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In Praise of Praise: How Historians Could Improve Celebratory History May 10, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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This afternoon, thanks to the initiative of Jim Grozier, I am giving a talk at the weekly High Energy Physics seminar at UCL.  The subject will be my work on experimentation in early particle physics.  While my “Strategies of Detection” paper mainly concerns the problem of how to build “mesoscopic” histories of experimental practices, my talk will repurpose my argument to discuss how we can articulate and evaluate experimental ingenuity and skill.  This jibes with other thoughts I’ve had about whether it could ever be considered legitimate for a professional historian to write a celebratory narrative of scientific progress.  The very notion triggers the raising of well-disciplined eyebrows: isn’t it the job of professional historians to problematize celebratory narratives?  But, really, I can’t think of a good reason why not, and it seems to me there is substantial opportunity to improve the genre.



Did scientist-critics invent operational research? April 30, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques, Operations Research.
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Science in War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1940)

In my last post, one of the things I discussed was how mid-20th-century British critics held that a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science and its relationship with society was a root cause of a national failure to alleviate social and economic ills, and a cause of national decline more generally.  This diagnosis conveniently cast the critic as just the sort of person who could show the way toward a more prosperous and harmonious society.

Such narratives become more credible if a history of prior critical successes can be constructed.  As I argue in my work on the history of operational research (OR) and scientific advice, critics understood the development of OR during World War II to be just such a success, helping to forge newly close and constructive relations between scientific researchers and military officers.  There is no question that key critics of science-society relations—particularly physicist Patrick Blackett—were important figures in OR.  But, the question of the extent to which critics were responsible for OR is actually a challenging interpretive matter with which I have now struggled for a dozen years, since my undergraduate senior thesis.

The urbane zoologist Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993)—who later became the British government’s first chief scientific adviser, from 1964 to 1971—suggested in his 1978 memoir, From Apes to Warlords, that Tots and Quots, the prestigious dining club that he convened, and which counted a number of scientist-critics among its members, was a major force for reforming relations between science, state, and society, including through the development of OR (370-371, my emphasis):


The “Death Cries” of Dark Matter? April 4, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Current Affairs.
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The cosmic ray energy spectrum is in the news! The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment (AMS-02), mounted on the International Space Station, is reporting results about the prevalence of positrons in the cosmic radiation, which otherwise comprises mostly protons. This is being touted as newsworthy, because, if there is a drop-off in that prevalence at higher energies, it will corroborate certain theories of dark matter, which propose that the mutual annihilation of dark-matter particles generates positrons of energies up to but not exceeding levels corresponding to those particles’ high mass.   Similarly enticing results were reported by the PAMELA (Payload for Anti-Matter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics) experiment in 2008.  The sophistication of AMS-02 will hopefully be able to take those measurements further, but, unfortunately, we will have to wait a while for more definitive results from higher-energy parts of the spectrum.

The AMS mounted on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

AMS-02 mounted on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

What is intriguing about this story is that it really brings us back to where particle physics began over 80 years ago.  In 1930 Robert Millikan (1868-1953), the doyen of physics at the California Institute of Technology, set postdoctoral researcher Carl Anderson (1905-1991) to work on building a cloud chamber in order to measure the same thing AMS-02 is designed to measure, the energy spectrum of cosmic rays.  Millikan believed that measuring the spectrum would confirm his controversial (and incorrect) theory that cosmic rays originated as photons produced in the interstellar synthesis of elements, which then created secondary radiation when they encountered atmospheric nuclei.  Much in the way that every element emits a characteristic spectrum of light, Millikan figured that the energy spectrum of this secondary radiation would cluster into characteristic bands, observing which would, in effect, be like listening to the “birth cries” of the elements.1


New Article in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences December 5, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverMy new article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Practices in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42 (2012): 389-431, is out.  Click here to download a free pdf copy (15MB—lots of images).  I’ll talk more about the contents of the paper in future posts. For the moment, I’d just like to publicly jot down some thoughts about the origins and thinking behind the paper, which I think is a useful exercise to do for all new publications.

The paper is self-consciously a testing ground for ideas about how to build a more synthetic historiography. First, it’s an attempt to develop a way to find interesting historical “objects” to periodize and interrelate in the history of scientific practice. In doing this, I am trying to build explicitly on the foundations for “mesoscopic” history that were laid by Peter Galison (my PhD advisor) in his big book,Image and Logic (1997). Other attempts to do this sort of thing have tended to look for very large “objects”, such as John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing” or Galison and Lorraine Daston’s attempt to classify and periodize concepts of “objectivity”. I am arguing for the importance of looking at things that are smaller, but which are not simply “local”, and things that are less “epistemic” in nature, but which nevertheless provide us with insight into past scientific arguments. These are the titular “strategies of detection”.

