Tag Archives: History and philosophy of science

Back to school

This week it was back to school at WIT, a welcome change after some intense research over the hols. I like the start of the second semester, there’s always a great atmosphere around the college with the students back and the restaurants, shops and canteens back open. The students seem to be in good form too, no doubt enjoying a fresh start with a new set of modules.

This semester, I will teach my usual introductory module on atomic and particle physics to second-years. Yet again, I’m fascinated by the way the concept of the atom emerged from different roots: from philosophical considerations in ancient Greece to considerations of chemistry in the 18th century, from the study of chemical reactions in the 19th century to considerations of statistical mechanics around the turn of the century. Not to mention a brilliant young patent clerk who became obsessed with the idea of showing that atoms really exist, culminating in his famous paper on Brownian motion. But did you know that Einstein suggested at least three different ways of measuring Avogadro’s constant? And each method contributed significantly to establishing the reality of atoms.

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 In 1908, the French physicist Jean Perrin demonstrated that the motion of particles suspended in a liquid behaved as predicted by Einstein’s formula, derived from considerations of statistical mechanics, giving strong support for the atomic hypothesis.  

One change this semester is that I will also be involved in the delivering a new module,   Introduction to Modern Physics for first-years. The first quantum revolution, the second quantum revolution, some relativity, some cosmology and all that.  Yet more prep of course, but ideal for anyone with an interest in the history of 20th century science. How many academics get to teach interesting courses like this? At conferences, I often tell colleagues that my historical research comes from my teaching, but few believe me!

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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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Robert Boyle Summer School 2015

Last weekend, I attended the Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day science festival in Lismore, Co. Waterford in Ireland. It’s my favourite annual conference by some margin – a small number of talks by highly eminent scholars of 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.

Born in Lismore into a wealthy landowning family, Robert Boyle became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution, well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the new ‘experimental philosophy’ in science.

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

As ever, the summer school took place in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born. This year, the conference commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by considering the history of the publication of scientific work, from the first issue of  Phil. Trans. to the problem of fraud in scientific publication today.

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

The summer school opened on Thursday evening with an intriguing warm-up talk on science in modern novels. Jim Malone , Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, presented a wonderful tour of his favourite novels involving science, with particular emphasis on the novels of C.P. Snow , Ian McEwan and the Irish satirist Flann O’Brien. I must admit I have not read the novels of C.P. Snow (although I am familiar with his famous essay on the two cultures of science and literature). As for Flann O’ Brien, we were treated to a superb overview of the science in his novels, not least the wonderful and surreal novel ‘ The Third Policeman’. Nowadays, there is an annual conference in memory of Flann O’ Brien, I hope Jim gives  a presentation at this meeting! Finally, I was delighted that the novels of Ian McEwan were included in the discussion. I too enjoyed the novels ‘Saturday’ and ‘Solar’ hugely, was amazed by the author’s grasp of science and the practice of science .

Turning to the core theme of the conference, the first talk on Friday morning was ‘Robert Boyle, Philosophical Transactions and Scientific Communication’ by Professor Michael Hunter of Birkbeck College. Professor Hunter is one of the world’s foremost experts on Boyle, and he gave a thorough overview of Boyle’s use of the Phil. Trans to disseminate his findings. Afterwards, Dr. Aileen Fyfe of the University of St Andrews gave the talk ‘Peer Review: A History From 1665′ carefully charting how the process of peer review evolved from Boyle’s time to today. The main point here was that today’s process of a journal sending papers out to be refereed by experts in the field is a relatively new development. In Boyle’s day, a submitted paper was evaluated by either the Secretary of the Royal Society or by one of the Fellows. However, it seemed to me that this ‘gatekeeper’ approach still constituted review by peers and was, if anything, more restrictive than today’s peer review.

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The renowned Boyle scholar Professor Michael Hunter of Birbeck College, UCL, in action

On Friday afternoon, we had the wonderful talk ‘Lady Ranelagh, the Hartlib Circle and Networks for Scientific Correspondence’  in the spectacular setting of St Carthage’s Cathedral, given by Dr.Michelle DiMeo of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  I knew nothing of Lady Ranelagh (Robert Boyle’s elder sister) or the The Hartlib Circle  before this. The Circle was clearly an important  forerunner of the Philosophical Transactions and Lady Ranelagh’s role in the Circle and in Boyle’s scientific life has been greatly overlooked.

