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.
A fresh bag of Brussels sand had just been opened while six academics stood behind a workbench, feeling and touching the sand as if it had just arrived from Mars. In fact, I was about to start my first historical reconstruction of early modern gold- and silversmithing techniques. First step in the process was to prepare the sand that is used to make molds for casting. Still a bit uncomfortable, I added a splash of water while all of a sudden we became aware of a specific odor that had been notably absent in the clean and white environment of the building. We smelled mud!
To nineteenth-century colonial Britons, the elephant was of great importance. Not only were these giants widely used in colonial enterprises such as the army and timber industry. The animal also figured prominently in the visual and literary culture of that time. In the British Raj, the theme of human domination over other animals served to ratify colonial hierarchies. By presenting native attitudes towards animals as lazy, cowardly, and effeminate, and by juxtaposing these attitudes with the moral superiority of India’s colonizers, stories and pictures produced in the Raj provided a rational and legitimization for Britain’s colonial rule.
In 1919, with the experimental verification of general relativity by the English astronomer, physicist and mathematician Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, Albert Einstein’s theory came to be celebrated worldwide. Newspapers across the globe hailed Eddington’s observations as definitive proof of Einstein’s postulates on gravitation.
Ian Hacking’s The Emergence of Probability (Cambridge University Press, 1975), was in many ways the launching pad for history of statistics as a scholarly topic in (but not limited to) history of science. Like its author, the book resists classification. Ian took his graduate training in philosophy at Cambridge, and he preferred simply “philosophy” to more cumbersome labels like “history and philosophy of science.” His first book (1965), The Logic of Statistical Inference, left him dissatisfied by the typical failure to distinguish aleatory from epistemological probability, that is, measures of uncertainty from distributions of chance events. “We seem to be in the grip of darker powers than are admitted into the positivist ontology” he wrote (15).
I first encountered A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich twenty years ago when I was a teaching assistant for a course called Medicine and Society in America. For Professor Allan Brandt, the book was of interest mainly for its content. Based on the diary of an eighteenth century midwife in rural Hallowell, Maine, Ulrich’s book gives a wonderful sense of the system of “social medicine” that thrived in that time and place, a system sustained by women, often co-existing alongside but sometimes in open conflict with the more elite practice of “scientific” medicine dominated by male physicians. I was fascinated by the types of remedies employed by the midwife, Martha Ballard, who acted as “nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife” (40). Martha was a stalwart member of her community, in addition to delivering its hundreds of infants.
Can a culture study its own knowledge? Yes, according to sociologist David Bloor. More than that: it is vital that we can look at our own scientific knowledge scientifically. Otherwise, there would be an “irony at the very heart of our culture. […] it would mean that science could not scientifically know itself.” Speaking of irony: 2400 years before Bloor said this in 1976, Socrates supposedly saw himself confronted with a very similar question while talking to a certain Charmides. For reasons wholly different than Bloor’s, Charmides and his caretaker Critias defend the position that science can be applied to itself – that there is a ‘meta-science’ through which we know knowledge.
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.