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Hasok Chang and “Complementary Science” January 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Hasok Chang

In a nice coincidence, my look at “tactile history” winds toward its close with a discussion of historian and philosopher Hasok Chang, who, as it happens, is speaking here at Imperial on Thursday about how “We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)” (details here; also see his 2009 Centaurus paper of that title).

In this post, I want to talk specifically about Chang’s ideas on what he calls “complementary science” — a vision for a new relationship between the history and philosophy of science and actual scientific work.  You can read more about it on his website, “The Myth of the Boiling Point”.

Drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “normal science,” Chang supposes that in the process of scientific specialization “certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize those items of knowledge that need to be taken for granted” in the day-to-day process of conducting science.  However, this process is “quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent.”  There are simply “limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time.”  Therefore, “Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected.”


Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 2 December 31, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Forgetting is integral to scientific advance, but neither our understanding of the process of science nor our appreciation of its historical development can accept the limitations imposed by such forgetfulness. (Einstein’s Generation, p. 420)

David Edgerton has introduced the term “anti-history” to describe inadequacies of past historical accounts, which, for the sake of advocating some point, were systematically neglectful in portraying the history of the subject they were addressing.  Edgerton’s central concern is the history of science in Britain, and especially the history of the relationship between science, technology, and the British state.  “Anti-historian” commentators, he argues, had cause to systematically portray the history of state science and expertise in terms of its inadequacy or absence, because they viewed the further and proper deployment of science, technology, and modernization by the state as key to future social and national progress.  (See his Warfare State, 2006, and “C. P. Snow as Anti-Historian of British Science: Revisiting the Technocratic Moment, 1959-1964” History of Science 2005: 187-208).

As strong of an advocate for Edgerton’s historiographical insights as I am, I feel that the “anti-history” critique is somewhat unfair, mainly since it focuses on historical actors’ failure to be good historians, which distracts from the points they were trying to make (regardless of those points’ validity).  The real force of Edgerton’s critique lands on the genealogy of historians who have continued to take those historical narratives and their terms at face value, rather than recognizing them for the instruments of commentary and advocacy that they were.  In other words, the term “anti-history” fails to make a distinction between the instrumental uses of history made in everyday life and the task of the professional historian.

(I have argued on this blog that historians of science have themselves become appallingly poor historians of their own profession so as to amplify the significance of recent insights, and that this has seeped into the historical narratives we professionally produce.  Edgerton made a similar point in 1993 for the specific case of the “Social Construction of Technology” program.)

In Einstein’s Generation, and exemplified by the quote above, Richard Staley recognizes the crucial function that narrative-building plays for historical actors as they attempt to comprehend and develop what they are doing, focusing on the distinction built in the early 1900s between “classical” and “modern” physics, which has subsequently been taken for granted by generations of historians. (more…)

The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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In my last discussion of the challenges involved in writing about the history of science in the 20th century, I noted that local narratives can be taken to be revealing of broader issues, but that such narratives can also simply reflect back some larger narrative already understood to exist.  In this post we take this consideration to the case of the national narrative.

John Krige’s 2006 book American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe is, I would say, an important step in the establishment of a historiography of post-1945 science on the European continent.  Until recently, the history of scientific Europe in this period has not been systematically explored.  1999’s Science under Socialism, edited by Dieter Hoffmann and Kristie Macrakis (who just joined Krige at Georgia Tech this year), etched out a picture of science in East Germany.  Cathryn Carson has written on science in West Germany (publications list here).  In 1998’s The Radiance of France (out in a new edition this year), Gabrielle Hecht wrote on the development of the unusually important nuclear power industry in that country.  The object here is not to put together a complete bibliography, but if anyone wants to add to the picture of this historiography, please do leave a comment.

Krige’s book covers a lot of important bases, looking at the Marshall Plan, NATO, the State Department and CIA, the activities of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the establishment of CERN (on which he has written more extensively elsewhere) as institutions linking American and European science and politics.  (Here one should also make note of Ron Doel‘s ongoing project to study American science’s diplomatic uses.)  Similar to Needell’s book on Lloyd Berkner, the emphasis here is on individual cases.  In this case, different (more…)

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives May 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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OK, it’s Wednesday, but this morning’s post is going to be a quick reflection on an episode of Nova I saw last night on Hugh Everett III and his son Mark, better known as E, the leader of the band Eels.  Perhaps surprisingly for a historian of physics, I’ve been aware of E much longer than I’ve been aware of Everett—back in college we used to play Eels albums a lot.  Their (his) second album, 1998’s Electro-shock Blues is a particularly depressing ride through his reaction to his mother’s death from cancer and his sister’s suicide (but ending in the uplifting “P.S. You Rock My World”).  I did not, however, know that E was Everett’s son.  Hugh Everett died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 51.

Everett is best-known as the progenitor of the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which he put out to challenge the Copenhagen Interpretation in the late 1950s as a graduate student at Princeton.  As a way of circumventing the problem of the seemingly arbitrary “collapse” of wave functions when “observed”, he supposes that instead of collapsing, different possibilities propagate in different realities—in its most technical, least ontological manifestation, this is the idea of the “universal” wave function.  Everett’s advisor, John Wheeler, encouraged him, even setting up a meeting with Copenhagen guru Niels Bohr, but found that most quantum physicists rejected his new perspective out-of-hand (egged on behind the scenes by Bohr).

Everett decided against a career in academic physics, going to work for the (more…)