Physical Sciences Research Paper

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The twentieth century was the century of the physical sciences. Immensely successful at making sense of the material world, they are also deeply embedded in the social fabric, and have become associated with technological development, economic well-being, and national security and prestige. The physical sciences have also provided the knowledge required to produce a vast array of weapons and weapons systems. Their history and sociology are contested terrains, in which the issues at stake are commensurate with the ambiguity of their social role.



1. Object

The physical sciences as a coherent body of practices emerged in Western Europe in the seventeenth century (Dijksterhuis 1986/1950, Shapin 1996). At the time they encompassed the fields of physics, astronomy, and mechanics. They were at the core of a radical epistemological and social project which defined nature in mechanistic terms and as subject to law-like and predictable behavior. Their aim has been to understand but also to exploit and to manipulate their objects. Their means has been a combination of ‘reason’ and ‘experience,’ both of which had to respect locally defined and shared canons of good practice. Their practitioners mobilized mathematical tools and capitalized on the rigor of mathematical demonstrations to consolidate the logical force of their truth claims. They extended the reach of the human senses by building and using increasingly complex and powerful instruments which allowed for the controlled exploration of the properties and processes of matter.

2. Scope

The scope of the physical sciences has constantly evolved to include fields as diverse as chemistry, electricity, optics, and the study of solids. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, their potential for not simply understanding but also manipulating the material world led to their institutionalization, and the formalization of their links with the state, philanthropical foundations, and large corporations. Patrons and philosophers alike were impressed by their intellectual and pragmatic success, as revealed by the panoply of technologies which they spawned and on which millions of people depended for their wellbeing. Characterized as a set of techniques and practices, they were seen as a model to be emulated and reproduced. Traditional forms of knowledge were appropriated and subjected to their methods. Parts of the life sciences and the human and social sciences were colonized. Existing disciplinary boundaries were dissolved and new specialisms and fields emerged in the spaces thus created (Krige and Pestre 1997).

Consider the relationship between mathematics and the physical sciences. For Galileo and those who shared his intellectual project in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ‘book of nature’ was written in mathematical symbols and the laws governing its behavior could be expressed in mathematical form. This local unity between the physical sciences and mathematics persisted in the majestic constructions of a Newton or a Laplace (Koyre 1985). Later, however, some mathematicians began to detach their objects from the empirical and the experimental (Bottazini and Dahan 2001). Particularly in Germany they reverted to a ‘pure’ mathematics in opposition to, and to defend themselves against, the rising intellectual and institutional importance of a mathematically informed theoretical physics which was based on, and guided, experimental work. It was this theoretical physics which transformed our conception of the structure and properties of matter in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, combining theoretical analysis with philosophical reflection.

The exigencies of World War II swept aside these cultural norms and intellectual methods. A new kind of physics emerged, motivated by a pragmatic demand to get numbers out and to solve problems efficiently using an evolving toolkit of mathematical techniques. This problem-oriented rather than discipline-based approach persisted in the postwar era. It was entrenched through summer schools and conferences, and by interdisciplinary teamwork in universities and corporations, frequently undertaken with the needs of the military and the Cold War in mind. Pure mathematics continued with a life of its own, dedicated to abstraction, and often pursued with idiosyncratic brilliance in schools like the Bourbaki group in France. Its members saw themselves as the priests of high culture and disdained the vulgar materialism of those ‘mathematicians’ whose work was enmeshed with the empirical and the experimental.

Proponents of the physical sciences, actively encouraged by patrons, have repeatedly sought to colonize neighboring fields, redefining their objects so as to impose their methods and practices on them. The molecularization of biology is a case in point (AbirAm 1982, Kay 1996). In the 1930s, officers of the Rockefeller Foundation, believing that the study of life needed to be purged of what they saw as its metaphysical content, actively promoted the migration of concepts and of instruments and techniques developed in the physical sciences, along with their practitioners, into biological research. The study of macromolecules of biological origin in the 1930s, and the unraveling of the molecular structure of DNA in the 1950s consolidated this reductionist project and contributed to the emergence of a new discipline, molecular biology. It was articulated around the concept of information, made use of instruments like x-ray crystallographs and electron microscopes, and benefited from an interdisciplinary symbiosis between physicists and researchers in the life sciences.

3. Practices

The physical sciences have always been enmeshed in complex matrices with other sciences, technology, and various social actors. This process was accelerated and consolidated in World War II. The development of radar, nuclear bombs, and long-range rockets mobilized physicists at the core of interdisciplinary teams which brought together, in addition, material scientists, chemists, mathematicians, and engineers in vast techno-scientific systems. These systems were shaped by the military and demanded unquestioning political and financial support from the state and the resources of major corporations. They also required the collaboration of hundreds and thousands of ‘nonscientific’ men and women who were mobilized for the war effort, either voluntarily (as in the case of women who worked around the clock in radar stations equipped to detect enemy submarines off the South African coast) or under conditions of appalling cruelty (as in the forced labor camps which built V2 rockets for the Nazi regime in the 1940s).