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St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore

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Professor DiMeo unveiling a plaque in memory of Lady Ranelagh at the Castle. The new plaque is on the right, to accompany the existing plaque in memory of Robert Boyle on the left 

On Friday evening, we had a barbecue in the Castle courtyard, accompanied by music and dance from local music group Sonas. After this, many of us trooped down to one of the village pubs for an impromptu music session (okay, not entirely impromptu, ahem). The highlight was when Sir John Pethica,  VP of the Royal Society, produced a fiddle and joined in. As did his wife, Pam – talk about Renaissance men and women!

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Off to the Castle for a barbecue

On Saturday morning, Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford gave the talk ‘How persistence of dead tree technology has stifled scientific communication ; time for a radical rethink’, a presentation that included some striking accounts of some recent cases of fraudulent publication in science – not least a case she herself played a major part in exposing! In the next talk,‘ The scientific record: archive, intellectual property , communication or filter?’ Sir John Pethica of Oxford University and Trinity College Dublin made some similar observations, but noted that the problem may be much more prevalent in some areas of science than others. This made sense to me, as my own experience of the publishing world in physics has been of very conservative editors that err on the side of caution. Indeed, it took a long time for our recent discovery of an unknown theory by Einstein to be accepted by the physics journals.

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  Other highlights included a fascinating account of poetry in science by Professor Iggy McGovern, a Professor of Physics at Trinity College Dublin and published poet, including several examples from his own work and that of Patrick Kavanagh, and a guided tour of the Castle Gardens, accompanied by Robert Boyle and his sister. You can find the full conference programme here.

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Robert Boyle and his sister Lady Ranelagh picking flowers in the Castle Gardens

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Robert Boyle Summer School 2014

Last weekend saw the third Robert Boyle Summer School, an annual 3-day meeting in Lismore, Co, Waterford in honour of one of Ireland’s greatest scientists. Born in Lismore into an extremely wealthy family, Boyle  became one of the most important figures in the Scientific Revolution,  well-known for his scientific discoveries, his role in the rise of the Royal Society and his influence in promoting the role of the experiment in the ‘new philosophy’.

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The Irish-born scientist and aristocrat Robert Boyle   

 

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Lismore Castle, the birthplace of Robert Boyle

The summer school took place in the Heritage Centre in Lismore, the beautiful town that is the home of Lismore Castle where Boyle was born.  The talks covered a wide range of topics, from Boyle’s scientific legacy to the interplay of science and religion (like many figures of the scientific religion, Boyle was quite devout and extremely interested in the interface between science and religion). See here for the conference program.

This was the third such summer school, organised jointly by the CALMAST science outreach group at Waterford Institute of Technology  and the Lismore Heritage Centre. As the only such event on a major figure in the scientific revolution, it is beginning to attract some of the world’s top experts on this period of science (known as ‘early modern’). This year, the programme included talks by Lawrence Principe (Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins and author of The Scientific Revolution (OUP) and The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest); John Hedley Brooke (Professor Emeritus of Science and Religion and Oxford University , and author of Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives and Religious Values and the Rise of Science in Europe); and Terry Eagleton  (author of over forty books and Distinguished Professor of English literature at Lancaster University).

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Lawrence Principe at Boyle 2014

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John Hedley Brooke at Boyle 2014

It was the sort of conference I like best – a small number of inter-disciplinary talks aimed at curious academics and the public alike, with lots of time for questions and long breaks for discussion. On the last day, Boyle’s legacy was also celebrated by some talks concerning the science of today; we had a superb lecture on astrophysics from Professor Lorraine Hanlon of University College Dublin, and an outstanding seminar on inflammation and ageing by Professor  Luke O’ Neill, one of Ireland’s best known and most successful biochemists.  Other highlights were a lecture on fraud in modern science by Jim Malone, Emeritus Robert Boyle Professor of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin, and an open-air barbecue in Lismore Castle on Friday evening,including a re-enactment in costume of some famous Boyle experiments by Eoin Gill of WIT.

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Eoin Gill aka Robert Boyle

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Song and dance in the grounds of Lismore Castle

All in all, a superb conference in a beautiful setting.  The meeting was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Chemisty (Ireland), the Institute of Physics (Ireland), the Robert Boyle Foundation,  i-scan, Abbott, Lismore Castle Arts and the Lismore House Hotel.

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A late night music session with Luke O’ Neill  

 

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