Second, the paper is also an attempt to summarize the already considerable past gains in the historiography of experimentation in particle physics (which is dominated by Image and Logic), and then to go deeper, retaining and extending some gains while challenging and revising others. If we imagine historiographical progress as existing along two axes of “depth” and “breadth”, this paper aims to further progress along the depth axis, while contributing only slightly to the breadth axis. But I started work on this paper while putting together the topic guide on particle physics for my Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource, which looks for new gains mainly along the breadth axis. So, in my mind, ACAP and “Strategies of Detection” are complementary branches of my thinking about the central problem of historiographical synthesis.

A few notes on the paper’s origins below the fold.


Bernard Lovell: An Archival Anecdote August 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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The death of physicist Sir Bernard Lovell on August 6th at the age of 98 has been widely reported.  I thought I would mark his passing with an anecdote about some correspondence by and about him, which I ran across in December 2000 at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on my first ever archive trip.*

To set the scene a bit, at the time I was still an undergrad, and was impressed by the wonderful circular reading room at the IWM situated right beneath the building’s cupola, and by having to do things like acquire permission from someone named Noble Frankland to see the Sir Henry Tizard papers there.  (And I didn’t even know this was a former site of Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam!)   I was trying to come to grips with the very loaded topic of “operational research” (OR).  I gathered that wartime OR had to do with the “coordination” of research with the military’s “operational” goals, but I didn’t have a very good sense of how coordination actually happened in bureaucracies, or the complicated politics of the subject.

It turns out most people don’t, but I was particularly ill-informed.  I distinctly remember telling the staff member escorting me to the reading room that I was interested in “why Britain didn’t develop a military-industrial complex as America did”.  I was duly informed it was because there was no money.  That wasn’t exactly what I meant — what I had in mind, but couldn’t express, was why British R&D hadn’t been more strongly coordinated with military planning as it had been in America even to a fault: RAND, McNamara, and all that.  That position was also wrong-headed in its own way.  I did not realize that I was caught up in deep tropes populating the rhetoric of science in Britain, which were designed to explain its failures (as well as America’s successes and pathologies).  It was believable, though, because so much evidence, including a letter written by a young Lovell, seemed to corroborate Britain’s difficulties coordinating its scientific resources — I did not appreciate that he and others were bearers of the rhetorical tradition that had already shaped my thinking.


The Projects of Operations Research and the Ontology of Management June 16, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
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I’d like to test drive my new critical tool (“discipline & ontology” vs. “projects”) on my new article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management”.  I think it’s a useful alternative analysis, which would never have made any final, published version of the article, but which nicely brings out the intricacy, subtlety, and importance of the issues at play.

I would argue that the historiography of OR has been dominated by the notion that OR was, essentially, an attempt (in the footsteps of Taylorism) to transform the ontology of military planning and industrial management from one of seasoned leadership into one of “science”.  This shows up in the historiography of wartime OR, but especially in treatments of OR’s postwar adoption of mathematical formalism as its intellectual core.  This last turn has been regarded as a clear departure from any sensible conception of management, and it can therefore only be explained as a kind of fetishization of science.

As I put it in my paper:

Prior accounts of OR’s turn to mathematical specialization have … assumed that the development of a mathematical canon represented a sort of pathology of professionalization, which detached it from the generalist investigations touted by its wartime practitioners. Andrew Abbott [The System of Professions (1988)] has suggested that ‘mathematical preeminence’ was a ‘professional regression’ resulting from a turn toward self-regarding academic virtuosity in OR. Thomas Hughes [Rescuing Prometheus (1998)] has grouped OR with systems engineering as a technical form of expertise that became subjected to typical criticisms of technocratic management and had to be supplemented by more humanistic and democratically inclusive ‘postmodern’ methods. Such accounts … suppose a chronological process of neglect or attainment of some general nontechnical conception of management, which might have granted OR wider and more legitimate authority.


Book Review: Randall Wakelam’s The Science of Bombing September 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 101 (September 2010): 671-672.

© 2010 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.