World War II institutionalized the hierarchical and planned organization of research in large interdisciplinary teams centered around a project or a problem (Galison 1997, Galison and Hevly 1992). The practice of some of the physical sciences after the war, notably in high-energy physics, reproduced and exemplified many of these features. It has come to be taken as the paradigmatic ‘big science.’ Particle physics brings together hundreds of researchers from many different institutions around major accelerators and the detectors used to explore the collision processes produced in them. It is patronized by the state as an icon of prestige and a training ground for some of the most brilliant members of a strategic elite. It relies on advanced sectors of industry for the development and supply of sophisticated technologies (in areas like high vacuum, electronics, and superconductivity).

This change of scale has demanded that physicists become adept at a variety of skills and bow to constraints imposed by various regimes. The size of the equipment built and used and the numbers who work with it, the danger of explosion with the cryogenic detectors (bubble chambers) deployed above all in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the competing demands for opportunities to perform experiments have all transformed the material culture of physics. For leaders in the field, being a physicist does not simply mean pursuing one’s specialty in a multidisciplinary team. It means being adept at fundraising, at project management, and at dealing with industry. It also requires that one accepts the bureaucratization of experimental work. Committees set research priorities and allocate beam time and floor space. The laboratory directorate imposes policies intended to protect the interests of the research community which depends on the facility it manages, and of the government or organization which funds it.

4. Instruments

Instruments lie at the core of the physical sciences. They are the essential means to the production and certification of knowledge. They are also complex and capricious (Collins 1992, Latour 1987, Shapin and Shaffer 1985). One has to be trained to use them, learning how to control their irregularities and to make sense of their output. The results obtained, and the truth-claims made, are impregnated with the vagaries of the instruments and the tacit, hands-on knowledge and experience of those who used them. Replication, preferably by others elsewhere with an instrument which is ‘similar in the relevant respects,’ is the ideal and idealized strategy used to transform these local truth-claims into universal truths which tell us something about the structure of the world. Such similarity is contestable, and often contested. It also presupposes not only agreed protocols of experimental manipulation but also a level of technological development congenial to the construction of standardized, precision instruments. This level was not reached in Europe until the nineteenth century. Instrumentmakers, be they gifted craftsmen with tiny workshops in the streets of London or Paris a century or two ago, specialized firms developing and marketing standardized laboratory tools, or giant industries supplying heavy equipment, thus provide the essential technical and technological infrastructure demanded by the physical sciences.

The production of standardized instruments requires the integration of theories of how the instrument works into its design. Simple theories of optics were embedded in the telescopes, microscopes, and binoculars produced by the vast eyeglass industry built up by Zeiss at the end of the nineteenth century. Scientists themselves have played an active role in developing theoretically based instruments dedicated to their research agendas. Marie Curie not only amassed radium in order to pursue her research, she also promoted and financially backed the construction of measuring instruments which she could use to establish and impose standards for radioactivity (Boudia and Roque 1997). Ernest Lawrence built his laboratory and his reputation on the construction of ever-more powerful particle accelerators based on a theoretical understanding of the behavior of charged particles in electromagnetic fields (Heilbron and Seidel 1989). Standardized, these instruments were promoted as tools to cure cancer, were used to manufacture enriched uranium for the Manhattan project during World War II, and were advocated as particle beam weapons during the Cold War. Felix Bloch’s recondite research into the magnetic properties of the nucleus, for which he shared a Nobel prize for physics in 1952, suggested a new and sensitive technique for identifying the components of compound mixtures. Working along with his graduate students at Stanford University and the local firm Varian Associates, which specialized in resonance techniques, his nuclear magnetic resonance instrument became a standard tool for chemical analysis in the 1960s.

Instruments can inspire awe, and nowhere more than in the physical sciences where their complexity and size have often been exploited to legitimate the practices in which they are embedded and to increase the social weight of those who build them and demonstrate their powers. The sixteenth-century clock in Strasbourg cathedral was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. It was also a material illustration that the mechanical view of nature, congenial to and promoted by the partisans of the ‘new philosophy,’ was a feasible alternative to the dominant conception which took the natural world to be throbbing with life, intelligence, and purpose. The spectacular discharges sparked by Ruhmkorff coils in public arenas in the late nineteenth century thrilled a populace fascinated by an electricity which was replete with associations to medicine, spiritualism, and technological application. Giant particle accelerators and detectors (and telescopes), regularly put on display to impress the general public, promote and seek to justify the enormous cost of these recondite fields of research. Their size and power are limited only by technological feasibility, financial constraints and, today, political will. Each successive generation of instruments is reputedly bigger and better than its predecessors, as measured in easily understood, readily quantified units of energy (or resolving power). Each demonstrates scientific and technological leadership, inflates national pride, and fuels international rivalry.

