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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…)

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…)