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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?


Exemplary Episodes: The N-Rays January 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Photographic evidence of N-rays

The N-ray research program, led by respected French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot (1849-1930) and followed by many others, was of substantial significance, generating about 300 papers in the period between 1903 to 1906.  N-ray researchers not only argued for the existence of N-rays, but detailed their physical properties.  Their work is routinely included in the history of the new radiations of x-rays and Henri Becquerel’s radiation, and is often paired with psychologist and sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s “black light” (here not the same as UV light) as part of the discoveries of “spurious” forms of radiation.   Notably, cosmic rays, discovered around the same time, were also initially very slippery to detect, and would remain in limbo for well over a decade before being fully accepted as a phenomenon of extraterrestrial origin (never mind further disputes over their composition).

Traditionally, the N-ray research program has been of interest as an exemplary episode—an instrumental use of history that imparts a lesson or principle.  Because the rays do not actually exist, the historical flourishing of a research program dedicated to studying them becomes a cautionary tale to scientists.  Unless the lessons of the “affair” are heeded, you, too, could end up like Blondlot, needlessly wasting research effort on a chimera.  Unlike Blondlot, your follies probably won’t become a legend that lives on long after you (and after your legitimate achievements are forgotten), but it nevertheless wouldn’t do to acquire a reputation as methodologically reckless.

As an exemplary episode, the historical context of the N-ray program is typically analyzed in order to explain how it could have been allowed to exist at all, rather than to properly characterize its place amid contemporaneous research programs. (more…)

Canonical: Nye, Warwick, Smith June 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Today’s canonical entries in the history of 19th century physics:
1. Mary Jo Nye, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940 (1996)
2. Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003)
3. Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998)

Every good field needs an “orientation” text, and, in my experience, for this corner of history, Nye is it. Read chapters 1, 3, and 4 before Warwick and Smith, if you’re not familiar with the territory. Taking some advanced electricity and magnetism helps, too, to get a little “Fingerspitzengefuehl” in how physicists came to use mathematics in this period.

Warwick and Smith basically cover what has to be the most important shift in the history of physics in the 19th century, which is the importation of 18th century analytical techniques use in what was called “rational mechanics” primarily to study orbits (but also ordinary mechanics and hydrodynamics), as the route to the creation of valid theories. The primary entry point for analysis into non-mechanical physics is the science of energy, which established the fields of thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism. These two books, read in this order, will pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this shift, at least in Britain (German physics will be coming up).

Warwick is in my top 3 favorite history of science books of all-time, and is an excellent account of the cultural and intellectual shifts necessary to make physics into the heavily mathematical science that it has since become. Very few authors ever discuss the uses of mathematics, let alone the experience of using them. Warwick does both in a way that illustrates the watershed shift in what it meant to be a physicist, and what it meant to offer a physical theory, that took place in this period.

Smith (which I’ve actually never read before now) discusses the “program” that provided the entry point for this new kind of physics, the “North British” idea of energy, which drew on Continental engineering theory and the experimentation of James Joule, recruited little-known work by Mayer and Helmholtz on conservation of “Kraft”, systematized it in the fairly new Cambridge mathematical tradition, jibed it with geological theories about the history of the earth and the sun and attendant religious sensibilities, thereby creating an intellectual and social program (we should talk about this word “program” in the future; I find it very useful, but exploring its connotations would be worthwhile) that was capable of cementing a new scientific tradition.

Both works incorporate recent concern for social context in enlightening and highly specific ways. Both are extremely informative narrative accounts of topics of immense importance. Both concentrate largely on Britain, so we’ll need to supplement them with works addressing what was taking place on the Continent (I really would like to find a good source on 19c. French physics–any suggestions?). Still, these books beautifully illustrate what one could argue to be the most important change in physics over the course of the century, and if you had to choose just two books to read on the history of physics in this period, I think you could make a case that these would be the two to read. We’ll look at some good supplements in future posts.

Writing about Scientific Culture: Hentschel March 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I did my 19th century physics lecture yesterday. Mostly I used Mary Jo Nye’s invaluable Before Big Science overview, which also does a nice job of keeping the histories of physics and chemistry interlinked. I was planning on saying more about spectral analysis, but, 19th century physics being kind of a big topic, I didn’t even get the chance to bring up Kirchhoff–so it was basically: “the wave-like properties of light had been an important part of scientific practice for some time, like in the analysis of spectra [45 second description of spectra]. Now, here’s Hertz!”

But, preparing the lecture, I found two books on spectra, McGucken’s 1969 Nineteenth-Century Spectroscopy and Klaus Hentschel’s 2002 Mapping the Spectrum: Techniques of Visual Representation in Research and Teaching. Hentschel’s book is definitely going on my to-read-in-full list. Based on a preliminary survey, this looks like really exciting history. Here’s why I think so.

1) Significance is clear. If you know anything about practice in physics, astronomy, and chemistry after 1850 or so, you’ll know that spectral analysis is absolutely central. Given its centrality, there seems to be an absurdly small amount of literature on it.
2) The internal significance of method is clear. Hentschel differentiates himself from McGucken by noting that McG doesn’t really discuss spectroscopy as a visual culture–yet it very clearly is.
3) He follows cultural traditions–this isn’t a snapshot that says: visual culture is a part of spectroscopy (that much is obvious). It says, here’s how visual culture is an integral part of the history of spectroscopy. (That “research and teaching” bit in the subtitle is important–for some reason you can usually hit a home run talking about pedagogy).

One of the greatest challenges we have is to write about science as culture. The sociology of science has undoubtedly helped us to do that. (I think reception studies have probably benefited the most). But, in my mind, it’s not enough to simply portray science as a culture and call it day; you have to make a case for how culture changed and why. It’s difficult to escape discussing epistemological convictions in such cases.

Can this be done in short form? Is it the case that our books are good and our articles are bad? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. If it is the case, I definitely don’t think it has to be that way. In my class I have now systematically abused every facet of science from the medieval era to the 1800s by chopping them up into snappy 45-5o minute overviews, but I think I’ve managed to assemble a big picture of cultural change, where you can see different traditions flowing and interacting in the production of disciplines and knowledge. From a personal perspective, it’s been massively educational!