Pursuing Power and Light (Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science)

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Films shaped understanding of reversibility in physical law and irreversibility in the observed world.


  • Entraînement Concours kiné Chimie (French Edition).
  • Marx and Modernity: Key Readings and Commentary;
  • Back To My Senses!

Recording devices redefined what it meant to be an observer. Canales uses the material culture of the era to engender sympathy for Bergson and to defend the role philosophy could play in such a context. The remainder of this review focuses on the book as an artifact of the present historical moment. The next section considers how the book balances popular and scholarly readership as a way to comment on some of its limitations.

Section four treats it as a product of our own technological context as a way of highlighting its strengths and exposing the possibilities it makes evident. The Physicist and the Philosopher is pitched as a crossover title. The pressures at work are evident as early as the subtitle, Einstein, Bergson, and the debate that changed our understanding of time.

The reader looking for the story of how one encounter between two intellectuals precipitated myriad changes in both science and the academy is free to extract it, and sometimes encouraged to do so. The tale of the great men who changed the world is seductive, especially when the men in question are engaged in the conference hall equivalent of a barroom brawl. This, to be fair, is not the story that predominates for the more historically sensitive reader.

The titular controversy was much larger than a disagreement between two men, and Einstein and Bergson were as much symptomatic of it as etiological. But the fuller picture of the debate as reflective of its context is obscured when the temptations of the more salable narrative prevail.

Subsequent pages furnish ample evidence that the worms were loose well before Einstein and Bergson had cause to quarrel, but a richer engagement with that story, which a scholarly audience might desire, falls victim to the interests of a competing readership. The particulars of both the scientific and philosophical concepts at issue are often imprecise. Cursory treatments of both the physics and the philosophy make it difficult to evaluate some critical premises.

Canales notes that his focus was limited to special relativity, and that he recognized both the role of acceleration in the twin paradox and the need for a generalized version of the theory, but skirts the question of how his lack of proficiency with general relativity as it stood at the time of his meeting with Einstein colors his critique. More problematic than imprecise descriptions of the physics are the sometimes-cursory reconstructions of the relevant philosophical positions. Bergson, a veritable unknown next to Einstein, begins at a disadvantage with modern audiences.

Yet his clarifications on this topic were largely ignored. To assuage such concerns, the book appeals to the authority of Einstein himself. We are invited to believe that he did so because Bergson grasped something substantive about the science. This is an interesting possibility, but it is not adequately demonstrated here, especially given the host of other reasons Einstein had to care that an influential philosopher, a fellow Jew, and an potential political ally in a troubled Europe so directly attacked his conclusions.

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First, audiences not already versed in the relevant physics and philosophy are left with incomplete reconstructions of details that very much mattered to the interlocutors themselves. These criticisms are not meant to suggest that historians should disavow engaging wider audiences, only that doing so requires striking a balance.

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The way this particular balance is struck has consequences for the way the argument unfolds. Once historians accept that bringing scholarly insights to wider audiences is necessary and desirable, we face the question of how engaging such audiences is likely to shape the construction of historical arguments, as they appear to have done here.

Those questions have largely been left to be worked out in practice. If, however, more historians begin working in the genre this book exemplifies, more conscious attention to them is warranted. Similarly vast changes are now occurring in the way historians confront source material. This book, while describing how such technological shifts shaped bygone eras, demonstrates how our own technological environment influences historical practice. The Physicist and the Philosopher, like relativity, appears deceptively aloof from its technological context.

Canales, by all indications, relies on traditional, time-honored, and decidedly low-tech interpretive techniques. Nevertheless, her analysis draws together sources in a way that presupposes the intricate technological infrastructure historians now rely upon to access both primary and secondary materials.

Permit me an anecdotal illustration. The answer was not much. Not long ago, that might have been the end of it. But addressing it even superficially with any alacrity was only possible because of a suite of search tools and digitized texts.

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I do not mean to wax quixotic about Google Books and its brethren. Keyword searches are no substitute for genuine scholarship; the type of answers they provide are necessarily partial and frequently misleading. Nevertheless, they have a novel ability to raise useful questions because of the character of the access they provide.

