Category Archives: History and philosophy of science

Is science influenced by politics?

“Most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.” Photograph:  Getty Images)

“Science is always political,” asserted a young delegate at an international conference on the history of physics earlier this month. It was a very enjoyable meeting, but I noticed the remark caused a stir among many of the physicists in the audience.

In truth, the belief that the practice of science is never entirely free of politics has been a steady theme of historical scholarship for some years now, as can be confirmed by a glance at any scholarly journal on the history of science. At a conference specifically designed to encourage interaction between scientists, historians and sociologists of science, it was interesting to see a central tenet of modern scholarship openly questioned.

Famous debate

Where does the idea come from? A classic example of the hypothesis can be found in the book Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. In this highly influential work, the authors considered the influence of the politics of the English civil war and the restoration on the famous debate between scientist Robert Boyle and philosopher Thomas Hobbesconcerning the role of experimentation in science. More recently, many American historians of science have suggested that much of the success of 20th century American science, from aeronautics to particle physics, was driven by the politics of the cold war.

Similarly, there is little question that CERN, the famous inter-European particle physics laboratory at Geneva, was constructed to stem the brain-drain of European physicists to the United States after the second World War. CERN has proved itself many times over as an outstanding example of successful international scientific collaboration, although Ireland has yet to join.

But do such examples imply that science is always influenced by politics? Some scientists and historians doubt this assertion. While one can see how a certain field or technology might be driven by national or international political concerns, the thesis seems less tenable when one considers basic research. In what way is the study of the expanding universe influenced by politics? Surely the study of the elementary particles is driven by scientific curiosity?

Speculation

In addition, it is difficult to definitively prove a link between politics and a given scientific advance – such assertions involve a certain amount of speculation. For example, it is interesting to note that many of the arguments in Leviathan have been seriously questioned, although these criticisms have not received the same attention as the book itself.

That said, few could argue that research into climate science in the United States suffered many setbacks during the presidency of George W Bush, and a similar situation pertains now. But the findings of American climate science are no less valid than they were at other time and the international character of scientific enquiry ensures a certain objectivity and continuity of research. Put bluntly, there is no question that resistance to the findings of climate science is often politically motivated, but there is little evidence that climate science itself is political.

Another factor concerns the difference between the development of a given field and the dawning of an entirely new field of scientific inquiry. In a recent New York Times article titled “How politics shaped general relativity”, the American historian of science David Kaiser argued convincingly for the role played by national politics in the development of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the United States. However, he did not argue that politics played a role in the original gestation of the theory – most scientists and historians would agree that Einstein’s quest was driven by scientific curiosity.

All in all, I think there is a danger of overstating the influence of politics on science. While national and international politics have an impact on every aspect our lives, the innate drive of scientific progress should not be overlooked. Advances in science are generally propelled by the engine of internal logic, by observation, hypothesis and theory-testing. No one is immune from political upheaval, but science has a way of weeding out incorrect hypotheses over time.

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a visiting associate professor at University College Dublin

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The thrill of a good conference

One of the perks of academia is the thrill of presenting results, thoughts and ideas at international conferences. Although the best meetings often fall at the busiest moment in the teaching semester and the travel can be tiring, there is no doubt that interacting directly with one’s peers is a huge shot in the arm for any researcher – not to mention the opportunity to travel to interesting locations and experience different cultures.

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The view from my hotel in San Sebastian this morning.

This week, I travelled to San Sebastian in Spain to attend the Third International Conference on the History of Physics, the latest in a series of conferences that aim to foster dialogue between physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and professional historians of science. I think it’s fair to say the conference was a great success, with lots of interesting talks on a diverse range of topics. It didn’t hurt that the meeting took place in the Palacio Mirimar, a beautiful building in a fantastic location.

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The Palacio Mirimar in San Sebastian. 

The conference programme can be found here. I didn’t get to all the talks due to parallel timetabling, but three major highlights for me were ‘Structure or Agent? Max Planck and the Birth of Quantum Theory’ by Massimiliano Badino of the University of Verona, ‘The Principle of Plenitude as a Guiding Theme in Modern Physics’ by Helge Kragh of the University of Copenhagen, and ‘Rutherford’s Favourite Radiochemist: Bertram Borden’ by Edward Davis of the University of Cambridge.

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A slide from the paper ‘Max Planck and the Birth of Quantum Theory’

My own presentation was titled The Dawning of Cosmology – Internal vs External Histories’ (the slides are here). In it, I considered the story of the emergence of the ‘big bang’ theory of the universe from two different viewpoints, the professional physicist vs. the science historian. (The former approach is sometimes termed ‘internal history’ as scientists tend to tell the story of scientific discovery as an interplay of theory and experiment within the confines of science. The latter approach is termed  ‘external’ because the professional historian will consider external societal factors such the prestige of researchers and their institutions and the relevance of national or international contexts). Nowadays, it is generally accepted that both internal and external factors usually often a role in a given scientific advance, a  process that has been termed the co-production of scientific knowledge.

