Looking twice at the history of science

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.