Tag: History of science

Martin Rundkvist’s Enlightenment Project

The following is essentially a guest post by Martin Rundkvist. He is responding to my comments a few days ago about “Scientific Progress and the History of Science,” which was a response to his “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science.” Dr. Rundkvist was polite and invited me to respond to his comments. Although I have not yet had time to think through his comments and to respond, I did not want to delay any longer posting his reply. In the next day or so I will collect and post my thoughts (I have now posted my thoughts. See “Resigning from the Enlightenment Project”).

I am a participant in the Enlightenment project. Based on the evidence I see around me, I believe that science (in the wider German sense of Wissenschaft) adds cumulatively to our knowledge about the world, past and present.

For instance, I believe that Darin Hayton’s work to date on Renaissance astrology means that we have better, more extensive, more detailed, more accurate knowledge about Renaissance astrology than if he had not performed that work. Dr. Hayton has not just produced more text or additional contingent perspectives on his subject. He has investigated it in a scholarly rigorous manner, illuminating a part of the world that we might want to know about. He has made certain interpretations of the subject impossible in the future by showing them to be factually incorrect. Willingly or not, he too participates in Enlightenment.

In fact (and I know that many scholars in aesthetic disciplines wouldn’t agree here) it is my opinion that a scholar or discipline that doesn’t add to cumulative knowledge like Dr. Hayton does should not be funded.

I agree with Dr. Hayton that his discipline should investigate scientific debates of the past in a fair and historically contextualised manner. That is the central part of the job. But in my field (prehistoric archaeology) we still routinely enter into dialogue with the writings of 19th century colleagues. I see the debates that Dr. Hayton studies as a still on-going concern. Therefore I think there is a second important part of his job: to put the investigated debates into the context of how they were later resolved – or not. It needn’t take more than a sentence or two:

  • “By the 1930s, this debate had been resolved in Newton’s favour thanks to the discovery of XXX (Smith 1938, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “Though the terminology has changed, this issue has still not been settled, over 300 years later (Smith 2013, pp. 123–124)”, or
  • “The discovery in the 1960s of XXX laid this debate to rest as scientists abandoned the assumptions that propelled it (Smith 1975, pp. 123–124)”.

My field of study is abstruse and is followed by few outside academe, and I trust that Dr. Hayton would agree that his field is similar to mine in this sense. I submit that neither of us can afford to alienate large groups of potential interested readers. In Dr. Hayton’s case, I’m thinking of scientists such as myself, working in a cumulative Enlightenment framework today. I care a lot about the history of science. But I do not enjoy the suggestion that my generation of scholars knows as little about our part of the world as our predecessors did in 1750. And I would also object strongly to anyone who said that historians of science know as little today as they did in 1750.

UPDATE: See Resigning from the Enlightenment Project for my response.

Scientific Progress and the History of Science

In “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science” Martin Rundkvist rants about those annoying “knowledge relativist historian[s] of science.” Those degenerates are ignorant and lazy, and mock the hard intellectual work and real accomplishments of science. They are also hypocritical. They don’t really believe all that relativist claptrap.

Rundkvist wants, instead, a history of science that begins and ends in today’s scientific concerns. He wants histories that trace issues scientists are still debating, and he wants those histories to judge people in the past by the criteria, evidence, and standards scientists know today to be true, “because we have learned so much since then.” Rundkvist doesn’t want history. He wants triumphalist genealogy.

Rundkvist has every right to prefer one genre over another, but let’s be clear that what he is asking for is not history in any rigorous sense. Like other disciplines, history is grounded in evidence, a subset of possibly relevant phenomena. Possibly relevant phenomena include artifacts of all sorts from the past, inter alia: letters, diaries and notebooks, texts (published or not), paintings and drawings, instruments, buildings, gardens, fountains. Historians need to be able to justify why they have privileged some artifacts and dismissed others. Historians also need to be able to justify the meaning they ascribe to that evidence.

Here is where Rundkvist (and like-minded consumers of history of science) and historians part ways. Rundkvist assumes that “scientific debates” exist outside of time. Or rather, whatever scientific debates mean today is what they have always meant. Such an assumption can only be justified by ignoring numerous artifacts that don’t fit neatly into our current worldview. It takes very little effort to show that most historical actors were not (and could not have been) concerned in the least with our worldview. It takes only marginally more effort to show that today’s science differs in profound ways from natural philosophy, that historical activity we often call “science” (the same holds true for most specific activities: astronomy today is not the same as astronomy in 1500 because the people involved understood their activity in different terms and intended it to answer different questions — the research program has changed).

Rundkvist’s position is analogous to contemporary scientists today ignoring uncomfortable evidence and other aberrant data that doesn’t support the conclusions they intend to demonstrate. Such a position is intellectually parochial and conservative. It is antithetical to the intellectual rigor and the habits of mind (that “scientific method” bantered about so casually) that scientists like to claim for themselves and on which they build their castles of intellectual and moral superiority (see, for example, Steven Pinker’s recent essay).

History of science should not be a tool to bolster today’s ideologies. Instead, it can give us the tools to examine those ideologies, cf. Peter Broks comments about science communication and Peter Dear’s argument about the purpose of the history of science (behind paywall). The history of science does not serve some triumphalist genealogy. If that makes some readers uncomfortable or annoys them, so be it.

Bryn Mawr’s Genius Mathematician

A nice article in the NY Times draws attention to Emmy Noether, the brilliant mathematician who spent a little more than a year at Bryn Mawr College: The Mighty Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of.

Following the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Noether started working through some of the complexities of the theory. This work led to her eponymous theorem: Noether’s Theorem.

As a Jewish academic at the University of Göttingen, Noether was fired from her position and shortly afterwards fled Germany. Apparently with Einstein’s help, she was given a position at Bryn Mawr. Sadly, Noether’s life was cut short. Within two years of arriving in the U.S. she died after undergoing an operation to have a large cyst removed from her ovaries.

In his obituary for Noether, Einstein called her the “most competent living mathematician:”

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas. (Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 1, 1935)

Emmy Noether’s grave marker in The Cloisters at BMC.

Noether is buried in The Cloisters at Bryn Mawr College, where her grave is marked with just her initials and dates.