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Giving my paper in the conference room

As it was a short talk, I focused on three key stages in the development of the big bang model; the first (static) models of the cosmos that arose from relativity, the switch to expanding cosmologies in the 1930s, and finally the transition (much more gradual) to the idea of a universe that was once small, dense and hot. In preparing the paper, I found that the first stage was driven almost entirely by theoretical considerations (namely, Einstein’s wish to test his newly-minted general theory of relativity by applying it to the universe as a whole), with little evidence of co-production. Similarly, I found that the switch to expanding cosmologies was driven by almost entirely by developments in astronomy (namely, Hubble’s observations of the recession of the galaxies). Finally, I found the long rejection of Lemaître’s ‘fireworks’ universe was driven by obvious theoretical problems associated with the model (such as the problem of the singularity and the age paradox), while the eventual acceptance of the model was driven by major astronomical advances such as the discovery of the cosmic microwave background. Overall, my conclusion was that one could give a reasonably coherent account of the early development of modern cosmology in terms of the traditional narrative of an interplay of theory and experiment, with little evidence that social considerations played an important role in this particular story. As I once heard the noted historian Hasok Chang remark in a seminar, Sometimes science is the context’.

Can one draw any general conclusions from this little study? I think it would be interesting to investigate the matter further. One possibility is that social considerations become more important ‘as a field becomes a field’, i.e., as a new area of physics coalesces into its own distinct field, with specialized journals, postgraduate positions and undergraduate courses etc. Could it be that the traditional narrative works surprisingly well when considering the dawning of a field because the co-production effect is less pronounced then? Certainly, I have also found it hard to discern any major societal influence in the dawning of other theories such as special relativity or general relativity.

Coda

As a coda, I discussed a pet theme of mine; that the co-productive nature of scientific discovery presents a special problem for the science historian. After all, in order to weigh the relative impact of internal vs external considerations on a given scientific advance, one must presumably have a good understanding of each. But it takes many years of specialist training to attempt to place a scientific advance in its true scientific context, an impossible ask for a historian trained in the humanities. Some science historians avoid this problem by ‘black-boxing’ the science and focusing on social context alone. However, this means the internal scientific aspects of the story are either ignored or repeated from secondary sources, rather than offering new insights from perusing primary materials. Besides, how can one decide whether a societal influence is significant or not without considering the science? For example, Paul Forman’s argument concerning the influence of contemporaneous German culture on the acceptance of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory is interesting, but pays little attention to physics; a physicist might point out that it quickly became clear to the quantum theorists (many of whom were not German) that the Uncertainty Principle arose inevitably from wave-particle duality in all three formulations of the theory (see Hendry on this for example).

Indeed, now that it is accepted one needs to consider both internal and external factors in studying a given scientific advance, it’s not obvious to me what the professionalization of science history should look like, i.e., how the next generation of science historians should be trained. In the meantime, I think there is a good argument for the use of multi-disciplinary teams of collaborators in the study of the history of science.

All in all, a very enjoyable conference. I wish there had been time to relax and have a swim in the bay, but I never got a moment. On the other hand, I managed to stock up on some free issues of my favourite publication in this area, the European Physical Journal (H).  On the plane home, I had a great read of a seriously good EPJH article by S.M. Bilenky on the history of neutrino physics. Consider me inspired….

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History of Physics at the IoP

This week saw a most enjoyable conference on the history of physics at the Institute of Physics in London. The IoP has had an active subgroup in the history of physics for many years, complete with its own newsletter, but this was the group’s first official workshop for a long while. It proved to be a most enjoyable and informative occasion, I hope it is the first of many to come.

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The Institute of Physics at Portland Place in London (made famous by writer Ian McEwan in the novel ‘Solar’, as the scene of a dramatic clash between a brilliant physicist of questionable integrity and a Professor of Science Studies)

There were plenty of talks on what might be called ‘classical history’, such as Maxwell, Kelvin and the Inverse Square law of Electrostatics (by Isobel Falconer of the University of St. Andrews) and Newton’s First Law – a History (by Paul Ranford of University College London), while the more socially-minded historian might have enjoyed talks such as Psychical and Optical Research; Between Lord Rayleigh’s Naturalism and Dualism (by Gregory Bridgman of the University of Cambridge) and The Paradigm Shift of Physics -Religion-Unbelief Relationship from the Renaissance to the 21st Century (by Elisabetta Canetta of St Mary’s University). Of particular interest to me were a number of excellent talks drawn from the history of 20th century physics, such as A Partial History of Cosmic Ray Research in the UK (by the leading cosmic ray physicist Alan Watson), The Origins and Development of Free-Electron Lasers in the UK (by Elaine Seddon of Daresbury Laboratory),  When Condensed Matter became King (by Joseph Martin of the University of Cambridge), and Symmetries: On Physical and Aesthetic Argument in the Development of Relativity (by Richard Staley of the University of Cambridge). The official conference programme can be viewed here.

