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Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950” (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.

Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied.  Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.

Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish.  The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era.  What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship. (more…)

Polemical Structures: Enthusiasm, Delay, and the Frustration of Bureaucracy June 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, British Science-Society Critiques.
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Enthusiast or gadfly?  Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell in 1948; photograph by William J. Sumits, from the LIFE photo archive

In Paul Lucier’s article on science and the professions in 19th-century America, one point relating to the California oil controversy caught my eye.  In discussing the controversy’s historiography, Lucier observed that one interpretation “popular among business historians and modern scientists” seemed to support a “delay” thesis.  Since chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., working on a sizable capitalist contract, was ultimately proven correct that oil would be discovered in California, his science was “vindicated”.  Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney, who criticized Silliman “with all the power of a government position behind him” had his “vindictiveness” revealed.  As Lucier explains, Whitney’s attitude could thus be taken to explain “why California, with its rich oil fields, did not take off sooner.”

I do not think it’s inappropriate to retroactively judge whether one side or another was justified in their claims, either by contemporaneous or later standards, and regardless of later discoveries.  I would, however, like to leave the issue aside here.  (Personally, I have no idea who, if anyone, was justified in the Silliman-Whitney case.)  I also don’t want to make a warmed-over point about the relationship between scientific credibility and political interests.  Instead, I want to concentrate on just how common the polemics of obstruction and delay, and a counter-polemic of enthusiasm, are in history and historiography.  To talk about the issue, I want to move to a territory I know a bit better: World War II.

In the years prior to his becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill positioned himself as a robust opponent of Nazism.  His friend, adviser, and the director of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, physicist Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957), was of like mind.  Both were wary of bureaucratic mediocrity, and they understood it as their duty to awaken the state apparatus from its sloth in order to combat the Nazi threat.  Churchill routinely inserted himself into the details of military planning, and both he and Lindemann were aggressive proponents of technological game-changers.


Paul Lucier on “Professionals” and “Scientists” in 19th-Century America June 14, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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John Shaw Billings (1838-1913): critic of the term "scientist" and the dudes who used it.

Indepenent historian Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America,” Isis 100 (2009): 699-732, presents an excellent overview of the place of different scientific activities in that milieu, the conceptual vocabulary and nomenclature with which those activities were routinely described, and how those descriptions changed with time.  The article engages actively with other portrayals in the historiographical literature from the past century, and presents new materials and arguments.  Stylistically, it is an exemplary work of scholarship.

As an intellectual contribution, Lucier’s piece comes up very strong as well.  His most immediately valuable contribution here is a clarification of the 19th-century lexicon.  Throughout the century, Americans followed their British counterparts in routinely referring to “men of science” as a generic term for geologists, chemists, and so forth.  While the Americans also followed closely on the British in founding new institutions of science, notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, est. 1848) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, est. 1863), these and other organizations’ role in organizing American science ought not, under any circumstances, be referred to as “professionalization”.

As Lucier explains, the “professional” in 19th-century America was someone who earned a living through their educated services, especially physicians, lawyers, and clergymen.  Men of science could be professionals, because they were frequently employed on a fee-for-service basis: as geological surveyors, as chemical analysts, as tutors, etc.  But being a man of science was not in itself a “profession”.


The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 1 March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Lord Kelvin: still natural philosophical after all these years

If we accept the working idea that 18th-century natural philosophy could be characterized by philosophers’ willingness to incorporate ideas about the physical nature of the world into a general scheme accounting for various natural “economies” or “cosmologies” that flowed into questions encompassing the characteristics of life, body, mind, epistemology, ethics, society, theology, and politics; then we need to define how far this universalizing philosophical practice extended, both temporally and within particular cultures, and what sorts of things have happened at the boundaries.

This was an active question through the 1980s.  One common answer was professionalization and specialization (not to be conflated!—notably see Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America” in the latest Isis; the piece opens with an unusually lively historiographical discussion).  In 1983, Simon Schaffer saw boundary creation as a consequence of the political dangers attributable to public natural philosophical demonstrations.  Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray were also very clear on this point in Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981), discussing how the BA was established in the 1830s, both to promote scientific work, and to constrain the bounds of (and thus objections to) scientific investigation and thought.

It was likewise in this same early-to-mid 19th-century British context that William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term “scientist” in response to an injunction by Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) that men of science should not pretend to the more general and eminent title of philosopher.  (See also Schaffer (1991) on Whewell as a critic of knowledge claims.)  In 1986, Schaffer had been very explicit in denoting the establishment of new philosophies and institutions of science as signaling the “end of natural philosophy”, which also entailed the rewriting of histories of older discoveries to accommodate the new understanding of “science”, singular.

Of course, natural philosophy did not “end”.  To begin with, “scientists” were by no means prevented from discussing issues outside of their defined jurisdictions, nor, conversely, was delimited expertise devoid of broader implications.  In fact, the term “scientist” did not even catch on until much later.  However, it is clear that the situation did change, and some effort was put into figuring out how the intellectual and moral terrain of science was reconfigured. (more…)