History of Science

Category archives for History of Science

Richard Feynman, Placebo Technoradical

This past Monday, a lot of people in my social media feeds were passing around this Benjamin Bratton piece about the problems with TED, blasting the whole phenomenon as “placebo technoradicalism.” The whole thing, he claims, is shallow pseudo-inspirational bullshit that makes people feel nice, but doesn’t actually lead anywhere. As he notes at the…

I sent off the complete draft of the book-in-progress yesterday, somewhere between 12 and 36 hours ahead of my contractual deadline. Which I suppose makes it a book-in-process now, maybe. That process may still include re-writes, though, so my work probably isn’t done yet. The final draft, according to Word anyway, comes to 253 pages…

Missing the Eureka Moment

Dmitrii Ivanovich Mendeleev hit on the idea of the Periodic Table as an organizing theme for a textbook he began writing in 1868. He did some work on refining the idea, and in 1870 presented a paper on it to a meeting of the Russian Chemical Society. Well, actually, that’s not quite true– Mendeleev did…

The Extensive Banality of Evil

We had a very late colloquium talk on Monday– on the next-to-last day of our fall term exam period, so student turnout was a little disappointing– by the science historian Dieter Hoffmann from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, who was in town visiting a colleague in our history department. He told…

From The Fly in the Cathedral, Brian Cathcart’s history of the experiments that led up to the splitting of lithium nuclei by accelerated protons in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1932. One of the incidents along the way was the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick, also in 1932. In describing Chadwick, who was Ernest…

“Eureka!” and the Problems Thereof

I’m not talking about the tv show Eureka here, which was mostly silly fluff but not especially problematic. I’m talking about the famous anecdote about Archimedes of Syracuse, who supposedly realized the principle that bears his name when slipping into a bath, distracted by a problem he had been assigned by his king. On realizing…

Work-Life Juggling, Then and Now

A couple of Mondays ago, I was at work and got the dreaded phone call from day care. “[The Pip]‘s got conjunctivitis again. It’s really bad, and he needs to go home right away.” Admittedly, this isn’t the very worst phone call a parent could receive, but it’s very much Not Good. Conjunctivitis means a…

One of the interesting things about the pile of old theses we found in the basement is the opportunity to look at things that nobody believes any more. Past installments of the Old Thesis Club have shown people fumbling toward an understanding of quantum physics via electron scattering and spectroscopy, but in both of those…

Finding That There’s Nothing to Find

In 1967, a team of scientists hauled a big pile of gear– electronics, particle detectors, a giant slab of iron– into the burial chamber at the base of one of the pyramids at Giza. This sounds like a scene from a science fiction or fantasy novel– throw in the fact that their first attempt was…

Individualists, Working Together

An article titled “Individualism: The legacy of great physicists,” by Ricardo Heras. crossed my various social media feeds a half-dozen times on Tuesday, so I finally broke down and read it, and I’m puzzled. The argument is very straightforward– single-author publications used to be common, now they’re not, this might indicate a lack of truly…