How Do We Tell The Stories Of Science? Einstein's Clocks, Darwin's BiologyTopics At Columbia Panel April 7

March 18, 1999

Scientific investigations of the natural world have transformed how we understand ourselves, our environment and everything that lies between. How do we tell this story? Does science transcend time and place, or are its findings always rooted in the specifics of a country and century?

For instance, did the young Einstein's work in the Swiss Patent Office contribute to his theory of relativity, and did German Romanticism shape the young Darwin's view of nature? How would such findings change our understanding of their theories? Should historians of science point out why certain theories of how the world works are accepted, or simply chant the glories of individual scientists?

"There's no question that science is the most powerful way of knowing ever devised by humanity," said D. Graham Burnett, a Mellon Fellow in History at Columbia University and historian of science. "It's had a profound impact on the way we make sense of the world, and has even displaced other modes of understanding. It's important that we understand how this came to be so."

The history of science, and its role in society and the academy, is to be discussed when three noted historians of science meet at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia April 7 for a presentation and panel discussion at 6 P.M. The event, titled "Nature and History: Thinking About History and Knowledge of the Natural World," will be held in the Teatro at Casa Italiana, 1161 Amsterdam Ave. near West 118th St. A reception at Casa Italiana will follow. Reservations are strongly advised; please call 212-854-4437, fax 212-854-8479 or send e-mail to

Invited speakers are Lorraine Daston, director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin; Peter L. Galison, the Mallinckrodt Professor of History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University, and Robert J. Richards, director of the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science at the University of Chicago. Dr. Burnett, organizer of the panel, will moderate.

Debates on the history of science have often been framed in the context of its role as a bridge between the sciences and the humanities. George Sarton, who founded the discipline in the United States in a series of lectures at Brown University in 1930, saw technology overwhelming the humanities. Both C.P. Snow, in The Two Cultures (1959), and E.O. Wilson, in Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), sought to describe that gap and to bridge it. These writers envisioned a cultural calamity if scientists and humanists failed to communicate. But this formulation risked reducing historians of science to popularizers of an otherwise incomprehensible dogma, and academic historians have resisted it.

The question, then, has become how to make sense of the growth of science from the mathematics of the Greeks, the astronomy of the Chinese and the Arabs, and the parlor tricks practiced in European courts, to its current status as an interpretive system of unparalleled power. Two basic approaches have emerged, and the conflict between them has been termed by some the "science wars." The first and more traditional approach has been to take science at its word and describe scientific discoveries as simple facts that could have been found at any time by anyone with the proper tools. "In this schema, we're basically hagiographers," Dr. Burnett said. "We're the keepers of a holy flame of scientific genius, and what we do is show how great scientists have great ideas."

The more recent and more controversial approach has been to place scientific discoveries in the context of history and society, to claim, for example, that Charles Darwin could not have developed the theory of evolution without Thomas Malthus or without the traditions of natural history shaped by Alexander van Humboldt. Science often goes hand-in-hand with the powers that be, according to this school: geography flourished in the Age of Empire, as did the idea of an x-ray laser, part of the Star Wars program, under President Reagan.

No scientist is ever finally "right": Isaac Newton's equations about absolute motion may have been correct for his time, but it took Einstein to point out that all motion is relative to a frame of reference, a concept enshrined as relativity.

"In this view, the claim to scientific truth is a claim to power," Dr. Burnett said. "It follows that it's our job as historians of science to understand how certain individuals accede to the enviable position of being able to make claims about what is really real -- and to be believed."

In the former approach, history adds nothing to an understanding of science, and the historian might as well trade his pen for a lab coat, Dr. Burnett said. In the latter, science is assimilated to the politics of knowledge, and historians of science lose the unique object of their investigation. The ideal approach would seem to lie somewhere in the middle, according to Dr. Burnett.

"Everyone is looking for a toehold on this slippery slope," he said. "The field presents tremendous challenges, but it is endlessly fascinating. The history of science is a chronicle of the human obsession with understanding the world around us, the desire to see the world through a transcendent eye."

Professor Daston is to speak on "Can Scientific Objectivity Have a History?" She notes that scientific objectivity, now the goal of an overwhelming majority of researchers, is a relatively recent guide for scientific inquiry; it came into being in the mid-19th century. Prior to that, the search was for "truth" or "reason." The science of colors, because it lies close to the boundary between "objective" and "subjective," is a sensitive indicator of the differences between inquiries seeking "truth" and those seeking "objectivity," Professor Daston said. "Are colored shadows, after-images and complementary colors illusions or genuine subjective phenomena?" She examines the work of 18th- and 19th-century investigators to show how the division of color phenomena into objective and subjective transformed the questions, methods and aims of scientific investigation.

Professor Daston, an alumna of the Society of Fellows at Columbia, is the author of Classical Probability in the Enlightenment and co-author of both The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life and, most recently, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750. She studies forms of rationality, and has worked on the history of probability theory and statistics, the history of natural history, and, at present, the history of scientific objectivity.

Professor Galison's presentation is titled "Einstein's Clocks: High Theory and Lowly Technology." He believes that the great physicist's early work as a junior official in the Swiss Patent Office paved the way for his theory of special relativity, particularly his reformulation of the idea of simultaneity. If, according to the theory, the rate of passage of time is relative to the velocity of the timekeeper, notions of simultaneity must be abandoned. Professor Galison holds that Einstein's patent work exposed him to discussions surrounding the coordination of clocks along railway lines and throughout the cities of central Europe. "By understanding the history of coordinated clocks, Einstein's relativity work of May 1905 shines in a very different light," he said.

Professor Galison, a recent MacArthur Fellow, has done advanced work in both physics and the history and philosophy of science. He is the author of How Experiments End and Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, often mentioned in the "science wars" debate. He is also editor of Big Science: The Growth of Large Scale Research; The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power; and, most recently, of Picturing Science, Producing Art.

Professor Richards will speak on "Scientific Transcendence and Historical Reality: The Case of Darwin's Romantic Biology." Historians of biology identify contemporary biological theory with the ideas of Darwin. Yet the young Darwin's ideas about nature hardly seem comparable to those imbedded in modern theory, Professor Richards said. Shaped by German Romanticism and reflected in The Origin of Species , Darwin's early conception was that nature is organically productive and purposeful; there is a reason for every evolutionary twig on the tree of life. But modern biology is materialistic, factual and amoral. "Scientists aspire to theories that are universal and necessary," Professor Richards said. "Yet the historian of science attempts to explain the origin of scientific ideas and theories by placing them in a particular, contingent context. How can universality and necessity arise out of the local and contingent?"

Professor Richards works on Darwin and German Romanticism, among other subjects, and is the author of two major texts reassessing the roots and repercussions of Darwinian ideas. His articles have examined the history of evolutionary ethics, the meanings of progress and the perennial questions around the theological entanglements of evolutionary thought.

The Society of Fellows in the Humanities was organized at Columbia in 1975 with endowments from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the William R. Kenan Trust. The program, now housed in the Heyman Center for the Humanities, brings together young scholars of exceptional promise in interdisciplinary fields with the humanities faculty at Columbia. Fellows teach core humanities courses in Columbia College and conduct their own research.

The April 7 event is sponsored by the Society of Fellows, the Italian Academy, the Office of the Provost and the Department of History, at Columbia.
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