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Schaffer on the Nebular Hypothesis February 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We’re going to be skipping around in the Schaffer bibliography a little bit now in the hopes of approaching his articles in a way that makes the most sense to me.  Today I want to look at “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” from History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James R. Moore (1989).  This work is fascinating to me for a few reasons.

1850 sketch of the Orion Nebula

1850 illustration of the Orion Nebula by Lord Rosse

First and foremost, it represents Schaffer’s attempt to translate his methodology for studying natural philosophical cosmologies into the era of disciplined science.  Natural philosophical cosmology was not a tightly restrained genre.  While we might say that there were identifiable sub-genres of cosmology that adhered to fairly specific methodologies and cosmological possibilities, the boundaries between these were very porous, and ideas transplanted themselves fairly easily between them.

Schaffer liked to use the term “resource” to describe these ideas.  Certain kinds of philosophical argument became “possible” (though, of course, not (more…)

Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 2 November 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

In “The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant,” (Journal for the History of Astronomy vol. 9, 1978, pp. 180-200), Simon Schaffer continued his study of the development of temporally evolving cosmologies, in this case with the natural philosophical work of the astronomy teacher Thomas Wright and German philosopher Immanuel Kant (well prior to his famous Critiques).  As I mentioned in the last post in this series, Schaffer seems to have directed his early work toward the introduction into natural philosophical thought of the idea that past and future states of the universe could be substantially different from the present state of the universe.  As he puts it, “the cosmological thought of Kant and Wright can be seen as the basis for the evolutionary systems of the universe developed by Laplace and Herschel later in the century.”  (As we have seen, he would turn to Herschel in his next few articles).

In his project, Schaffer tends toward the teleological.  Everyone in this piece seems either striving to introduce an evolutionary perspective, or constrained from doing so. (more…)

Schaffer on Herschel’s Cosmology August 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Brittle Books Collection

William Herschel's 40 ft. telescope at Slough. Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Brittle Books Collection

In thinking about why I enjoy working in the history of science so much, the answer I increasingly come up with is that it gives us a sort of understanding of why arguments are structured in the way that they are, and, crucially, why they make sense to those who make them. Others seem to like to study science as a repository of accepted knowledge, or as a tool for technological development or for structuring society, or simply as a subset of museological reconstruction. But, in my mind, work like, say, Peter Dear’s, which regularly traces not just the connection between scientific work and its time and place, but the reason why arguments make sense in different times and places, is the most exciting. Looking at science in this vein, it is possible to see it as more than just “knowledge functioning in society” but as a social institution dedicated to the construction of highly sophisticated methods of arriving at “knowledge one can rely on”.

So, what does an article about theories of things like sunspots being holes in the solar atmosphere leading down to a temperate layer where intelligent beings live have to do with “knowledge one can rely on”? As I explored a little bit in my prior post on “cosmology and the problem of the problem”, the ability to connect knowledge into a coherent world system has long been a crucial method of argumentation. It is misleading to look at the scientific revolution and assume one of its major products was an argumentative restraint that refused to intuit knowledge where no reliable knowledge could be found (case-in-point, Newton’s celebrated “hypotheses non fingo”). This is because, first, speculation is always necessary to the development of new knowledge, and, second, it is incredibly problematic to determine when one does or (more…)

Schaffer on Herschel, Pt. 1 July 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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One of the things this blog tries to do is to put history scholarship back in the context of its creation. One of the continuing themes I’ve been harping on is the need to uncover the historical reasons for the prevalence of narrow, disconnected case studies in our literature. What did they initially demonstrate, and are they doing as much work for us as they (presumably) used to do? Another thing I want to do in reconstructing the history of our writing style is to look at individual scholars’ bodies of work to try and reconstruct their approach. As in most fields, scholars who are just starting out have only a fragmentary knowledge of the field’s figures and their works, and no real sense of how they build on their prior works over the course of a career. With this in mind, I thought I’d start a continuing feature looking at the evolution of scholars’ works and interests. Since most people are at least aware of Simon Schaffer, and since his reputation is pretty rock solid, I thought I’d start with him. Here, by the way, is a fairly recent video of him from YouTube:

Are we high-tech around here, now, or what? So, the earliest publications of his that I can find come from the early 1980s, and deal with the work of the amateur astronomer William Herschel:

1) “‘The Great Laboratories of the Universe’: William Herschel on Matter Theory and Planetary Life” Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980): 81-111

2) “Herschel in Bedlam: Natural History and Stellar Astronomy” British Journal for the History of Science 13 (1980): 211-239.

3) “Uranus and the Establishment of Herschel’s Astronomy” Journal for the History of Astronomy 12 (1981): 11-26.

Today I’d like to concentrate on (2), which I enjoyed a great deal. One of the reasons I like it so well is (more…)