Tag Archives: History of science

The universe – it is bigger than you think

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

I enjoyed Marcia Bartusiak’s book for two reasons. It is a very useful history of the development of modern ideas about the universe, especially during the early 20th century. The pen portraits of the personalities involved are especially interesting. But this history also makes the reader realise he or she should not be limited by current ideas. The universe really is bigger than we think, or can possibly think. Sort of put ideas about the multiverse into perspective for me.

Book review: The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak

Price: US$11.53; NZ$20.82

Hardcover: 368 page
Publisher: Pantheon (April 7, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375424296

This is a great book – just the sort of history of science I enjoy. One that smashes a few illusions, introduces new personalities, describes the significant research and debates of the time. And also describes the key scientists in a human way, with all their foibles, prejudices and illusions as well as their scientific contributions.

The title is apt. The book describes the work and people which produced our modern day understanding of the universe. Less than a century ago we used to think that our galaxy, the milky way, comprised the whole universe. And that it was static.  Now we see it a infinitely bigger, with billions of galaxies similar to ours. We also understand that it is expanding and that we can trace this expansion back almost 14 billion years to the “big bang.”

The big illusion the book shatters is the received story of how this happened through the work of Edwin Hubble. Of course he played a key role – but we normally never hear the background stories, the other personalities involved or details of the disputes and resolutions. It’s normally all about Edwin Hubble.

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Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

This great Sidney Harris cartoon reminds me of the Big Bang Theory scene where Sheldon and Leonard end up wrestling during a conference presentation by Leonard. It’s also a handy antidote for anyone with an idealistic picture of scientists and how science is done.

The human, but real, behaviour of scientists seems to be a current theme in recent discussions of the nature of science by historians and sociologists. That’s not a bad thing in itself – much of the old history may have given an unrealistic and idealistic picture of science as it was done in the past. Let alone now.

I enjoy reading about the history of science and am really pleased that biographies of famous scientists are no longer hagiographies. These days we often learn about the personal foibles and character flaws as well as the great discoveries. It doesn’t in any way destroy my picture of science to learn about Newton’s or Einstein’s character or personality defects, or about the affairs, professional jealousies and outright bad behaviour of science icons. And my own professional experience has certainly taught me about the social and political influences on science and science funding.

Given that current science history tends to be a “warts and all” coverage, and that modern scientists also experience the real sociology of science day-to-day I am a bit surprised that some UK historians and sociologists recently took it upon themselves to lecture us about this (see Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science) As if scientists had a naive, idealistic picture of how they do science!

Keeping us honest?

Mind you – it did start me thinking. These historians and sociologists are assuring us that they perform an important function. Revealing, and reminding us, of the social and political influences on science. And of the real non-algorithmic nature of the scientific process. Of the real scientific method. These historians think they play a key role in keeping scientists honest – perhaps they do.

But who plays this role when it comes to history and sociology? Who has described the social, political and ideological influences on the history and sociology of science? And has anybody been reminding the students and practitioners in these fields of those influences on their ideas and teachings?

Personally I think history and sociology should be subjected to the same sort of realism that these historians and sociologists have given science. This might then help overcome an attitude which comes across as “Believe me, I am a historian/sociologist and what I say represents intensive research and consensus in my profession.”

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are just as human as scientists. They also are prone to personal emotions and vanities. They are exposed to social, political and ideological influences. And they probably have less opportunity to validate their ideas against reality than do their scientist colleagues.

Where claims of consensus are false

Two areas where historians who have attempted to claim they represent a consensus view really annoy me:

Galileo is of course a key figure in the history of science – but one whose history and significance is contested among historians (although scientists generally accept his important contributions to scientific method and astronomy). Some historians really seem to hate the guy. They downplay his contributions, often appearing to argue against them. They will concentrate on his mistakes (all scientists make mistakes), set impossibly high standards of proof for his ideas and even now seem to favour alternative discredited ideas.

Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University describes “the trial and condemnation of Galileo” as having been “debated, and reinterpreted for over three and a half centuries. We are not yet done with this contentious story.” So true. The historian of science Maurice Finocchiaro has detailed this debate in his book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. A shorter version is in his chapter of Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

I am sure much of the controversy could be sheeted back to ideological motivations and that would be a fascinating study. But the persistent controversy among historians about the “Galileo Affair” underlines the fact that one should not take on faith the history presented by a single historian.

Some historians of sciences adamantly promote the myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. The ideological bias is pretty obvious here but again this is an area where one should not just take the word of a single historian – no matter how much they assure you their view represents a consensus of their profession.

For an overview of that particular myth Noah J. Efron has a good chapter, That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science, in Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Efron chairs the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and serves as President of the Israeli Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

Just imagine that we had an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – but for history and sociobiology instead of climate science. Maybe then historical and sociological controversies could be resolved and the consumer may really get a consensus view.

But I am sure there would still be sceptics/contrarians, deniers!

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Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

“therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.

*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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Early history of science

Richard Carrier

Historians of science tend to neglect the ancient period. There is an attitude that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago. And promoted by others. Christian apologists promote that attitude claiming, for example, that the Christian religion was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

This chauvinistic claim is easily discounted by the real history of science during the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire. And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.

Historian and philosopher Richard Carrier has specialised in the history of science during the ancient period. he has also studied the attitude of early Christianity towards science. He is a very clear writer and speaker.

Recently videos of two of his lectures have become available. I have watched them and recommend them to anyone with an interest in the history of science and the region/science conflict. These are:

From Robots to the Moon which describes ancient science and technology, and

Ancient Christian Hostility to Science which describes how the church fathers of the first three centuries reacted to all that science and technology.

I have embedded the first parts of these videos below together with links to the complete playlists.

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Ancient Science

Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science.

via Richard Carrier Blogs: New Podcast & Vids.

Carrier is working on a book about the science of the ancients and I am sure it will go a long way to fill this gap in history. Some idea of his findings were presented in his chapter of the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The Chapter is appropriately titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.” I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

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Mapping modern science

Crispian Jago at the  Science, reason and critical thinking blog has produced an interesting map of the last 500 years of modern science. As he says by “gross over-simplification, dodgy demarcation, glaring omission and a very tiny font” (see Map of Modern Science). With a subject this complex compromises are inevitable. Nevertheless the map is quite an achievement. Click on the image to see it full size.

Based on the London Underground design each science has its own line and stops are for named scientists. The stations link to information about the scientist.

The author acknowledges “the result is too crude for serious science historians.” However Crispian hopes “the output retains enough honesty to make it a useful starting point for the exploration of the history of science to the interested layperson or intermediate geek.”

The history and procedure for constructing the map is described in On the Origin of the Modern Science Map.

Certainly looks interesting enough to browse for useful leads.

See also Crispian Jago’s Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense.

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