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Book Review: David Cassidy’s Short History of Physics in the American Century November 10, 2012

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The following book review appears in Isis 103 (September 2012): 614-615.

© 2012 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.  In-text links have been added by the author, and were not included in the original text.

David C. Cassidy. A Short History of Physics in the American Century. (New Histories of Science, Technology, and Medicine.) 211 pp., tables, app., index. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. $29.95 (cloth).

William Thomas

David Cassidy styles this book “a very brief introductory synthesis of the history of twentieth-century American physics for students and the general public.” As such, it “is not intended to offer a new analysis of that history or to argue a newly constructed thesis.” Nor does it “drift far from the standard, often currently definitive literature on its subject—as far as that literature goes” (p. 5).


Cold War Social Science and the Rubric of the “Cold War” September 6, 2012

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Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature. edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

I’d like to begin our look at this book with the question that Mark Solovey brings up in the title of his introductory piece, “Cold War Social Science: Specter, Reality, or Useful Concept?”  Basically, we now have a full-fledged professional historiography of “Cold War science and technology,” and a very large number of books and papers in the genre use the term “Cold War” as an adjective in their titles.  The idea, of course, is that the Cold War does not simply mark the period in which the events discussed take place, it is a (if not the) crucial context for understanding them.

As I understand the issue, we can divide up the way the Cold War matters into roughly three divisions:

  1. A lot of research was done directly in support of military and global political activities, most of it under contract with, and in some cases directly for, the military.
  2. Other research did not directly support Cold War activities, but it benefitted from state largess on the assumption that it might yield material benefit down the line, or the research was ancillary to category (1) research, and so funded as part of a broader package of work (say, theoretical mathematics related to cryptography).
  3. Other research had no relation to Cold War activities at all, but was nevertheless supported by rhetoric that linked it vaguely to the national interest, which was more apt to pique attention given Cold War anxieties.


Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

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For decades now, historians of science and their allies in science studies have had an enduring fondness for boundary studies.  The “boundaries” in question are taken to be places where agreements that define what constitutes a legitimate claim no longer clearly apply.  In Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the “paradigm” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962), arguments across paradigms cannot be decided based upon evidence, because the standards of interpretation that would allow a decision to be made differ.

Kuhn’s point spoke to a potential philosophical irreconcilability, but sociologists would adopt the basic idea to discuss the importance of social coalition-building in knowledge-building, which could be hidden beneath an apparent epistemological smoothness where arguments were well-accepted, but which became visible in instances of controversy along coalition boundaries.

Harry Collins wrote in 1981, “In most cases the salience of alternative interpretations of evidence, which typifies controversies, has acted as a level to elicit the essentially cultural nature of the local boundaries of scientific legitimacy—normally elusive and concealed” (“Introduction” to a special issue of Social Studies of Science 11 (1981): 3-10).  Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985):  “Another advantage afforded by studying controversy is that historical actors […] attempt to deconstruct the taken-for-granted quality of their antagonists’ preferred beliefs and practices, and they do this by trying to display the artifactual and conventional status of those beliefs and practices” (p. 7).


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

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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…)

Einstein’s Generation by Richard Staley, Pt. 1 December 23, 2009

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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…)

20th century science and technology July 10, 2008

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I’d like to jump back to the 20th century historiography problem for a bit, one of the biggest ongoing problems seems to be how to integrate the histories of science and technology in this period. Telling a history of R&D is a part of this, but, the more I try and think about this, the more it seems to me that you either have to tell a story about science or technological research. I was talking to Tom Lassman about this a few weeks ago–he used to do contract history for the Army, and is now at the Nat’l Air and Space Museum–and he felt that the business and technology historiographies presented the most rigorous approach, which may well be true. I need to do more reading there. But I thought it might be useful to try and run through a few quick preliminary (and likely incomprehensible) thoughts on how these historiographies might come together.

The reason I’ve always leaned more toward science history than technology history is because it’s always seemed to get at deeper issues. Where else can you turn without blinking between political, intellectual, legal, technological, art, and philosophical histories? Whereas the technology and business histories have always seemed a bit more dry: “first there was this kind of rocket, and then another kind of rocket, and then a third kind of rocket was canceled because of budget cutbacks or because it proved infeasible, but, in reaction to Sputnik, a fourth kind of rocket was approved”. It doesn’t have to be rockets, but you get the idea. The most conceptually problematic issues seem to revolve around the introduction of political considerations, or maybe the technology benefited some, but not others.

This view is, of course, unfair, but it’s just a perception. The converse perspective on the history of science is that we are so preoccupied with problematizing everything and demonstrating the integration of such a diverse scope of activities that we actually forget to tell a history.

