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No one path to history of science, or how to use the history of energy to talk about the problems of intellectual genealogy

December 9, 2013

Note: this post was written for the purpose of making sense of some questions, so it might not always flow linearly. But I hope to get some responses from others on some of these questions that I am asking. This is part 1 of some disjointed thoughts, and I hope to produce a more coherent piece as part 2 after I have finalized chapter 2 of my dissertation, asking some of the same questions but through different objects, concepts, and ideas.


After spending a good part of last week away, arriving home only late last night after expanding what I thought would be a one day sojourn for a conference to DC into 4 days in 3 different cities, new thoughts emerge about the work that I do and intend to do. The best conversations and ideas that I get came not from the people I knew, but from the new people I met and the strangers I met. Of course, these were sparked, originally, from a conversation I had with my advisor in the afternoon before departing for DC on Wed evening.

I spent last Thursday immersed in the archives of the Niels Bohr Library, revisiting some of the materials I once studied closely while re-encountering newer ones.  I asked myself the questions, probably questions I might not have asked as a scientist (though not to say that other scientists would not ask these questions): how and why scientists choose a specific epistemic route that they do, and what are the biases that shape how they think about that particular knowledge field? How would they have known, or not, whether that is necessarily the right direction to follow beyond the fact that the models produced look elegant, and logically probable? As I was revisiting lecture notes given in the mid-twentieth century on quantum mechanics, and examined the details included (or not) into those lectures (which therefore, inform the pedagogical idea behind the training of physics students at that time), I found that the matrix method of Heisenberg has been rendered equivalent to the Schrödinger’s wave function so that not too much of the unruly history related to these features came up in the lectures beyond straightforward and rudimentary definitions of different vector forms, eigenfunctions, and the algebra employed. However, there were definite contestations between the Schwinger camp and the Feynman camp, with physicists such as Murray Gell-Mann working on correlating between the two as highly plausible methods for developing the language for describing the interactions of elementary particles.  But, these models of thinking about nature are a result of decades, and perhaps centuries, of a particular form of thinking. Are other cultures really uninterested in thinking about these same ideas, in their own way, or are their ways of thinking these articulated through other means? In other words, I am interested in understanding how folk knowledge that hints of ‘scientific’ understanding connects to institutionally acquired knowledge of science? Probably the history of invention and technology can bring us the answers we seek. Or, even why mathematics went from articulation that made direct perceptual sense into something layers of mediation, and I look to Lakoff and Nunez to provide the preliminary answers.

I tested this out, albeit in a less ambitious manner, by basing my talk on the foundational values for thinking about energy; not quite escaping the same knowledge categories from which we derive current day modern science (and physics particularly), but framing my question of energy and the epistemic beliefs that shape policy issues by by comparing parallel intuitive mechanical development with less intuitive development in the mathematical language that would later be the foundational equations from which all current and future energy technologies are derived. As my own work seeks to demonstrate, I also insist that ideas of energy have layers of speculation, even when we think we have them ‘scientifically’ and logically anchored. To borrow loosely from the term physicists use whenever they want to find ways for reconciling mathematical improprieties with the physical real, the act of ‘renormalization’ is at work here so that all the entities involved are in their ‘correct’ places, and the description of a physical (pr phenomenological feature in the science), do not have too many loose ends.

Though I did not have time to do so in my presentation, I was interested in asking this question: what is the other history of energy out there, beyond the sort that Jennifer Coopersmith speaks of in her book Energy: The Subtle Concept?  Moreover, as that Friday evening saw me checking out a lecture given by a philosophical society in DC (which is interested in all matters scientific) where the keynote is given by a behavioral economists (or an economist with interest in behavioral economic), the question that had been with me since I took the masterclass on game theory (I was a slow study so only caught on to most of it after the class): we know for the most part that decision making looks random to us, at the level in which we are able to observe. While we might think that there are other rules not available to use at this point that can give the most rationale explanation of how elementary particles of the universe interact with each other, and why we have not been able to see everything we think should exist at this time, how do we intend to do the same for human interactions at human-size scales? Well, we know that there are the Bayes theorem, game theory, and then, there is now the chaos theory (which had its origins in the microscopic interactions between atoms and molecules within enclosed space), that could maybe help us develop sophisticated models of human behavior. Then, there is psychology, which is not an exact science. But the, are we really striving for exactness and precision in description, or do we just want things to be normalized so that we can deal with them?.

