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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.


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.


Kuukkanen on the Philosophical Foundations of the Historiography of Science October 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Twitterverse has brought to my attention a new article by philosopher of history Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen of Leiden University: “The Missing Narrativist Turn in the Historiography of Science,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 340-363 (paywall).

Like Lorraine Daston’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry (with which Kuukkanen does not engage), Kuukkanen’s piece covers the oft-plowed ground of the relationship between the social studies of science and the historiography of science. Recall that Daston takes the rather unorthodox view that historians have exhausted the insights of the social studies of science, and have therefore turned to the mainstream history discipline, which she believes explains our present surfeit of disconnected microhistorical case studies. Kuukkanen takes a more traditional view in that he believes that present historiography remains a fairly direct product of science-studies thinking. However, he also peculiarly believes that, due to this influence, we historians have not embraced the “narrativist turn” taken by other historians, which is to say, we believe the way we write about our subject matter is the way to write about it, and so we myopically fail to open ourselves to the possibility of alternatives.


Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
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Metallic 'vegetation', from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton website

One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.

I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.

In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.


Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

Anthropological Cosmology and Anti-Demarcationism, Pt. 2 March 18, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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There was no such thing as the historiographic revolution and this is a (too-long) post about it.

Historiographical totem?

In the late-1970s, the applicability of anthropological notions of cosmology to issues in the historiography of science could be understood as evidence of the need for an epistemology that extended into the domain of social relations.  This extension entailed the notion that scientific work existed in a cultural and intellectual continuum with the society around it, and thus that attempts to demarcate scientific work and ideas were ill-founded.  Society was not simply something to be scrubbed from science; legitimate scientific work was made possible through its establishment in legitimate places within society, and through the selective borrowing from society of cultural and political means of establishing legitimate claims.  This, I think, was a good idea, but was it methodologically revolutionary?

The test of the validity of any idea is whether it can change the outcome of a process in some specific way.  A scientific idea can help create a successful experiment or an improved technology.  The idea of social epistemology could be tested as could much sociology and philosophy of science by running it through the historical record and seeing if it rendered it more coherent.  In other words (to use a Latourian formulation), the success of social epistemology was bound up with its ability to forge an alliance with historiography.

The socio-epistemology advocates took no chances on getting lost in the shuffle, and apparently decided to tie the success of their program to a beneficial historiographical sea change.  In a 1983 article discussing possible implications for science education, Steven Shapin and Harry Collins even used the title “Experiment, Science Teaching, and the New History and Sociology of Science” (my emphasis; reprinted in Teaching the History of Science (1989), eds. Michael Shortland and Andrew Warwick).  However, the existence of this shift as a coherent entity, and the placement of socio-epistemology within it, should not be taken for granted.  The idea took years to successfully engineer. (more…)

HSS Highlights November 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Only a few cacti were seen in downtown Phoenix, and I am jealous of those who got a chance to get out of the city.

In the narrow space between my HSS trip, and an upcoming Thanksgiving trip, I wanted to quickly fit in a quick recap of some of the highlights of HSS.

Indiana University’s Bill Newman introduced the winner of this year’s lifetime-achievement Sarton Medal, John Murdoch.  Murdoch works on medieval and ancient science in a history of philosophy vein.  He came to Harvard in 1957, and when I was there (2002-07) his courses were of a rather different mode of pedagogy than the rest of the department.  As a 20th-century historian, I didn’t know him very well personally, but it was good to see HSS sustaining its effort to recognize and promote intellectual and philosophical history, and to bring it back into the mainstream of what we do.

[Edit, October 2011: John Murdoch died in September 2010.  An eloge written by Newman (paywall) appears in the September 2011 Isis.]

One of the big difficulties of keeping specialized intellectual history in the mainstream of a profession that has—rightly—branched out into cultural history, is how to make that work understandable and usable to those who aren’t intensively engaged with it.  On this note, I was enthused to learn about Newman’s web project,  “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” (aka chymistry.org). (more…)

Primer: Jean-André de Luc’s Christian Geology April 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Click for Hasok Chang's page on De Luc

It was nice timing that Michael Robinson happened to bring up at his blog the relationship between Biblical and physical (i.e. “biological” to be somewhat anachronistic) accounts of human history and race.  I’ve just been going over Martin Rudwick’s fantastic Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), and had decided to write a post on Jean-André de Luc (1727-1817), a devoutly Christian natural philosopher of the Earth’s history, and coiner of the term “geology”.

De Luc came from a family of Genevan clock-makers, and had a background in precision engineering.  He was well-known for his design of a portable barometer, and established his reputation as an authority on meteorology.  In 1773 he moved to England, where he resided for the rest of his life, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a “reader” (i.e. mentor) for Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.

In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the discipline now understood as geology was comprised of a variety of natural historical and natural philosophical fields of study: mineralogy, physical geography, geognosy (the study of the contents of the earth, related to mining), and the “physics” of the earth (which dealt with qualitative discussions of the earth’s mechanisms).  An important intellectual activity in this period was the construction of vast logical “systems” that connected causal and historical explanations to account for observations, thereby establishing a potential comprehensive “theory of the Earth”.  It was to describe this last activity that de Luc deployed the term “geology”, to distinguish it from more expansive cosmologies, which attempted to account for the workings of the entire universe.

As a devout Christian, de Luc felt embattled in a community of Enlightenment-era savants who embraced deistic, or (more…)

Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform January 14, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Book Club.
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Worlds Before Adam (Chicago, 2008) by Martin J.S. Rudwick is the cumulative synthesis of a distinguished career and a prolegomena for the future efforts of historians. Worlds Before Adam (WBA) is a narrative of the “reconstruction…of an eventful geohistory, which is in fact congruent with what geologists in the twenty-first century accept as valid.” Rudwick’s account begins with Baron Cuvier and “culminates” in the formulation of glacial theory, which included the “utterly unexpected inference of an exceptional and drastic Ice Age in the geologically recent past.” This inference, more than any other, Rudwick argues, “forced geologists to recognize the contingent character of geohistory as a whole” (7.) (Page numbers throughout are to WBA.) Rudwick notes that the narrative framework “will convey the strong sense of unity of purpose and scientific progress that participants experienced” (8.)

The narrative presented in WBA is a continuation of Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, which traced the “gradual development of the practice of geohistory within the sciences of the earth.” In the eighteenth century, Rudwick argued in Bursting the Limits of Time, geohistory was “an infrequent and marginal feature of scientific research.” Within a few decades, geohistory became the “defining element” of the new science of “geology.”  Geology “became the first truly historical natural science”  by “deliberately transposing methods and concepts from the human sciences of history itself.” The hereto obscure, mysterious, and unfathomably deep prehistory of the earth in the late eighteenth century began to be conceived as “reliably knowable” (2.) The scientific research described in Bursting the Limits of Time demonstrated that it was “feasible in principle to gain reliable knowledge of the earth’s history long before the earliest human records” (6.) In the early nineteenth century, the concern of WBA, geologists  took the historical approach “for granted” and were thus able to “reconstruct systematically and in detail what course geohistory had in fact taken….” (6.) WBA takes as its “starting point” the sense among practitioners that the “earth’s deep or prehuman geohistory could in principle be reconstructed almost as reliably as…the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” While Bursting the Limits of Time was given to the inquiry of the “sheer historical reality of the deep past, WBA has as its focus both the geohistorical and the causal” (3.) Geologists addressed the causal once they could take the historical reality of geohistory for granted. (more…)