My own talk, Interrogating the Legend of Einstein’s “Biggest Blunder”, was a brief synopsis of our recent paper on this topic, soon to appear in the journal Physics in Perspective. Essentially our finding is that, despite recent doubts about the story, the evidence suggests that Einstein certainly did come to view his introduction of the cosmological constant term to the field equations as a serious blunder and almost certainly did declare the term his “biggest blunder” on at least one occasion. Given his awareness of contemporaneous problems such as the age of the universe predicted by cosmologies without the term, this finding has some relevance to those of today’s cosmologists who seek to describe the recently-discovered acceleration in cosmic expansion without a cosmological constant. The slides for the talk can be found here.

I must admit I missed a trick at question time. Asked about other  examples of ‘fudge factors’ that were introduced and later regretted, I forgot the obvious one. In 1900, Max Planck suggested that energy transfer between oscillators somehow occurs in small packets or ‘quanta’ of energy in order to successfully predict the spectrum of radiation from a hot body. However, he saw this as a mathematical device and was not at all supportive of the more general postulate of the ‘light quantum’ when it was proposed by a young Einstein in 1905.  Indeed, Planck rejected the light quantum for many years.

All in all, a superb conference. It was also a pleasure to visit London once again. As always, I booked a cheap ‘ n’ cheerful hotel in the city centre, walkable to the conference. On my way to the meeting, I walked past Madame Tussauds, the Royal Academy of Music, and had breakfast at the tennis courts in Regent’s Park. What a city!

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Walking past the Royal Academy on my way to the conference

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Views of London over a quick dinner after the conference

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7th Robert Boyle Summer School

This weekend saw the 7th Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s one of my favourite conferences – a select number of talks on the history and philosophy of science, aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and discussion after each presentation.

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

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Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford , the birthplace of Robert Boyle

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution. A contemporary of Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, he is recognized the world over for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.

This year, the theme of the conference was ‘What do we know – and how do we know it?’. There were many interesting talks such as Boyle’s Theory of Knowledge by Dr William Eaton, Associate Professor of Early Modern Philosophy at Georgia Southern University: The How, Who & What of Scientific Discovery by Paul Strathern, author of a great many books on scientists and philosophers such as the well-known Philosophers in 90 Minutes series: Scientific Enquiry and Brain StateUnderstanding the Nature of Knowledge by Professor William T. O’Connor, Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School: The Promise and Peril of Big Data by Timandra Harkness, well-know media presenter, comedian and writer. For physicists, there was a welcome opportunity to hear the well-known American philosopher of physics Robert P. Crease present the talk Science Denial: will any knowledge do? The full programme for the conference can be found here.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable summer school, culminating in a garden party in the grounds of Lismore castle, Boyle’s ancestral home. My own contribution was to provide the music for the garden party – a flute, violin and cello trio, playing the music of Boyle’s contemporaries, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Turlough O’ Carolan. In my view, the latter was a baroque composer of great importance whose music should be much better known outside Ireland.

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Images from the garden party in the grounds of Lismore Castle

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Remembering Stephen Hawking

Like many physicists, I woke to some sad news early last Wednesday morning, and to a phoneful of requests from journalists for a soundbyte. In fact, although I bumped into Stephen at various conferences, I only had one significant meeting with him – he was intrigued by my research group’s discovery that Einstein once attempted a steady-state model of the universe. It was a slightly scary but very funny meeting during which his famous sense of humour was fully at play.

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Yours truly talking steady-state cosmology with Stephen Hawking

I recalled the incident in a radio interview with RTE Radio 1 on Wednesday. As I say in the piece, the first words that appeared on Stephen’s screen were “I knew..” My heart sank as I assumed he was about to say “I knew about that manuscript“. But when I had recovered sufficiently to look again, what Stephen was actually saying was “I knew ..your father”. Phew! You can find the podcast here.

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Hawking in conversation with my late father (LHS) and with Ernest Walton (RHS)

RTE TV had a very nice obituary on the Six One News, I have a cameo appearence a few minutes into the piece here.