But, as I’ve been working on our new AIP web project (this is moving forward; more soon), it’s clear that it is unexceptional for the technology history to be a very recognizable part of scientists’ everyday experience. In assembling a list of physicists to include in our project, we get a lot of “science of the atmosphere”; or “science of circuits”; or “science of solar energy” which makes separating the physicists from engineers seem tedious and somewhat fruitless. (This speaks to the “problem of the problem” as well). What stance to take? Are we all technology historians now? I like to think there’s an alternate route than resorting to actors’ narrative perceptions of “well, first we worked on this technology, and it worked pretty well, but then there was a big controversy, etc.” but what is it?

My concern is that it would be easy to simply write an endless series of histories detailing the emergence of different problems on which scientists worked. Besides, emergence is only half the story. Are things really so uninteresting after things have emerged and stabilized? Surely this is when things are at their most important (see Edgerton’s Shock of the Old). Traditionally, there’s been a lot of writing on the tensions between basic vs. applied science (stuff like Forman’s “Behind Quantum Electronics”), but that seems too macroscopic for a history that deserves a finer point. The fact that most science is, in some sense or another, “applied” is the nature of 20th century science. The challenge is to find histories within that reality.

Here’s a little speculation: I think the way forward will come by nailing down in what ways science matters in engineering. What is interesting about various kinds of technologies for sciences, and in what ways does science contribute to engineering practices that would otherwise be constrained? I imagine that the organization of different kinds of expertise, and people with different motivation will offer clues, as will a deeper understanding of what it takes to develop a company- or laboratory-level science policy. Odds are good that the history of biology and medicine has useful things to say here, but I’m not well-versed in that.

As I said, I’m just trying to get my head around this at this point, so none of this makes much sense, but expect more in future posts.

The Canon Game: Preliminary Observations June 17, 2008

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I’d like to start talking now about possible canons, but, before we get started, I want to make a few observations about what I, personally, would expect out of a canon. I think for a lot of people the idea of a canon is a little repulsive, because it suggests that there is a batch of writings (usually old ones) up on a pedestal that cannot and should not be touched or questioned, and that serve as models for all us mere mortals. I also think a lot of people think of a canon as works serving as methodological milestones. Thus, obviously, we’d have to start with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions or something, and move on from there. In my previous post on the Forman thesis, I rejected this view, arguing that milestones, however influential they may have been in their day, are not best suited to guide future inquiry.

I’m a believer in the inevitable existence of things that must logically exist whether they are acknowledged or not. The idea of the inevitable rationale underlying policy plays a big role in my research on the policy sciences. I think the same applies to a canon: one always exists whether we want it to or not. Even if we don’t have a specific set of writings we’ve all read, there is a certain constellation (or “model” to borrow once again from C. S. Lewis’ framing of medieval literature) of arguments and strategies that are derived from set of writings, as well as certain key ideas about the “Enlightenment” or the “Victorian era” or the “Cold War” within which we may write. Thus, we are best off to acknowledge the necessity of canonical literature, and to ask the questions: what does it do for us, and is there a better one available?

I believe that a canon should help us mine the available historiography, which is actually very deep, and build on it. One theme I’ve been circling around is the tendency of historians of science to do a remarkable impersonation of 19th century Homesteaders in going further and further afield from the actual history of science to find new land to till. This is fine, but are we exploiting the land we’re already on to its fullest? A properly selected canon can be very revealing of the richness of the historical terrain that is available to us.

This brings up the most important point. We can think of a canon as the tool of specialists or as a general tool for all of us. I lean toward the general tool interpretation. Specialists are obligated to be familiar with an entire literature within a certain area, and would probably be inclined to pick out a game-changing paper, thus bringing us back to the pedestal conception of canon. But I think to the non-specialist these papers don’t resonate as effectively without the necessary background knowledge. A well-chosen canon will allow those who know it to be familiar enough with the terrain to speak competently about it, even if they can’t achieve “wonk” status, and thus be a receptive and discerning audience in areas outside their specialty.

Also, at least from my perspective, the selection of canonical works should focus on familiarity with history rather than methodology. I know there are many who disagree, but I’m of the opinion that unless you know the history, you’re doomed to making absurd statements; cleverness cannot save you. This has been a priority of mine, especially since teaching my intro class last semester. So, rather than start out in an area I’m really familiar with, I’d like to start with something I’m semi-familiar with, but in which I still ought to be much better schooled: 19th century physics.

National Air and Space Museum Talk April 11, 2008

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Last night I went down to the National Air and Space Museum to give a talk on some of my current work. What a kick! The NASM and American History Museum crowd are a really lively bunch, and give you very probing questions. I even got a chance to debate at a highly theoretical level with Paul Forman. I was talking with him about the new SEE stuff; he seems to feel it’s a retreat to a modernistic frame of thought, with which I agree, but which I see as inevitable and thus healthy, since there are no really viable alternatives–a topic I’ve also been throwing out in my class as food for thought (you’ll never convince me that postmodernism represents a coherent or original way forward). Of course, this is not interpreting modernism in the same way as, say, Latour. But I digress… It was a good time.

