Month: February 2013

Alice Bell on Brecht’s Life of Galileo

Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

In “A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science” Alice Bell offers a nice analysis of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Bertold Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

Perry Anderson on Carlo Ginzburg

Marc Bloch, in the spirit of the Annales, had rejected the intrusion of judicial models into history, as encouraging not only concern with famous persons rather than collective structures, but moralising treatments of them.

Perry Anderson’s “The Force of Anomaly” is both a review of Carlo Ginzburg’s Threads and Traces: True False Fictive and a broader critique of his historical project.

Marketing Science and Math Textbooks, ca. 1892

Today we get emails asking us if we have selected texts for next semester’s course, peppered with suggestions of texts for courses we might be teaching. I long for the days textbook publishers sent yearly calendars advertising their wares. Not only did you end up with something aesthetically pleasant that you could hang on your wall or hide in a drawer—I will admit that I never find email aesthetically pleasing—companies were they trying to offer something useful.

The American Book Company reaches out to science teachers.
The American Book Company reaches out to science teachers.

In 1982 the American Book Comapany apparently sent this calendar to educators to advertise their books. Most months are headed by a list of books organized by topic. February surveyed some of the science textbooks:

If you teach the SCIENCES, send for Section 15. Representative names of authors selected from several departments will indicate the scholarship which characterizes this rich and varied list:

  • ASTRONOMY: Lockyer, Bowen, Kiddle, etc.
  • BOTANY: Gray, Wood, Coulter, Youmans.
  • CHEMISTRY: Cooley, Youmans, Eliot and Storer, Clarke, Roscoe.
  • GEOLOGY: Dana, Gelke, Le Conte, Nicholson.
  • PHYSICS: Ganot, Trowbridge, Cooley, Steele.
  • ZOOLOGY: Holder, Morse, Nicholson, Hooker.

While some of these authors seem like standard names in the fields, others are unfamiliar to me. Some made it into the college curriculum at such schools as Williams College.

Various mathematics subjects—arithmetic, calculating, higher mathematics—were separated out and given their own months. Higher Mathematics decorated December, where not only authors were named but titles of texts were given.

The American Book Company celebrates it texts “In Higher Mathematics”
The American Book Company celebrates it texts “In Higher Mathematics”

In addition to advertising books, the American Book Company claimed to be giving useful information on the back of each calendar page. The company even developed a patented hinge so the pages could be turned over and “preserved throughout the year.” Some of the useful information included an almanac of astronomical information, lists of school superintendents at important cities, and an explanation of how the Australia ballot system worked, complete with an example.

Packaging your advertisement in the express guise of “useful knowledge” seems to have been quite popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Patent medicine companies wrapped everyone of their almanacs in the mantel of useful information. And Dr. Wm. Walker advertised his services with a a booklet of useful knowledge and information. In the case of Dr. Wm. Walker and some of the patent medicine almanacs, useful seemed also to be applicable. I confess, I don’t quite see why the American Book Company thought knowing about the Australian ballot system would be useful, relevant, or applicable.

UPDATE: The last sentence above was an honest expression of my ignorance, though the turn of phrase can easily be read otherwise. Further, it clearly reflects my laziness, for a simple web search would have offered the answer: The U.S. implemented the “Australian Ballot” in national elections in 1892. I am indebted to Katrina Dean for pointing it out to me:

Katrina Dean politely explained to me why in 1892 the Australian Ballot system was useful knowledge.
Katrina Dean politely explained to me why in 1892 the Australian Ballot system was useful knowledge.

History is Always Advocacy

In the comments to the post Gopnik on Galileo people have raised some good points that warrant further reflection.

I want to begin by underscoring my point in that post:

  • Gopnik repeats a number of problematic historical tropes.
  • Historians of science have for years refuted those tropes, revealing how and why they are fallacious.
  • Despite the historians’ efforts, those tropes continue to be so alluring that authors and audiences ignore or dismiss the historical research.
  • There is no reason to hope that more historical research will change this situation.

But I believe the situation needs to be changed.

So maybe the way forward is to ask a different set of questions, to figure out why Gopnik et al. continue to value these tropes, to understand what work these tropes are doing for readers today.

Spoiler alert: Accuracy be damned, those tropes are unrecognized ways to advocate for a particular position that today’s authors and readers hold dear.

Michael Weiss asked me to be more precise about my objections. I don’t want to be more precise because that way leads to madness, or at least frustration (witness Thomas Mayer’s plight). As Becky pointed out, it is too easy to be read as nitpicking, pedantic, annoyingly fixated on the details and context that Gopnik dismisses as “much loved by contemporary historians.” Becky also suggests that we articulate why it matters that the details are right. We would do well to justify our concern. And historical accuracy is not, and never will be, sufficient.

Peter Canellos from the Boston Globe recently took Academy Award nominated movies, each “based on true story,” to task for historical inaccuracies: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” In an interview with Robin Young on “Hear & Now,” Canellos nicely summarized the errors in these movies (See Thony’s excellent “A Play is not a History Book” for an analysis of Brecht’s Galileo, a play that has been characterized on an academic webpage as “probably the most famous conflict between the search for truth in science and religious authority.”).