The questions, in their accumulated form, did not fail to dog me me through the weekend, despite thinking I could take a short holiday. A chance conversation with a random person at a pub during dinner brought me to visit a museum that I was glad I had visited, but the nagging questions that were at rest after Friday came back in full form, and added to that mix, some of the questions I have been connecting over the years: how much science theory do you need to know to create an object with scientific applicability? As I was looking through all the objects of technology developed in Euro-American societies over the last few hundred years, it brought to mind how many of these objects were developed by individuals (or groups) that did not have the pre-requisite training in science (or maybe even engineering, at least not in the sense that we know of today).  We complain how standard tests have indicated how the US (and some other parts of the world) have seen a decline in science and mathematical aptitude (or knowledge). However, science education was not at its best, and was out of the reach of most even in the days when great technological inventions were coming out. Even women were engaging as citizen scientists (and sometimes, as semi-professional scientists, despite their lack of access), though not in as high a number as today. But, as someone pointed this out on Twitter,  amateur science (and citizen science), had existed long before the sort of institutionalized training that existed from the late nineteenth century onwards became de rigeur, even though that itself is a limited claim (given how scientific education developed differentially in even different countries of the ‘West’ and also the East, such as in Japan, China, and India). This is possibly what ‘ethnoscientists’ wanted to have us know, even if we might find their methods of engagement politically problematic: that the lack of literacy in ‘modern’ science did not prevent members of communities for assimilating particular modes of thinking in producing basic and aesthetically interesting products for quotidian use and application. Is scientific thinking common sense? Not necessarily, since we have Aristotle and Newton to show us that ‘intuitive’ thinking does not give us correct answers. Educators spent quite a bit of time, finding ways to break the students away from their ‘folkish’ way of thinking about science  (See What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain).

But a question to all science educators out there: what do you mean when you say that performance in science and mathematics are bad because ‘evidence’ through testings (and these tests are made-to-order for statistical processing that form a large part of the analysis)? Are you talking about the ability to think about science in an ethical and philosophical sense? Are you talking about mainly solving textbook problems, and variants of the problems? Are you talking about the ability to answer trivia questions on science? What if I possess the ability to still understand the ‘scientific’ issue but chose to frame them in a way that would make me fail all the standardized test that is? Again, while at the philosophical talk at DC, I once again spoke to someone at random, who then later informed me of a group of ‘members of the public’ who are interested in the question of terraforming, space travel, and ‘alternative’ ways for approaching science. Moreover, she informed me that someone without a college education has laid out the blueprint for the possible building of a Time Machine and has his own theories of time-travel (and maybe disprove Einstein?)

This brings me back to the questions that originated this post that require us to consider this: that the foundation of knowledge, and even the material embodiment of knowledge, is highly precarious. Certain sessions that I managed to attend at the same policy studies conference where I gave my talk got me realizing how academics are not necessarily capable of doing a meta-critical dissection of their intellectual investments, and this is the same even for people who are supposedly working in politically infused studies such as ethnic studies and women studies. A conversation I had with a friend, where the latter pooh-poohed all literary interventions as being insufficiently ‘rigorous’ methodologically while insisting that the way she approaches her work is scientific,  while not telling me more than the fact that her work takes on an ‘evidence-based’ approach, made me realize how everyone can fall prey to their own ‘methodology’ without asking if the method itself already makes the evidence they work with contentious. One of course, can point the same finger to a literary or ‘humanistic’ person who engages in tautological and theoretically problematic reasoning without asking the same questions of their choice of critical interpretations. The story of energy, and how everyone tries to frame its intellectual genealogy through their own epistemic investments, is rich for meta-disciplinary ethnographical excavation that can maybe answer some of the questions I am asking here.

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