Looking twice at the history of science

Monday, September 7, 2015

Histories of science as murder mysteries, or: Steven Weinberg as Henning Mankell

The conclusion of my last post was that scientists who write history are like visitors to one city who live in a different city (as opposed to historians, who study cities while living in the countryside). The point of the analogy was to show that knowledge of present-day science need not get in the way of good history-writing. There is another analogy that gets at the same point from a different direction: scientists who write history are like authors of murder mysteries who reveal the identity of the killer in the first chapter. This may sound like a criticism, but there are successful authors who actually write like this, starting with the Swedish maestro Henning Mankell.

SPOILER ALERT - crucial details of detective novel revealed below, most of them from the first chapter

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  1. "They lead to dramatic scenes in which scientists come tantalisingly close to a discovery without quite getting there, where they unwittingly endanger their lives or careers by meddling with phenomena they do not understand, and where they become acquainted with a new entity without correctly identifying the entity (for an example of the latter, consider Joseph Priestly’s isolation of oxygen)."

    I not exactly sure what you mean by "correctly identify" but by any analytical standards Priestly did correctly identify oxygen and correctly described its properties. He then went on to use these to falsely support the phlogiston theory, which is something else all together. Lavoisier used Priestley work on oxygen and the composition of water to demolish the phlogiston theory but attributed false properties to it. Did he also fail to correctly identify the entity?

    1. Hi thonyc, and thanks for the comment. I'm not sure how useful it is to wrangle over the meaning of the phrase 'to identify a substance.' But for the record, here is what I had in mind.

      Priestley was acquainted with oxygen in the sense that he isolated a sample of it from atmospheric air (though admittedly he was not the first to do this, and his sample was not very pure).
      I say Priestley failed to correctly identify phlogiston because he identified it as "nitrous oxide" and later as "dephlogisticated air", and these identifications are incorrect in the sense that they contain misleading pictures of how oxygen is formed and what it is made of (eg. there is no such thing as phlogiston, as Priestley understood that entity, so there is no such thing as air with the phlogiston taken out of it).

      Did Lavoisier correctly identify oxygen? It doesn't matter. If you want to say that Lavoisier, was acquainted with oxygen but did not correctly identify it, then I welcome this as another illustration of my point.

      I take it your broader point is that scientific discovery is ambiguous -- it is hard to say who discovered such-and-such an entity, and when. My response is that this does not cause problems for my analogy because murder mysteries have similar ambiguities. There is rarely a single moment in a murder mystery (at least not in the good ones) where everything suddenly becomes clear. Sherlock Holmes is not as poor a model of the scientist as philosophers and scientists sometimes make out.

    2. Priestley did not isolate an impure sample of oxygen from atmospheric air, he produced pure oxygen by controlled heating of Mercuric Oxide in a sealed vessel, as has Carl Scheele before him. Priestly published first. He also investigated its properties under controlled conditions.

    3. You are right, my reference to atmospheric air was sloppy. I take it you agree, though, that Priestley failed to identify oxygen, in the sense I described in my last comment?

  2. "The features I describe are endemic in the kind of histories of science that are called ‘Whiggish’ or ‘present-centred.’"

    Let me suggest a third analogy. The way you describe it, the historian uses his present knowledge as a map on which to trace the circuitous route that leads eventually to the discovery of certain treasures in the terrain. When this route is the real story of the history of science, I do not call that Whiggish. To me Whiggish means retrospective judgements that this or that scientist should have taken a left turn, here, rather than a right one.

  3. Steven Weinberg's book is "To Explain the World," not "To Know the World." It's really his attempt to trace how, over a very long time, people worked out what became the prevailing modern scientific approach to explaining things. (He calls this the "discovery" of modern science; I'd call it the "invention" of it. Weinberg addresses this point in his introduction before deciding to stick with "discovery.") Anyway, the book is worth reading; while it embodies a certain kind of whiggishness, it's rather different from the way, say, Shapin characterized it. And it's certainly an interesting example of a leading scientist's reflections on the history of scientific inquiry.