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The ability to directly compare a great diversity of sources—all of which were previously available—in a short span of time is a genuinely new capability with subtle, but sizable consequences for historical practice. The Physicist and the Philosopher describes how now-familiar taxa of scholarly inquiry first differentiated: how the rift between analytic and continental philosophy grew and how science and philosophy became established as separate, sometimes antagonistic professions.

It is a story that likely could not have been told even ten years ago.

In practice, however, it is nearly inconceivable that anyone could have drawn all the interdisciplinary and international connections this book makes, against such a rich contextual backdrop, before widespread source digitization and electronic cataloging. When considering changes in practice, historians of science have given sustained attention to two related issues, often in conjunction. First, studying the large, complex scientific communities that emerged in the twentieth century presents gnarly problems of scale.

Proposed responses to these issues include reimagining historical labor in a manner analogous to mid-twentieth century changes in scientific labor. Although collaborations might now be a more realistic option for historians, they have not become the norm. Another family of responses focuses on how digital tools can inform historical methodology. These proposals range from the modest to the elaborate. Kaiser suggests that historians can manage complex historical problems by using simple quantitative approaches to supplement archival and textual study.

Examining the raw quantity of physics PhDs awarded in the United States in the twentieth century, for instance, reveals a boom-and-bust cycle that implies consequences for the way physics was practiced at various stages of the cycle. I sketch these examples as a foil.

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The Physicist and the Philosopher is a null case with respect to all of them. Canales is the lone author and shows no sign of using digital methods, simple or sophisticated, to assess her sources. Even so, the features discussed above—the thickness of the background description, the diversity of the source base, the illuminating boundary crossing— exhibit features attributable to a shifting technological context. The manner in which historians interpret primary documents has not substantially altered, but support structures that enable those interpretations has. Changes in the scaffolding that helps historians build their arguments implies changes the form of those arguments.

As of now, the growing network of cataloguing services, digitized sources, and keyword- searchable databases represents the possibility of consulting a wider array of sources in order to tell a story that cuts across specializations and speaks to large-scale historical themes. Although a possibility now, it bespeaks a coming necessity. For some time, historians of science have called for scholarship to move beyond close micro-historical analysis and address thematic elements common to many sciences or historical processes.

It is easy to imagine how the type of linkages Canales uses to find a new angle on a well-known story could become the norm in historical exposition.

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Incremental changes to the process of source access, although they appear tame in comparison to the ways digital technologies can alter or supplement interpretive methods, might have the more pervasive effect on the discipline. Some qualifications are in order. Canales, writing about Einstein and his contemporaries, moves over well-trodden ground and investigates a context that does not exhibit the scale effects Kaiser identifies. These changes, quite apart from the more radical possibilities offered by new forms of evidence or modes of interpretation, raise questions that demand further consideration.

Do new technologies create a need for greater transparency in how we locate and access sources?

How does easy access to a wider array of sources change our expectations for scholarly due diligence? Are we prepared to cede that responsibility to algorithms? Will corporate hold over access to primary sources undermine the democratic potential of the Internet the same way some worry that it has with secondary sources? Taken as a whole, The Physicist and the Philosopher chronicles the growth of deep and abiding rifts among Western intelligentsia.

The Einstein-Bergson debate presaged the schism between continental and analytic approaches to philosophy. It unfolded amid the political disquiet of interwar Europe and the technologies that suffused it. Most critically, it exposed the rift between science and philosophy, both as professions and as sources of cultural authority, the battle for which science was beginning to win.

The book closes with a postscript nodding to recent skirmishes over similar turf. The echoes of these disputes continue to reverberate, pushing science and philosophy farther apart. Steven Weinberg, the public face of American high energy physics, is famously hostile to philosophy.

The Physicist and the Philosopher should be read in light of persistent questions about disciplinary and cultural values. Acknowledgments Thanks to Margaret Charleroy, Richard Oosterhoff, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful commentary. References 1. Glick is the foundation of the genre. Notable examples of the extensive recent literature include Hu , Wazeck , and Mota, et al.

Einstein Warwick , p.

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