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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

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 3: Empirical History, Transcendental Standards, and the Unity of Science March 28, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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hsns.2012.42.issue-4.coverIn my previous post in this series, I noted that the program of “historical epistemology” rejects conceptions of science informed by traditional philosophy of science in favor of seeking portraits that are both historicized, and that follow the historical record more directly.  In general, I agree that historicity and fidelity to the historical record are both principles that must inform historians’ work.  At the same time, I am not convinced that it is either necessary or wise to abandon traditional philosophy of science to realize those principles.  To investigate this issue, I would like to turn to what I believe may be its high-water mark: the Kent Staley-Peter Galison dispute,1 which has been summarized by Allan Franklin in his 2002 book Selectivity and Discord.  To conclude the post, I will develop my own opinion on the issue, elaborating on points I made in my recent article, “Strategies of Detection: Interpretive Strategies in Experimental Particle Physics, 1930-1950”.

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.

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History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 1: The Disappearance of “Weltphilosophie” in the History of Science February 11, 2013

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Hanson, NR

Norwood Russell Hanson

In his 1962 paper, “The Irrelevance of History of Science to Philosophy of Science,” Norwood Russell Hanson referred to a longstanding concern of philosophers of science that historians of science abided by one or another deficient “Weltphilosophie“.  A Weltphilosophy was an explicit or implicit outlook adopted by a historian, which “controls his selection of salient subjects, his alignment of data, his conception of the overall objective of the scientific enterprise, and his evaluations of the heroes and villains within the history of science.”  According to Hanson, “Those who stress the silent operation of a Weltphilosophie in the studies of historians of science then suggest that without philosophical awareness and acuity, the reader must remain at the mercy of the historian’s unspoken assumptions.”

Do historians abide by unspoken philosophical assumptions today?  Critics have often asserted that historians abide by a social constructionist epistemology, and much time and effort was expended in the 1980s and ’90s contesting its validity.  According to Michael Bycroft, it is still useful to analyze and criticize social constructionism precisely because “[m]uch current research in the history of science can be seen either as an affirmation of [social constructionist] claims or as a consequence of them.”  But this is one of the few points on which he and I disagree.  In the past several years, I have come to believe that “social constructionism” is a rhetorical red herring, which confounds an appreciation of less well articulated changes in historical methodology, including the fact that most historians of science no longer abide by any Weltphilosophie at all.

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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.

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“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.

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Tacit Knowledge and Tactile History: Otto Sibum and “Gestural Knowledge” December 17, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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An 1869 illustration of James Joule's simple, but difficult-to-replicate experiment demonstrating the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This post is the first in a short series on what I call “tactile history”: the practice of historical research that extends beyond examining documents to examining the objects of science and the locations they inhabited, and to the actual reenactment of historical scientific research.  The objective of tactile history is to recover aspects of historical work that would not have survived in the form of a written report.  In this vein, tactile history could be seen as a step beyond “notebook studies” — say, Gerald Holton on Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiments,* or Gerald Geison’s The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (1995) — which look beyond scientific publication to recover the messier day-to-day practices of scientific life.

Where laboratory notebooks merely recover otherwise hidden practices, tactile history attempts to recover something that was never expressed in any form, and is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”.  This could be an inexpressible Fingerspitzengefühl (a fine-tuned hands-on knowledge), a lack of understanding of why an experiment works, pattern recognition, or an unreasoned premonition about what new scientific knowledge will look like.  In the 1980s, tacit knowledge became a crucial part of the “controversy studies” literature, because it was understood to be elemental in successfully replicating an experiment.  By studying controversies surrounding replication, one could uncover the many tacit preconditions underlying successful replication. (more…)

Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.

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Life at the Boundary June 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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).

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Integration without Differentiation: The Fate of the Natural Philosophy Problem March 25, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social.  In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework.  Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis.  In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has […] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).

In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292).  This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were.  “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).

As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged.  The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects.  The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects.  We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”. (more…)