5. Patronage

Patronage has made possible the emergence, consolidation, and then vast expansion of the sphere of influence of the physical sciences, notably that which has occurred over the past 150 years. Patronage by kings, emperors, the military, national governments, and private foundations has created the social niches and institutions and supplied the financial resources the practitioners of the physical sciences have needed to promote their projects. In return they have held out the promise that the knowledge they produced would improve not only understanding, but also, through that, the prestige and power of those who supported them.

Accommodation and compromise has usually characterized the relationship between practitioner and patron (Mukerji 1990, Price 1965). Both partners have fashioned identities and ideologies, and negotiated boundaries of power and autonomy, compatible with their mutual dependence on each other. Exceptionally that dependence has been denied, or subjugated to other dominant ideologies, as in the grotesque persecution of Jewish scientists by the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s. More usually pragmatism prevails, as in the unseemly race between the allies to secure the services of the scientists and engineers who had developed missiles used by that selfsame regime to bombard major European cities. The pragmatism of patrons is matched by that of those whom they support; practitioners of the physical sciences have shown themselves remarkably adept at establishing a modus i endi with whatever political regime provides them with the institutional and financial resources they need to pursue their work. The ‘universalism’ and internationalism of science so actively promoted in the twentieth century has gone along with the depoliticization of the community and the propagation of an ideology which has decoupled scientists as producers from their patrons as users of the knowledge which they have, in fact, co-produced.

The increasingly costly and complex equipment demanded by the physical sciences has led governments, above all in Western Europe, to pool resources and to fund collectively international laboratories and organizations (Krige and Guzzetti 1997). These collaborative initiatives have generally been restricted to basic research in domains of little direct strategic importance (like high-energy physics, nuclear fusion and space science, and also molecular biology). Even here the loss of sovereignty involved can be a disincentive to the participating governments. They drain resources from national programs and shift the locus of policy to an arena in which practitioners and patrons are locked into scientific, technical, financial, and political decision-making processes over which they have limited control. Indeed, the stability of intergovernmental schemes in the physical sciences depends on practitioners successfully persuading national authorities of the scientific and technical need for the laboratory and its equipment and on patrons defining the collaborative venture as an instrument of foreign policy. This has been particularly valuable for some domains of the physical sciences in the aftermath of the Cold War. With their field no longer perceived as an icon of national prestige and global power, nuclear physicists in the United States and even more dramatically in the ex-Soviet Union have seen support for their research falter, and have had to put their skills at the disposal of new and sometimes exotic patrons (like Wall Street brokers and investment banks). Their colleagues in Western Europe, by contrast, have continued to benefit from governments’ use of their science as a tool to extend the ‘European family’ of nations to include many from the former Soviet bloc.

6. Historiography

Currently there are, broadly speaking, two ways of writing the history of the physical sciences (Golinski 1998). One approach focuses on product. It takes the output of research as an unproblematic corpus of established truths about the world. It is progressivist, and draws attention to scientific achievements and the logical, unidirectional connections between them. It is coupled with a sociology which defines scientific know- ledge as comprising verified truths which are independent of social determination, and a corresponding view of the scientist as the member of a self-regulating community searching for objective knowledge.

The other approach focuses on process and practice. Inspired by sociological and anthropological arguments which insist that truth-claims are underdetermined by empirical evidence, it problematizes the products of research. It explores the social practices whereby consensus is forged among scientists, the processes whereby knowledge is legitimated in different times and places, and how it is reconfigured as it circulates among various groups of social actors. If for the former approach truth is simply a relationship between statements and the world, for the latter it is also a social accomplishment.

Each of these approaches emerged in a specific sociohistorical context and was shaped by a corresponding concept of science and the social role of its history. The focus on product was intended to celebrate science and scientists as the bearers of Reason and Truth, progressive forces opposing ‘irrational’ political ideologies which sought to impede their development and impose constraints on their field of action. The focus on process is a fin de siecle reaction to the success of that project. It seeks to puncture the pretensions of a science and of scientists whose cognitive authority and social power is immense, at least as far the physical sciences are concerned in some advanced industrialized countries. By insisting that social processes are central to the production of knowledge, it seeks to tie truth claims to the local contexts in which they emerge and are contested, and to draw attention to the uncertainty, ambiguity, and messiness which pervades scientific practice at the research frontier.

Each of these approaches has its associated political agendas and neither can lay claim to universal applicability. The former serves to defend the scientific approach wherever the appeal to empirical evidence and rational argument is threatened by institutionalized intolerance, and where science and technology have not yet been bent to alleviate poverty and suffering. The latter seeks to demythologize science and scientists wherever they have become entrenched and empowered in social structures, questioning the uncritical acceptance of science as a force for progress and of scientists as experts whose truth-claims and whose power lie beyond democratic debate and control.


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