Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Unified Theory of the Second Scientific Revolution, Part 1: the Problem

Gaston Bachelard (1882-1962) forming the scientific mind.
There are two kinds of conference paper: the ones we give, and the ones we would have given if only we had been able to do enough research to back up our seductive hunches and our bold conjectures. At the 3 Societies conference in Edmonton in July, I gave a modest talk about an experimenter in 1730s France who had a notion of ‘exactitude’ that applied equally well to qualitative and quantitative research. The talk I would have given is much more sweeping and provocative. Frankly I would have preferred to listen to the ambitious talk, and not the modest and sensible one, but academic caution got the better of me. Here then is the sweeping and provocative talk, in summary form, safely packaged as a speculative blog post (or two). Expand post.


  1. Nice to see you back on the blog!

    While I've picked up bits and pieces over the years on this or that facet of the SSR (the chemical revolution, Faraday's work, energy and thermodynamics), I haven't read much about the SSR per se; all I can recall off-hand is this post at Renaissance Mathematicus. Should be interesting!

    1. Nice to see you back too!

      Thanks for pointing me towards thonyc's post on the SSR, which reminds me that there are not only multiple versions of the SSR of c. 1760-1830 but also later versions of the SSR, including at least two versions (Stephen Brush and Everett Mendelsohn) that treat it more or less as a synonym for nineteenth-century science (though Brush's SSR goes up to 1950!). thonyc's post is about the 19th-century version.

      For anyone looking for an entry into the literature on this, I can recommend chapter 6 of I. B. Cohen's 'Revolution in Science.'

      Of course there were important developments in the decades around 1800 that don't fit into the picture I give in the above post, notably the study of the remote pre-human past of the earth by geologists (the 'deep time' to which thonyc refers) and the rise of physical astronomy in the work of William Herschel. There's no such thing as a truly unified theory in history, but there are more or less unified theories in history, and the existing theories of the SSR are certainly in need of reconciliation.

  2. With regards to German physics in the first third of the 19th century, don't forget Ken Caneva's characterization of the concrete ceding to the abstract as well as my own discussion of biology in the 1830 and 40s as moving from forms to functions.

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