Me filming swooping crane shots of the ALICE experiment, located in St Genis-Pouilly, France, where they are studying what happens to matter when it is heated to 100,000 times the temperature of the sun.
Photo by David Marks.
The following was written by my friend Ben Eshbach, who accompanied me on this trip: "Kathryn Grim drove us out to the ALICE detector on our third day at CERN where we met our guide, physicist Peter Jacobs. Jacobs had a very clear way of explaining the physics of ALICE to a layman like myself, so I asked him if he could explain something to me about the history of the aether. Specifically, I wanted him to tell me, in layman's terms, what had "happened" to the aether between the 17th and 19th century when by that time it had accrued enough "substance" to be detectable -- if real. How had it gone from being the incorporeal "substance" of More, Bruno and Kepler, to being something with location, extension, penetrability - something that one could build a machine to detect? I suspected the answer involved aether slowly accruing properties necessary for theory - particularly light theory - and that those properties had raced ahead of empiricism until Michelson-Morley put the brakes on it. But I wanted to know what a real cutting-edge, articulate physicist could tell me.
Jacobs was completely frank. "I have no idea," he said. "We don't study that stuff and nobody talks about it." When Jacobs said "nobody talks about it" he didn't mean that it was hush hush. He just meant that it's not a topic for lectures and symposia. "And why should we?" Jacobs asked. "I mean, we're looking for the truth. What's the point of learning past error?"
I asked him, "Do you think it's because the history of science is a history of error that physicists aren't interested in it?"
"I didn't say we weren't interested in it. I said we don't talk about it. We don't read about it."
Jacobs continued. He told me that in college he read Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and pretty much thought it was an okay way to look at the history of science. He wasn't gung-ho about Kuhn. I got the impression that he was just a bemused observer. He knew who Kuhn was, and he recognized that my follow-up question was in Kuhn's territory. He made the good point that physics history wasn't what real physicists study.
Thomas Kuhn was famous for claiming that natural scientists are typically unknowledgeable about the history of their own craft and that this ignorance is institutionalized by the process by which scientists become trained in their field at university. More accurately, he observed that natural scientists are often knowledgeable of their own history but only as far back to the point where their own present model or "paradigm" became consensus. Learning history in accurate detail any further back serves no pedagogical purpose; learning historical errors is literally a waste of time for a scientist in pursuit of truth in the present. According to Kuhn, there are two types of histories of science; there is the kind of history that one finds in the opening chapters of survey course science textbooks - this is the kind of "history of chemistry" or "history of particle physics" that a freshman chemist or physicist learns. Then there is the kind of history written by historians in history departments. This is the kind of history that scientists typically do not learn. These two types of histories are very different in their structure and subtext, and are institutionally separated by university departments. Kuhn talks about the role of textbook history of science:
"Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great lessons of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet, the textbook derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks (and too many of the older histories of science) refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems. Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific. No wonder that textbooks and the historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution. And no wonder that, as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative."
Jacobs has a good point though, right? Whether or not Kuhn is correct in his description of how science textbook histories are constantly rewritten so that the present state of inquiry always appears to be progressing toward the same goal that we have always been pursuing, it still stands to reason that a contemporary chemist has little to gain studying phlogisten theory or a contemporary physicist the luminiferous aether. Not everyone agrees, though. Ernst Mach, for instance, had a different opinion:
"They that know the entire course of the development of science, will, as a matter of course, judge more freely and more correctly of the significance of any present scientific movement than they, who, limited in their views to the age in which their own lives have been spent, contemplate merely the momentary trend that the course of intellectual events takes at the present moment."
Who's right? Mach was certainly wrong about other things. I don't think that Jacobs' answer indicts him in any way. He's not a historian, he's a cutting edge researcher. Would a fuller knowledge of his discipline's history help him be a better researcher? Would a longshorman be a better wharfie if he studied the history of longshormen? No. Would a politician be a better leader if he studied the history of politics? Maybe. Would a Supreme Court Justice make a better arbiter if she studied the history of Constitutional law? Yes. Where do scientists fit in this spectrum?"