The recent discovery of gravitational waves has impressed many people and has caused considerable stir in the community of physicists. Surprisingly this commotion has not spread to the community of historians of science. This is surprising because I believe that the claim to have detected gravitational waves constitutes a serious blow to the stronger versions of social constructivism, which arguably has deeply influenced the profession of historiography of science in recent decades. The aim to find empirical confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves has occupied physicists from the 1960s onward. Sociologist of science Harry Collins (Cardiff University) has turned the activities of this group of ‘wave’ physicists into one of his central case studies. Collins has long been one of the most important proponents of the social approach to the study of knowledge formation. His programme of methodological relativism may be more ‘practical’ and less ‘philosophical’ than the perhaps better-known strong programme of the Edinburgh School, but in essence both approaches in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) boil down to the same thing. They share the radical view on science as a social process, not in the sense that other factors such as ‘nature’ or ‘reason’ (whatever they might be) do not play a role in determining the course of scientific development, but in the sense that social factors are always ultimately decisive in determining such things as the acceptance (and rejection) of evidence, experimental methods and claims to knowledge. In tracing the search for gravitational waves, Collins’ aim has been to show how scientific data can be subject to interpretative flexibility, and how social or ‘non-scientific’ means are used to close scientific controversies. In what follows I will argue that the discovery of gravitational waves seriously undermines the SSK perspective on science because it cannot be fitted into SSK’s explanatory scheme. It follows that this discovery has rippling effects on the study of past science and I close with a brief reflection on the direction in which these ripples are heading.
In the winter of 1980, during the final months of her nearly 32-year reign, Juliana of the Netherlands received multiple distraught letters from subjects deeply disturbed by a news item making waves in national media. In December, the Dutch Telegraaf had reported that a Leiden internist had taken blood samples from foetuses aborted in the fifth month of pregnancy for experimental purposes, an item quickly picked up on by other big media. Due to recent developments in chemical abortion-techniques, foetuses were often left intact after leaving the uterus and sometimes still showed signs of life such as muscular movement or a heartbeat. Although that did not mean these foetuses could survive outside of the womb, leading newspapers soon reported that experiments were conducted on “live-aborted children” in the Netherlands.
Fred de Heij (illustraties), Ad Maas (tekst), Ehrenfest! (Museum Boerhaave, Leiden 2015), 50 pagina’s, € 7,95.
Als er één natuurkundige een stripverhaal waardig is, dan is het Ehrenfest. Zijn leven is op zich al bijna een stripverhaal. Deze energieke fysicus wist in een tijd van verwarrende ontwikkelingen de natuurkunde te verlevendigen door deze te vatten en verhelderen in pakkende beelden. Hoe toepasselijk dat Fred de Heij en Ad Maas het leven van Ehrenfest zelf in beelden weten te vangen, waarbij ze slagen een nieuwe dimensie aan de beschrijving van deze flamboyante wetenschapper toe te voegen.