A Historian of Science Reads History of Science

I continue to unearth interesting tidbits from the retired academic’s library. In most of his books he left fascinating traces of how he read. He never shied from in lauding or condemning an author or a passage. He returned to his books again and again, expanding earlier comments, adding new ones, and cross referencing other material. In some cases, he leaves traces of his life in these books, comments about what was happening, where he was, who was visiting, when and where he read a book.

W. Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas (Yale, 1953)

In Salt Lake City 1953, he purchased a brand new copy of William Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas (Yale, 1953). It is unclear when he started reading it, but he clearly read it more than once, and read it carefully with pencil, pen, and pen in hand.

Across the top of the table of contents he reminded himself how to read the book:

In reading, concentrate on picking out and retaining general scientific principles, historical trends and the key historical details which mark them out.

This seems reasonable advice, though we might wonder why he needed to articulate it to himself on the table of contents. Perhaps he read this book early in his transition from being a physicist to becoming a historian of science, and he thought he needed to be reminded of a different way of interacting with texts.

The reader gives himself advice on how to read Wightman’s book.

Whatever the reason, he made it only 44 pages before he could no longer resist analyzing in detail and frequently chastising the text and its author for problematic claims, interpretations, and choice of vocabulary. Running down the margin he recorded his increasing annoyance: “maybe … maybe … phooey … wrong!” On the next page, he questioned whether Wightman meant “size” when he wrote “bulk.” Later, he considered Wightman’s account of Galileo “Very garbled.” In the margin he added “glub glub” and “NO!” Having forgotten his own advice, he continued his detailed march through the remainder of the book.

He was obsessed with the details—he regularly analyzed and corrected the mathematical equations in the book, often more than once. He qualified them and added cross references to other parts of the book where the equation or the concept was analyzed further. For example, he dwelt on the “delightfully simple” proof that the inverse square law is implicit Keper’s Third Law of planetary motion. Here at least three layers of reading, revealed in the pencil, the red ink highlighting an error, and the green ink qualifying the error and speculating on why Wightman reproduced it.

Notes on the “delightfully simple” proof that the inverse square law is implicit in Kepler’s Third Law.

Exasperation, commentary, and critique overflow the margins, spilling from the top of the page to the bottom or across pages: “Good analogy! Flexible and suggestive notation” “Unfair!” “Where? For hell’s sake. Not on 180, or 182 (where he issues another of these puzzling statements).” “Swallows the gunpowder legend!” And my favorite: “Lord! This Wightman is maddening.”

At the end we find out a bit more about when and where he read Wightman’s book. Whether he had read it in 1953, when he purchased it, we can’t tell. But it does seem that he was busy reading it during the summer of 1965. The notes on the last page seem to indicate that he read the book twice that year, once in May and again three months later:

Traces of when and where he read Wightman.

Tue. 11 May, 1965
parents leaving, after their first visit to 1218 Las Lomas.

Logan Canyon
19 Aug, 1965

[Cross posted here.]

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