In my view, few could question Hawking’s brilliant contributions to physics, or his outstanding contribution to the public awareness of science. His legacy also includes the presence of many brilliant young physicists at the University of Cambridge today. However, as I point out in a letter in today’s Irish Times, had Hawking lived in Ireland, he probably would have found it very difficult to acquire government funding for his work. Indeed, he would have found that research into the workings of the universe does not qualify as one of the “strategic research areas” identified by our national funding body, Science Foundation Ireland. I suspect the letter will provoke an angry from certain quarters, but it is tragically true.

Update

The above notwithstanding, it’s important not to overstate the importance of one scientist. Indeed, today’s Sunday Times contains a good example of the dangers of science history being written by journalists. Discussing Stephen’s 1974 work on black holes, Bryan Appleyard states  “The paper in effect launched the next four decades of cutting edge physics. Odd flowers with odd names bloomed in the garden of cosmic speculation – branes, worldsheets , supersymmetry …. and, strangest of all, the colossal tree of string theory”.

What? String theory, supersymmetry and brane theory are all modern theories of particle physics (the study of the world of the very small). While these theories were used to some extent by Stephen in his research in cosmology (the study of the very large), it is ludicrous to suggest that they were launched by his work.

 

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Snowbound academics are better academics

Like most people in Ireland, I am working at home today. We got quite a dump of snow in the last two days, and there is no question of going anywhere until the roads clear. Worse, our college closed quite abruptly and I was caught on the hop – there are a lot of things (flash drives, books and papers) sitting smugly in my office that I need for my usual research.

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The college on Monday evening

That said, I must admit I’m finding it all quite refreshing. For the first time in years, I have time to read interesting things in my daily email; all those postings from academic listings that I never seem to get time to read normally. I’m enjoying it so much, I wonder how much stuff I miss the rest of the time.

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The view from my window as I write this

This morning, I thoroughly enjoyed a paper by Nicholas Campion on the representation of astronomy and cosmology in the works of William Shakespeare. I’ve often wondered about this as Shakespeare lived long enough to know of Galileo’s ground-breaking astronomical observations. However, anyone expecting coded references to new ideas about the universe in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays will be disappointed; apparently he mainly sticks to classical ideas, with a few vague references to the changing order.

I’m also reading about early attempts to measure the parallax of light from a comet, especially by the great Danish astronomer Tycho de Brahe. This paper comes courtesy of the History of Astronomy Discussion Group listings, a really useful resource for anyone interested in the history of astronomy.

While I’m reading all this, I’m also trying to keep abreast of a thoroughly modern debate taking place worldwide, concerning the veracity of an exciting new result in cosmology on the formation of the first stars. It seems a group studying the cosmic microwave background think they have found evidence of a signal representing the absorption of radiation from the first stars. This is exciting enough if correct, but the dramatic part is that the signal is much larger than expected, and one explanation is that this effect may be due to the presence of Dark Matter.

If true, the result would be a major step in our understanding of the formation of stars,  plus a major step in the demonstration of the existence of Dark Matter. However, it’s early days – there are many possible sources of a spurious signal and signals that are larger than expected have a poor history in modern physics! There is a nice article on this in The Guardian, and you can see some of the debate on Peter Coles’s blog In the Dark.  Right or wrong, it’s a good example of how scientific discovery works – if the team can show they have taken all possible spurious results into account, and if other groups find the same result, skepticism will soon be converted into excited acceptance.

All in all, a great day so far. My only concern is that this is the way academia should be – with our day-to-day commitments in teaching and research, it’s easy to forget there is a larger academic world out there.

Update

Of course, the best part is the walk into the village when it finally stops chucking down. can’t believe my local pub is open!

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Dunmore East in the snow today

 

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Revolutions in Science at UCD

Earlier today , I gave my first my undergraduate lecture at University College Dublin (UCD). The lecture marked the start of a module called Revolutions in Science, a new course that is being offered to UCD students across the disciplines of science, engineering business, law and the humanities.

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As far as I know, this is the first course in the history and philosophy of science (HPS) offered at an Irish university and I’m delighted to be part of the initiative. I’ve named my component of the module Science, Society and the Universe – a description of the evolution of ideas about the universe, from the Babylonians to the ancient Greeks, from Ptolemy to Copernicus, from Newton to Einstein (it’s a version of a module I’ve taught at Waterford Institute of Technology for some years).

Hopefully, the new module will be the start of a new trend. It has long surprised me that interdisciplinary courses like this are not a staple of the university experience in Ireland. Certainly, renowned universities like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge all have strong HPS departments with associated undergraduate modules offered to students across all disciplines. After all, such courses offer a very nice mix of history, philosophy and science, not to mention a useful glimpse into the history of ideas.

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In the meantime, I think I will really enjoy being back at my alma mater once a week. I can’t believe how UCD has developed into a really attractive campus

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