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Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Alan Shapiro (hssonline.org)

In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here).  Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments.  Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors.  I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.

In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.


Schaffer Turns to Practice April 7, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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The two articles we are looking at today are among the best-known works of Simon Schaffer:

(1) “Astronomers Mark Time: Discipline and the Personal Equation,” Science in Context 2 (1988): 115-145.

(2) “Glass Works: Newton’s Prisms and the Uses of Experiment,” in The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences (1989), edited by David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer.

19th-century glass factory

19th-century glass factory

The articles stand at an important turning point in Schaffer’s oeuvre, and their style should be very familiar to history of science professionals working in the last 20 years, because both depart from Schaffer’s early concern with the construction of systems of ideas, and both put a specific epistemic practice under the microscope, in this case: striving for precision in observation, and replicating experimental results.  At the time, though, these kinds of studies were reasonably novel.  The Uses of Experiment volume, in particular, was an (more…)

Schaffer’s Got Spirit! December 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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The next three pieces in our examination of the works of Simon Schaffer are:

1) “Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy” Social Studies of Science 16 (1986): 387-420.

2) “Godly Men and Mechanical Philosophers: Souls and Spirits in Restoration Natural Philosophy” Science in Context 1 (1987): 55-85.

3) “Priestley and the Politics of Spirit” in Science, Medicine, and Dissent: Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), edited by Anderson and Lawrence, 1987.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

Today I’ll be looking at (2) and (3), which continue Schaffer’s studies of natural philosophy, saving (1) for a more general discussion of what it meant for “natural philosophy” to be “replaced” by “science”, which would become a going concern of Schaffer’s; as well as for a look at Schaffer’s changing strategies for presenting his work to the science studies community in the wake of Leviathan and the Air Pump.

A theme prevalent from Schaffer’s earliest work is the inextricability of political and theological issues from the practice of natural philosophy.  Theories of the universe adhering to a strictly “mechanistic” portrayal (as Descartes had proposed in the 1640s, and perhaps best imagined as the “billiard ball” vision of the way things work) were philosophically dissatisfying for a number of reasons.

First, strict mechanism was widely derided as atheistic, and most natural philosophers (especially in Britain) actually wanted to maintain a place for God’s actions in the cosmos.  In a universe still believed to have been designed and created, a design amenable to God’s moral order was regarded as an essential (more…)

Primer: Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Color December 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post is written by frequent visitor Thony Christie, a dedicated amateur historian who “once had a semi-professional background”.  He has approved a few editorial truncations and rephrasings.

Update: Not long after this blog post, Thony started his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.

In 1672 the still relatively young and unknown Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, published his first piece of experimental philosophy: “A Serie’s of Quere’s Propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be Determin’d by Experiments, Positively and Directly Concluding His New Theory of Light and Colours; and Here Recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they Were Generously Imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the Said Mr. Newtons of July 8.1672”  in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  The work became a touchstone in the establishment of the short report of experimental results in a serialized publication as a major means of scientific communication.  The Philosophical Transactions had existed for seven years prior to Newton’s contribution, but had been dedicated primarily to reporting the Royal Society’s regular piecemeal correspondence rather than the systematic presentation of experiments and observations, which was at that time accomplished mainly in the book format.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

As to the content of Newton’s first publication, it reported a series of simple but elegant experiments with a beam of sunlight and a couple of glass prisms, in which Newton demonstrated that light is not homogeneous and white, but heterogeneous, and made up of different colours each of which (more…)

Primer: Robert Hooke September 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Popular history rarely communicates the fullness of scientists’ careers, concentrating instead on key “contributions” as they are often called.  In the case of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), this would be an especially unfortunate approach, because he is an unusually vibrant figure in the “Scientific Revolution” era, a cultural-intellectual force who cannot be easily boiled down to a certain discovery or insight.  The casual observer may be familiar with Hooke’s Law, which states the proportionality of the force of a spring to the distance it is stretched.  Others might know a few other points, such as his authorship of Micrographia (1665), which was essentially a lavishly illustrated work of popular science extolling the importance of the activities of the then-new Royal Society of London, focusing on his own observations using a microscope he designed (above).  Recently, the literature seems to be encapsulating his diverse skills and interests by packaging him as a Leonardo da Vinci-type character.

Hooke initially gained a strong reputation as a designer of machinery and scientific instruments, and, beginning in 1655, he was employed by the royalist Robert Boyle in Oxford to design air pumps and air pump experiments, while the Cromwellian regime was still in place.  The effects of reduced air in an evacuated chamber in various kinds of experimental set-ups quickly became emblematic of the power of (more…)