According to Canellos, in “Argo”, the CIA is given the lion’s share of the credit for formulating the escape plan and members of the British Embassy are portrayed as being unwilling to help. In fact, the Canadians devised and executed the plan, not the U.S. CIA. And members of the British Embassy secreted the U.S. staff around Tehran and to the Canadian Embassy. In “Lincoln”, the congressional debate about the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery two of Connecticut’s four representatives vote against the amendment. In fact, as Representative Joe Courtney has pointed out to Steven Spielberg, all four voted for the amendment. Finally, in “Zero Dark Thirty”, torture made possible U.S. efforts to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. But, as various senators have pointed out, the portrayal is “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

Canellos also articulates why it matters, at least for “Lincoln” and for “Zero Dark Thirty”. Spielberg has expressed interest in having his movie “Lincoln” used as a teaching tool. He apparently wants it to find a place in the classroom. Suddenly, inaccuracies begin to take on new meaning when knowingly inserted into educational contexts. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty”, it makes a strong claim about the value of torture, a very real and live debate in the U.S. In “Argo”, the images of both the Canadians and the British are tarnished.

That seems to be the reason it matters. Portrayals of the past are always used in the present. The past exists only insofar as people today call it into existence for their own purposes. History is never value neutral, to move on to Michael’s other questions. Peter Dear argues this point in a recent essay.1 Rejecting the hope of being neutral, Dear seems to be saying that neutrality, even if it were possible, would deprive history of science and history more generally of its purpose:

Thoroughgoing historicism (in its usual contemporary sense) suggests that differences in basic categories of understanding and action render people living in past worlds, such as that of last week, wholly other than ourselves and not to be explicated in our necessarily anachronistic terms. They must be understood, we say, in their own terms, as early modern courtiers or natural philosophers, or Victorian “men of science,” rather than as modern scientists. All this is well and good, and a standard presupposition in the history of science. But fears of anachronism, or of loosely defined whiggishness, while they have been crucial to creating sensitive and insightful historical studies, cannot adequately define what historians of science do and, in particular, what they are good for in the enterprise of science studies. There remains the issue of what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations, and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historical inquiries (p. 51)

Dear draws on two excellent articles by Wilson and Ashplant where they argue that all questions, all research projects, all motivations to study the past, to pick out particular relics from that past, and to elevate those relics to the status of evidence are inextricably linked to our present. We can mitigate the distorting effects of our present, but we can never eliminate them.2 Later, more succinctly, Dear says: “Anachronism is a form of advocacy, and usually a suspect form, but advocacy is an integral part of what all historians do, whether deliberately or not.”

That seems to get at the heart of the problem and why the details matter. History is always advocacy. And advocacy is always serving somebody’s interest usually at the expense of somebody else’s. I would suggest there is still a deeper problem. Because most people do not see (or cannot see) their own advocacy, they do not have to take responsibility for it. They do not have to admit to themselves or their readers and viewers that they have an ax to grind. They never have to examine their own prejudices and biases.

Mark Attorri rightly noted that historians can’t do much about “simple human prejudice (and there’s obviously plenty of that when it comes to Galileo and the Church).” He also points to one way forward: give up the point-by-point refutation because “that just comes off as defensive,” and history has shown it doesn’t work. Instead, tell our own story “as if the other guy isn’t even in the room.” Sure, the motivations for telling the story, the relics elevated to the level of evidence, and the conclusions are all based on our worry about the “other guy.” Sure, we are advocating for a position. But that’s the nature of the historical project.

1 Peter Dear, “Science is Dead; Long Live Science,” Osiris 27 (2012): 37–55 (behind a paywall).
2 See, Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, “Whig History and Present-Centered HistoryThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 1–16; T. G. Ashplant and Adrian Wilson, “Present-Centered History and the Problem of Historical KnowledgeThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 253–74 (behind a paywall).

How to Peruse a Book

Long after he had earned tenure and had established his place at the university, our historian of science continued consuming books as he had as an undergraduate. In the summer of ’73 he took with him on vacation his copy of C. Truesdell’s The Rational Mechanics of Flexible or Elastic Bodies, an introduction to Leonhard Euler’s Opera omnia.

Truesdell on Euler—Light reading for a summer vacation.
Truesdell on Euler—Light reading for a summer vacation.

I can’t say I would bring The Rational Mechanics of Flexible or Elastic Bodies to my summer cabin, but I respect his dedication: “First perusal, completed, The Cabin, Logan Canyon, June 30, 1973.”

Perusing Euler while lounging at the cabin.
Perusing Euler while lounging at the cabin.

As before, he read carefully with a pencil and two different pens ready to hand for needed annotations and comments. He left scarcely a page of Truesdell’s book unmarked, underlining in red, green, and pencil, though he reserved pencil for his marginalia: “from what?: evidently [arrow pointing above] since Taylor’s analysis was for a horiz. stretched string.”

As usual, our historian happily marked up his book with pens and a pencil.
As usual, our historian happily marked up his book with pens and a pencil.

His marginal notes were not confined to a single page. Using a detailed set of footnotes, he often cross-referenced other pages in the book:

*Formally this is what it was; and E. proposed a formula which gave the “potential live force” from the “force of elasticity” (bending movement), but there is no trace of the work concept as such. See p. 218.

On page 218 he dutifully noted the reference on 425.

And he added footnotes and internal references.
And he added footnotes and internal references.

And, as was his habit, he used the opportunity to reflect on broader questions. In this case, he wondered about the relationship between mathematics and reality:

And thus, I suspect, a lesson in the relations bet math theory & practice: If the theory allows a solu, it is likely to be realized in fact—somewhere, somehow.

He also added general, philosophical commentary, where needed.
He also added general, philosophical commentary, where needed.

Like a modern Menocchio, Ginzburg’s famous miller (see Perry Anderson’s review of Ginzburg’s latest book), our physicist-turned-historian of science pieced together a cosmology from his wide and eclectic reading, a cosmology that structured his world in a way that allowed Velikovsky to exist alongside Kuhn and in which the boundary separating natural from supernatural was a contested.