A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science, Volume V

The next three volumes of The Cambridge History of Science series covers the modern sciences, including Physics and Mathematics (vol. 5), Life and Earth (vol. 6), and Social (vol. 7) sciences.

Cambridge History of Science 5In her introduction to The Cambridge History of Science Volume 5: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Mary Jo Nye (ed.) informs us that this edition “is largely a history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century period in which mathematicians and scientists optimistically aimed to establish conceptual foundations and empirical knowledge for a rational, rigorous scientific understanding that is accurate, dependable, and universal.” The chapters in this volume “represent a variety of investigative and interpretive strategies, which together demonstrate the fertile complementarity in history of science and science studies of insights and explanations from intellectual history, social history, and cultural studies…This volume should orient the reader to much of what is known about the history of the modern physical and mathematical sciences, as well as to what is yet to be done.”

To this end, Part 1 focuses on “the public cultures of the physical sciences after 1800.” Nancy Cartwright, Stathis Psillos, and Hasok Chang write on the “wedge” between inductivism and deductivism in scientific methods espoused by empiricists and rationalists, realists and conventionalists. Frederick Gregory insists that “there are important ways in which developments in physical science continued to intersect with the interests of people of all religious beliefs. Indeed, the closer one approached the end of the twentieth century, the more the interaction between science and religion was dominated by topics involving the physical sciences, the more they became as important to non-Christian religions as to various forms of Christianity.” Particularly, religion intersects the physicals sciences on questions of “origin, development, destiny, and meaning of matter and the material world.” For instance, James Clerk Maxwell, William and James Thomson, Louis Pasteur, Max Planck, and others all “found science and religion mutually supportive.” Margaret W. Rossiter recounts a “history of the exclusion of women from scientific education and scientific organization” during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. David M. Knight discusses the “popularization of science in the nineteenth century.” In “making science loved,” Knight recounts the “colorful rhetoric” of Humphry Davy (1778-1829); Michael Farady’s (1791-1867) Christmas Lectures for children; editors of popular journals and magazines; books published by  Jane Marcet (1769-1858) and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and publishers William and Robert Chambers. Knight also includes some insightful comments on museums of science, particularly the Great Exhibition of the Works of all Nations and the Crystal Palace of 1851. Finally, Knight notes that “in the early nineteenth century, there was no professional science, and thus no ‘culture,’ no scientific community with its shared education and values to set against the literary culture, as C.P. Snow (1905-1980) did in his controversial lecture on ‘the two cultures’ amid educational debates in the 1950s.” Indeed, many modern scientists were also literary men, and likewise “science was prominent in some nineteenth-century poetry.” Pamela Gossin also reminds us that many scientists—among them Davy, Maxwell, Snow, Primo Levi, Carl Sagan, and Roald Hoffmann—had written literature and poetry, “as well as the novelists and poets who had studied the sciences and incorporated scientific elements into their work.”

Part 2 discusses how “scientific specialisms were to proliferate during the nineteenth century into disciplinary boundaries that enrolled professional ‘scientists’ in the classrooms, societies, and bureaucracies.” Here we have essays on “mathematical schools, communities, and networks” (David E. Rowe), “industry, research, and education nexus” (Terry Shinn), “remaking astronomy” (Robert W. Smith), “languages in chemistry” (Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent), and “imagery and representation in twentieth-century physics” (Arthur I. Miller). As Nye writes, at the heart of discipline building were sites and spaces, instruments and means of communication, expense and patronage, controversy and compromise that defined and demarcated one intellectual field from another.

In Parts 3, 4, and 5 concerns “overlapping categories.” Here we find essays approaching their topic from intellectual history or social history, national traditions or local practices, gradual transitions or radical breaks. Part 3 focuses on “chemistry and physics”; Part 4 on “atomic and molecular sciences in the twentieth century; and Part 5 on “mathematics, astronomy, and cosmology since the eighteenth century.”

The final section of this volume, Part 6, deals with “problems and promises at the end of the twentieth century.” Alex Roland concentrates on the relationships between science, technology, and war. Specifically, Roland “addresses scientific and technological problems that are matters of state and business strategies, with direct implications for public welfare.” As Nye summarizes, “governments in the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, the People’s Republic of China, India, and elsewhere imposed upon themselves the need for permanent military preparedness, requiring large outlays of monies for research and development for military purposes, as well as permanent protocols of secrecy for national security.” That national values and ideologies had a significant effect on the conduct of scientific research—but not necessarily on scientists themselves—in the twentieth century is the contention of Paul Jospehson in “science, ideology, and the state.” Perhaps the greatest intellectual and social transformation wrought by the sciences and technology, however, occurred during what William Aspray calls the “computer revolution.” While Aspray traces the creation of the academic disciplines of “computer science” and “information science,” which came “at the end of the twentieth century from the integration of programs in engineering, mathematics, and cognitive science and artificial intelligence, Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles and James Rodger Fleming discuss how computers were used for medical imaging and global climate modeling in “the physical sciences and the physician’s eye” and “global environmental change and the history of science” respectively.

Nye concludes her introduction by apt summary. “The histories in this volume demonstrate a wide and deep array of aims and strategies for studying the history of the physical and mathematical sciences in the modern period. The practice of history, like the practice of science, is a process that depends on conceptual reorientations and reinterpretations, as well as the invention of new research tools and the unearthing of new facts.”


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