As historians, we historicize. Indeed, it is our firm belief that everything in our world is open to historical analysis and that, in the case of a job well done, the result will invariably be a deeper understanding of the object of our study. In fact, the more timeless and placeless this object appears to be, and therefore the more immune to historical analysis, the more interesting the outcome has often proved to be. We now have histories of ‘the modern fact’, ‘objectivity’, and of ‘truth’, that is to say precisely those aspects of science that one tends to see as universal and timeless. In this essay I would like to advocate a similar approach with regard to another notion that most scientists tend to take for granted, that of the ‘laws of nature’. To be more precise, I want to suggest three possible lines of attack that may deepen our understanding of this crucial concept, and therefore of science itself. The first aims at a conceptual history of the term, akin to what the Germans call ‘Begriffsgeschichte’; the second is a study of the ‘biography’ of specific laws, and the third looks at the distribution of such laws across the various disciplines. Strangely enough, many of these topics have so far barely been addressed by historians of science.
Over the last few decades there have been several calls for a ‘big picture’ of the history of science. The gradual fragmentation – or even dismissal – of older grand narratives, accelerated by the cultural turn, is increasingly seen as problematic. There is a general need for a concise overview of the rise of modern science, with a clear structure allowing for a rough division in periods. Here I would like to propose such a scheme, one that is both elementary and comprehensive. It focuses on particular technical artefacts or machines, which mediated between science and society during successive periods of time. Each of these machines was used as a powerful resource for the understanding of both inorganic and organic nature. More specifically, their metaphorical use helped to construe and refine some key concepts that would play a prominent role in such understanding.