After my last post on Neil Degrasse Tyson and the (seemingly fictional?) War on Science, I received feedback from a few people suggesting that there was more to be written. In fact, more has been written; for well over a century, the field of science studies has been developing and shifting, comprised of scholars studying the history, philosophy, and sociology of “science” and many of its cousins (technology, asceticism, “innovation”, et al.). I am an artist who is starting to immerse myself in the field in order to strengthen my critique of technological mediation in culture. So while I don’t plan on using science studies frames in every one of my posts, I do expect there to be shades of its tenets throughout.
That said, where should one start to understand the history and development of science studies? There are, of course, the mainstays: the best-sellers like Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which reintroduced the term “paradigm” to the sciences and broader culture in general. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is superb, especially for those of us in the visual culture side of things. But these works mark the spot on which I’d like to end, not begin.
Late 19th century physicist, historian, and philosopher, Pierre Duhem, is a fascinating lesson in the importance of learning history, especially to a field with as widespread an influence and frequent changes as science. Alive during France’s Third Republic, Duhem saw the Catholic Church being pushed out of government as detrimental, an ignorance to the Church’s significant contributions to society (especially, of course, science) in the Middle Ages. This did not win him many friends in Paris and he was exiled to Bordeaux where, even without direct access to archives, he still penned the ten volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus). Maybe don’t try to read that. Instead give “The English School and Physical Theories” a looksee—it’s a fascinating case study in French nationalism and the subjectivity inherent to scientific approaches.
Here’s an amazing story: in 1931, a delegation from Soviet Russia gets on an airplane to London to attend the Second International Congress of the History of Science. On the plane are three notable figures: Boris Hessen, Nikolai Bukharin, and a guy named Ernst (né Arnosht) Kolman. Bukharin, who struggled for power with Stalin at one point (which gives you a hint of where he ends up) forgets his paper in Moscow and they turn the plane around. Kolman is there simply to watch over the delegation and make sure it espouses the proper party politics. Meanwhile, Hessen, a physicist who spent some time pre-revolution studying in Edinburgh, spends the entire flight writing out a paper entitled “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia” which is then typed up by a pool of secretaries (who came with Hessen, et al) and published for the conference.
In the paper, Hessen makes an argument that attempts to resolve the Scientific Socialist philosophies governing his homeland (℅ Marx) and their absolute progressivism with the relatively new Einsteinian theories of relativity. In a sense, Hessen argues that Einsteinian theories must be incorporated into the party philosophy so that scientific progress might be achieved—but he has to do so by discounting Newtonian physics through an analysis of the social contexts in which they were developed. The historian Loren Graham (who, somehow, runs into Kolman at another International Congress in Moscow in 1971) notes that this paper is “one of the most influential reports ever presented at a meeting of historians of science.” So, probably worth a read.
Born Meyer Schkolnick, Robert Merton chose to go by a stage name when performing magic (the show kind, not the Harry Potter “real” kind) as a child around Philadelphia in the 1920s. That stage name probably helped when he tried to get into Harvard in 1931 and was accepted. I cited Merton in my previous post, but I think he’s an important figure to review here, albeit briefly.
Merton, who was in the audience at Hessen’s talk in London in 1931, toyed with the question of “can there be a sociology of science?” This also explains why a search for his name on The Society Pages turns up a number of results. Merton understood that religion has an important and complicated relationship with science (as I sought to demonstrate previously), but his was different than what had come before—mainly, Hessen’s arguments about Newton, Descartes, and God. Instead, his turning to the Protestant ethic illustrates his commitment to Weberian theories of society.
This list is, of course, a very small tip of a very large iceberg. But this is not a science studies blog and I’m not a science studies scholar (yet), so I hope you’ll bear with me and check out those who I’ve recommended above. I’m also hoping that, if you know of any critical figures in the history of science studies, you’ll contribute them in the comments, below. I’m especially eager to learn of individuals who are not old white dudes.
But I’m also eager to post this list because when I tell most people that I’m working in science studies, the first response is almost always, “science what?” The idea that there is a place outside of science to understand the field is foreign to many, since science is posed, in itself, an answer to many quandaries about the natural world. The history of science, philosophy of science, and sociology of science are all critical places from which to understand so much of our culture. I hope I can bring more insights from the field throughout my contributions to this blog.