Randall T. Wakelam.
The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command. ix + 347 pp., illus., apps., index. Toronto/London: University of Toronto Press, 2009. $55 (paper).
William Thomas

During World War II, scientists worked for the British, Canadian, and American military services to study plans, tactics, training, and procedures to see whether military practices made sense in light of up‐to‐date information from the field. The manner of this work varied from conducting special investigations, to parsing statistics, to building sophisticated mathematical models of such military operations as hunting for U‐boats. This work was known in Britain as “operational research” (OR) and was later established as its own profession. (more…)

Watch your language, Pt. 2: Galison vs. Staley June 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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In Pt. 1, I discussed the historiographical problem of under what circumstances it is useful to criticize someone else’s characterization of history, highlighting Peter Galison’s rebuke in Image and Logic to Andy Pickering’s account of the discovery of the J/ψ particle from Constructing Quarks.  I noted that Galison took exception to Pickering’s idea of “tuning” experiment to theory on the count of its adherence to an antipositivist understanding of the history of experiment as proceeding in some sort of theoretical relationship to theory rather than on its own terms.  This independence of experimental tradition from theoretical concerns is part of a useful view of history Galison calls “intercalation”.  I noted that the issue of theory-dependence can have political overtones, but that the issue is also important to understanding how knowledge-production works, and to constructing coherent and accurately-worded historical accounts.

But just how important is accuracy in wording?  When is one making a point and when is one just nitpicking?  To address this question I want to skip ahead a couple of years to a special issue of Perspectives on Science dedicated to Image and Logic in which philosopher of science Kent Staley disputed Galison’s division of modern particle detection into epistemologically distinct “image” and “logic” traditions.  Galison responded in the same issue entirely confident that he was being visited by some easily vanquished ghost out of the historiographical past.  Yet, to my mind, this is a dispute that Staley won.  I’ll explain why, and then get on to the ultimate question of whether it matters.

First off, I should say that I’m predisposed to Staley’s argument.  When I first thoroughly read Image and Logic in (more…)

Primer: Plate Tectonics April 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A map showing differing magnetic polarizations in rock on the Juan de Fuca plate with colors indicating age; from the United States Geological Survey.

During the 18th century, broad theories of the earth (such as that proposed by Jean-André de Luc, which I discussed a few weeks ago), attempted to account for a wide array of phenomenona, such as the origins of mountains, the origins of different rock strata, the presence of marine fossils on land, and so forth.  By the end of that century such wide-ranging and speculative theoretical “systems” had fallen into a degree of disrepute as a useful learned activity, and a more disciplined and less narratively ambitious geology slowly gained precedence.  Nevertheless, the questions asked by 18th-century savants remained valid, and varying theories of the earth’s history remained in circulation, with answers to many key questions remaining in flux until well into the 20th century.

Following World War II, the theory of the German meteorologist and paleoclimatologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), that continents drifted over the face of the globe, had fallen largely by the wayside.  Wegener had proposed his theory early in the 20th century to account for climatic changes in the earth’s distant past, for fossil similarities across continents, and for mountainous features of the earth’s crust, which required a new explanation after the decline of the cooling earth theory circa 1900.  Wegener’s theory—the most prominent of several proposed drift theories—had its sympathizers, some very well-respected, but the theory was not widely accepted, and geologists in North America were outright hostile to it, many assuming by mid-century that it had disappeared into the realm of crank science.

In fact, continental drift was never fully given up to the cranks, and in the 1950s and 1960s, new evidence and mechanisms for it were developed, which made a convincing enough case that it not only revived the fortunes of continental drift, but swiftly overcame all competition.  “Plate tectonics” arose at the confluence of a number of different (more…)

Primer: The Tizard Committee November 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click to go to the Official Portraits of the Imperial College Rectors)

Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click for the Official Portraits of Imperial College Rectors)

The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD, a.k.a. the “Tizard Committee”) was instituted by the British Air Ministry in late 1934 to consider new technologies that the Royal Air Force might use to defend its territory against attack by bombers.  The committee was initially comprised of its chair, scientist and longstanding government research administrator and Imperial College rector Sir Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s Director of Scientific Research Harry Wimperis, academic experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist A. V. Hill (who had been the head of a World War I research group responsible for improving anti-aircraft gunnery), and Wimperis’ assistant A. P. Rowe, who served as secretary.  Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann was added soon thereafter on the insistence of his close friend Winston Churchill, who was at that time a backbench Conservative MP.

The formation of this committee was not unusual, as government R&D work was frequently informed by standing and ad hoc advisory bodies.  Henry Tizard was already chair of the high-level Aeronautical Research Committee, of which Blackett was also a member.  Lindemann’s addition was engineered by Churchill as a part of his vocal campaign (more…)