or repulsion is proportional to the product of charges of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them) might seem like a logical extrapolation from Newton’s law of gravitation (the force of attraction is proportional to the product of the masses of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them).  Taking into account the experimental difficulties, however, it might also seem miraculous.

Unlike astronomy, the study of electricity remained without any quantitative basis for a long time.  Instead, natural philosophers attempted to develop qualitative schemes that were capable of explaining all of the various observations and (more…)

Schaffer on Spectacle, Pt. 1 September 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Continuing our first career overview series on the works of Simon Schaffer, we turn to “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth  Century” from History of Science 21 (1983): 1-43.  The topic of science and “performance” is now pretty well-worn.  In ’83 (a quarter of a century ago now), Schaffer referred to it as “fashionable”.  But rather than jump right into the argument, I’d first like to discuss the paper’s sense of historiographical purpose.

One gets the sense that there’s a definite project at work here, as Schaffer begins by drawing on a methodological distinction that the 18th-century natural philosopher Joseph Priestley drew between “true history” and “fiction”.  According to Priestley, “fiction” is illustrative of principles, where “true history” is interrogative and experimental in the same manner as science.  Here Schaffer allies himself explicitly with John Heilbron against the “physicist-historians who were more concerned with progress rather than process.”  This is written at a time when historians of science, inspired by sociological theory, were seeking to understand history as it happened, rather than to single out accomplishments based on a post-hoc (more…)

History in Perspective (Isis Pt. 6) August 2, 2008

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What I enjoyed most about Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes’ “History of Science and American Science Policy” is its sense of perspective and frankness about the place of history in science policy-making.  They begin with a well-chosen 1986 quote from Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May from a study on the “uses of history”: “…despite themselves Washington decision-makers actually used history in their decisions … whether they knew it or not.”  I think this is true: action is based on tradition and our understanding of decisions made in the past.  Therefore, a proper understanding of past events is helpful in making decisions.  So, the historian should be actively involved, yes?  Wang and Oreskes go on to quote John Heilbron, also from 1986: absolutely, we should “build the channels through which relevant and relevantly packaged research results of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science and technology may flow to policy makers. …  Let us come to the aid of our perplexed bretheren in the sciences.”

Not so fast.  While Wang and Oreskes remain upbeat, they urge caution: “opportunities for direct involvement in science policy have remained scarce.  Experience further suggests that historians who have taken up the demand have struggled to balance subtlety with clarity, nuanced appraisal with straight talk.  Authentic policy-relevant history is not an oxymoron, but it is a challenge.”  While it is true that historical lessons are frequently mis-interpreted (Wang presents evidence from his research on scientists who advised the President), the idea of historians of science themselves intervening is not so straight-forward as providing more informed interpretations.

Typically, Wang shows us, whenever historians have intervened in the political process, they have tried to strike an independent stance from both scientists and policymakers, but their testimony is usually called upon to take a side on pre-determined but clashing points of view.  For example, (more…)

Holmes, Part 2: Historical Realities vs. Historical Arcs April 17, 2008

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In the previous post I pointed out that Frederic Holmes was dealing with the problem of predecessor science. At the beginning of his lectures (1990), Holmes sets up an interesting comparison, saying that one can focus on “conceptually defined problems that appear to unify the contributions of several or many scientists.” He points to Jed Buchwald’s The Rise of the Wave Theory of Light, Alan Rocke’s Chemical atomism in the nineteenth century, and, lo and behold, John Heilbron’s Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries. They key here is “appear to unify”–even though we’re looking at scientists with diverse perspectives, they fall into a collective conversation. So, this tends to exclude arguments along the lines of “this guy in India had this same idea in the 8th century” or the perennial favorite, “this really all goes back to Descartes”. This is important for Holmes, because it demands that if he’s going to trace his topic of metabolic chemistry back to the pre-1850 era, the burden’s on him to indicate that the 1850’ers and the 1930’ers were having the same conversation in a more-or-less continuous tradition.

But what’s really interesting to me is a second trend of argumentation exemplified, according to Holmes, by Martin Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy. Rudwick’s book (1985) is one of the key texts in the study of resolution of scientific controversies, which shows how artificial their closure seems to be. According to Holmes, Rudwick’s work, in comparison to the others, “is a more tightly bounded, densely recounted episode that Rudwick employed in his effort to transcend ‘the individual scientist’ in order to see how ‘a specific scientific problem… brought together some group of individuals in an interacting network of exchange.”

Holmes goes on from here with little comment, but the timing of his lectures, five years after Leviathan and Rudwick, comes at a critical juncture. These works still represent fresh, productive approaches that compete with a slightly older style represented by guys like Buchwald and Heilbron. For Holmes they are two possible models that do two different kinds of work, but there’s no need to comment on their historiographical place, because they’re two accepted approaches.

Now, in my mind, Rudwick is prototypical of the case study tradition. It sets out to demonstrate by means of example, rather than to trace a history. It functions both as an illustration of a moment of “science in action”, and as an exemplar of a long-term historical reality (episteme?) (i.e., social structures in which controversies can be resolved in a gentlemanly fashion). Whereas the three works mentioned above chart out more of a medium-term historical arc. I would claim that somehow the Rudwick model came to dominate historical writing in subsequent years, but it’s not the model that Holmes chooses for his discussion of the 1840s to 1930s historical arc.

For now, I’d just like to muse about functional differences between these two models. The Rudwick model seems like sort of a one trick pony–if we don’t appreciate (and it’s debatable whether historians did) that the settlement of controversy can proceed independent of scientific arguments, Rudwick serves as a slap in the face. But, like a joke, the more you tell the story, the less illuminating each new case study becomes. Whereas, inquiries into historical arcs, while perhaps less earth-shattering, I think, ultimately gives us something to argue over, and, if we choose the right trends (or invent new narratives altogether–excitement!), this is probably the most continually productive route.

I think this choice of models is really one of these stylistic/economy-of-writing issues. It’s not a question of correctness, but how much argumentative work you can make history do for you.

History of History April 4, 2008

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I’ve noticed lately that my meanderings have been delving a lot into the history of the history of science lately. I think we need to study the history of our profession for the same reason that it’s useful to know about the history of science: because practices have deep roots in argumentative traditions. So, I made the claim that we claim to get a lot out of the sociology of science (like our close focus on practice) that we could have probably also gotten from elsewhere, like mainstream cultural history, without all of sociology’s hangups about understanding actual scientific results.

Could this have happened? It’s an interesting question, because the history of science profession (at least in America) is rooted not in mainstream history, but in a close tie to the philosophy of science, the value of which the sociologists questioned, because what the philosophers (and “Wave One” sociologists) said happened in science was not actually evident “on the ground”–Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life was supposed to be a bit of a bombshell for this reason (if I understand my metahistory right). According to this story, so hung up were we on narratives emphasizing 1) the march of theories, 2) the growth of theories from crucial experiments, or 3) the continual interplay of theory and experiment, that we failed to pay any attention to what actually happens in science.

According to this narrative, we would not have thought to incorporate the insights of cultural history and Skinner, etc., into our work, because of our insistence on the special, algorithmic nature of science, predicated on our roots in philosophy. The ordinary rules of historical investigation would not have been thought to apply without the insights of the strong program. I think this probably mischaracterizes the historical work being done in the late ’70s. But another reason for studying history is so that we can better learn how to escape it. If I am right in saying that we justify case studies, simply because they demonstrate how 1), 2), and 3) above are not how science works (“I choose, D, None of the Above”), then we may have bound ourselves up more than we’ve released ourselves. A further review of the “old” history, like what I was doing with Heilbron, may be in order.