I just wanted to post a few slides from that talk that generated a lot of discussion, since I think they get at why I hold the convictions that I do, which inform a lot of my posts here. A lot of work on mid-twentieth century policy science considers policy scientists and their patrons to have held a rationalistic view of the science-politics relationship (actually, Latour accuses “us all” of that pretty explicitly):
Click on the pictures if you want a bigger version. Anyway, science studies seem to have replaced this picture with an alternative:

My argument is that this still assumes a science-politics barrier: it is we scholars who are wise to how science actually functions in a society. But I think this model totally misrepresents how the policy scientists conceive of themselves, their epistemology, and their intellectual role. In particular, it lumps the sciences together, and assumes that they are all operating on the same epistemological basis (“science”), and that they think they are all producing rationalized conclusions that policymakers are expected to follow. But I claim we really need to fairly portray the intellectual terrain as they actually saw it:

In this picture there are no clear intellectual divides between the scientists and the policymakers. Some, necessarily, speak in idioms very similar to those of the policymakers. Others speak in idioms that are more purely mathematical. Now, this chart doesn’t work algorithmically like a machine. Each entry is self-sustaining, occasionally absorbing insights from the other areas on the charts (roughly in accord with the kind of arrow I’ve drawn)–think Galison on “intercalation”. What is most important is that there is an assignment of responsibilities. This chart represents perspectives on rationality–no one claims to have access to some kind of scientific truth. The social relationships are geared toward critique and improvement, not monolithic proclamation, and each does so in full cognizance of their relationship to the other areas on the chart at least immediately connected to them. (Note that the mathematical theoreticians are in no way directly connected to policy.) My claim is that this is how policy scientists and policymakers actually saw themselves–it is not a prescription; it is a reflection of a historical reality.

Now, this, I think, is just what Collins and Evans are on about with their idea of interactive expertise. Notably, this entire system of critique is predicated on the ideas that 1) decisions must be made (C & E say “the speed of politics exceeds the speed of science” but I think this still places too much emphasis on the science-politics divide); 2) some decisions will fulfill stated goals better than others, and to choose the best means is the operative definition of rationality–not some external access to an objective “true and impersonal” solution; and 3) all decisions will be revised on a subsequent occasion in light of more recent information and analysis.

As I said, fun stuff!

The New Canon: Contents/Forman Thesis April 7, 2008

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Well, I think my thoughts on the sociology-history link are exhausted for the time being (though I want to get back to SEE later). Today I want to talk about canons, and the fact that as near as I can tell, we have no up-to-date canon in the history of science, whether in individual fields, or across the profession as a whole. I know that preparing for my general exams was a highly arbitrary and undirected process, and that prior to teaching Intro to Hist Sci, my overall factual knowledge of the history of science was embarrassingly limited to a few historical islands. And I’m fairly sure this is typical for most students coming out of grad school today. A good way to develop a broad knowledge, and to have something to talk about with your peers, is to build a canon. Whenever I’ve mentioned a lack of canon, I’ve usually met with some kind approving affirmation that we have loosed ourselves of the bounds of a rigid set of things that constitute the history of science. Who needs a canon? I once asked if there’s some set of books that everyone in my old grad program had read–I’m not sure we got past Leviathan and the Air Pump. This gives me a sort of nervous feeling, so I’d like to explore the issue of the canon.

Well, then, smart guy, what should be in our canon? I really have no idea, so it’s time to start some wild speculation! I’d like to start by asking whether we should have “game changing” texts in our canon. I once heard that everyone in the history of physics needs to read the Forman Thesis (Paul Forman’s 1971, “Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory, 1918-27: adaptation by German physicists and mathematicians to a hostile intellectual environment”). This was one of the first major forays (prior to SSK) in exploring the relationship between science and its external context (edit: or so I am led to believe–there’s a whole Marxist scholarship for example that is doubtless worth a look).

But I’m not so sure we need to read it. I’ve never found it particularly enlightening–why not put one of the several responses to it in the canon in its place? I always liked John Hendry’s 1980 “Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality” in Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies. Not only does it contain a good recap of Forman’s arguments, it presents a much more sophisticated treatment of the relationship between the internal intellectual dynamics of physical theory and broader cultural movements.

Why isn’t Hendry our champion on this subject rather than Forman? I think it’s out of reverence for Forman’s path-breaking achievement. Older scholars seem to remember how differently they thought about the history of quantum mechanics after Forman–he started the debate. That’s fine, but shouldn’t we really be studying the most refined product of this line of thought rather than the foundation stone? Doesn’t it just lead us to reenact arguments that were pretty well settled long ago? I’ve seen a similar attitude in play with regard to Merchant’s Death of Nature. If we read or refer to one text, it seems to me it’s the original, even though the subject of gendered language and science has been handled much more deftly since (see the extended discussion on Merchant’s book in Isis, September ’06). Why don’t we ever anoint a “new champion” like they do in other fields, like literary translation?

Anyway, the Hendry Thesis is in my new canon–the Forman thesis is out.