DOUBLE
REFRACTION
Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Words of wisdom from the positivist Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach (1838-1916), positivist
Suppose we have always been constructivists, as I suggested in the last post. And suppose we have too many big pictures, not too few, as I argued in the last post but one. What then? What consequences does this have for the way we do the history of science? Here is one consequence: we should pay more attention to dead historians of science. If they were wise enough to be constructivists, perhaps they were wise in other ways. And if we have not discarded their big pictures, perhaps there were some grains of truth in those big pictures. Consider Ernst Mach’s The Science of Mechanics (1883; mine is the 1960 English edition). Mach was nothing if not a positivist. Some would say he was the original (logical) positivist. But there are many passages in his book that defy the present-day caricature of positivists. Here is a collection of the choicer passages of this kind. Expand post.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Barry Barnes and the origin of the constructivist myth

Barry Barnes, Scientific Knowledge
and Sociological Theory
(1974)
Science is a human construction. The theories of science, to say nothing of its instruments and institutions, are the outcome of (among other things) a long series of complicated human actions. Many of my fellow historians of science believe this, as do I. But many also believe that we have only recently treated science as a human construction. I believe that this is a myth, and that Barry Barnes’ Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory (1974) is one source of the myth. Last year I gave some evidence for this reading of Barnes. Last week Darrin Durant questioned that evidence. In this post I give more evidence for my reading of Barnes, and hence for my claim that there is something seriously wrong with the self-image of constructivist historians of science. Expand post.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Historians of science have too many big pictures, not too few

This is not a good metaphor
for the historiography of science.
There has long been talk in the history of science about our alleged failure to write big picture histories. This talk goes back to at least 1993, when the British Journal for the History of Science published a special issue that was supposed to address the problem. The latest round of rumination on the topic is in July’s number of Isis, which featured several essays on the theme of the “longue durée.” The worry is that, for the last forty years or so, historians of science have been spending too much time writing exquisitely rendered accounts of particular people or episodes, and too little time stitching these episodes together to make some sort of coherent narrative. There is something to be said for this view, but there is much to be said for the opposite view, which is that we have too many big pictures, not too few. The challenge is not to stitch together our case studies to make new big pictures, but to merge the big pictures we already have. Expand post.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Unified Theory of the Second Scientific Revolution, Part 2: a Solution

Haüy's crystallography-what did it have in common with Coulomb's physics and Cuvier's zoology?
As I wrote last week, there are at least seven theories about the second scientific revolution (SSR), all of them claiming that science changed dramatically in the three decades on either side of 1800, none of them explaining how its assertions can be reconciled with those of the other six theories. Let’s assume for the moment that a reconciliation is possible and desirable. How might it be realised? How can we unite, in a single theory, the insights that are scattered across these seven different theories? Here is my proposal. It proceeds in three steps. Expand post.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Unified Theory of the Second Scientific Revolution, Part 1: the Problem

Gaston Bachelard (1882-1962) forming the scientific mind.
There are two kinds of conference paper: the ones we give, and the ones we would have given if only we had been able to do enough research to back up our seductive hunches and our bold conjectures. At the 3 Societies conference in Edmonton in July, I gave a modest talk about an experimenter in 1730s France who had a notion of ‘exactitude’ that applied equally well to qualitative and quantitative research. The talk I would have given is much more sweeping and provocative. Frankly I would have preferred to listen to the ambitious talk, and not the modest and sensible one, but academic caution got the better of me. Here then is the sweeping and provocative talk, in summary form, safely packaged as a speculative blog post (or two). Expand post.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Scientists and the symmetry principle: an email exchange with Steven Weinberg

Earlier this week I received an email from Steven Weinberg, the physicist whose book To Explain the World was critically reviewed by Steven Shapin earlier this year. I commented on Shapin’s review in this essay, and in the process I attributed errors to Weinberg that he disclaimed in his email. Weinberg asked that I publish his email, and my reply, on this blog. I was happy to oblige. As I point out in my reply, Weinberg’s reaction to my essay is an additional reason to adopt the symmetry principle that I defended in earlier posts. Expand post.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Is it post-modern to be present-centred? Thoughts prompted by Nick Tosh

Lorraine Daston says that historians who write with the present in mind are misguided and old-fashioned. By contrast, Nick Tosh says they are post-modern. He compares them to contemporary novelists who draw attention to themselves, and to the process of writing novels, in the course of their novels. Against Daston, I said that it is not what you know about present-day science that matters, but how you use that knowledge. Against Tosh, I say that present-centredness is not post-modern because it does not leap from the fictional world to the real world but only from the present and the past. And very often it does not even do that. Expand post.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Lorraine Daston on history as fiction – critical thoughts

Nick Tosh and Lorraine Daston have, separately, made some intriguing remarks about the affinities between fiction and the history of science. Their remarks follow on nicely from my last post. Daston compares historians to readers of mystery novels who know in advance how the story ends. She means this as a criticism. By contrast, Tosh praises authors who freely acknowledge the gap between themselves and their subjects, a stance that Tosh labels ‘postmodern.’ My position is somewhere in between: it is OK for readers to know how the story ends, but this is not a particularly postmodern phenomenon. Expand post.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Histories of science as murder mysteries, or: Steven Weinberg as Henning Mankell

The conclusion of my last post was that scientists who write history are like visitors to one city who live in a different city (as opposed to historians, who study cities while living in the countryside). The point of the analogy was to show that knowledge of present-day science need not get in the way of good history-writing. There is another analogy that gets at the same point from a different direction: scientists who write history are like authors of murder mysteries who reveal the identity of the killer in the first chapter. This may sound like a criticism, but there are successful authors who actually write like this, starting with the Swedish maestro Henning Mankell.

SPOILER ALERT - crucial details of detective novel revealed below, most of them from the first chapter

Expand post.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Are scientists who do history like tourists? Thoughts on Steven Weinberg's analogy

A couple of months ago Will Thomas posted his thoughts on the Shapin-Weinberg episode. You may have read Steven Shapin's unflinching review of Steven Weinberg's new book To Explain the World. The theme of the review, and of the replies and reflections that followed, including my own, was the quality of history written by scientists. One view that Will outlines is that scientists' history serves only to propagate self-serving myths about science. Will's own view is that this is itself a myth, and that historians should treat scientists as tourists whose well-meaning forays into past science are a net gain for the discipline. I like the tourist analogy, but I think it can be modified to better explain that net gain. Expand post.