Joho the Blog » Berkman Lunch: Peter Galison

Berkman Lunch: Peter Galison

Peter Galison is a university professor of physics at Harvard. He’s giving a Tuesday lunchtime talk. [As always, I'm paraphrasing, getting things wrong, etc.]

Positivists tried to ground knowledge in an accumulation of observations, with a minimum of theory, Prof. Galison says. Science would come in the form of little bricks. The result would be “out of the reach of metaphysical theories.” Observation-based science would get better over time.

After WWII, via Thomas Kuhn and others, there was a rebellion against the positivist view. Theory comes first, they said. Science was so framed by theory that what counted as valid observation was dictated by the framework of theory. There is no neutral observation and there’s no raw perception outside of the framing provided by our theories. Various theories therefore were not continuous (as for the positivists) but were ships passing in the night…at least according to this point of view.

Example: The positivists saw special relativity as the capstone of a continuum of observation-based theories, while the Kuhnians think Einstein overthrew his predecessors and created a new whole.

Prof. Galison looks at the rhythms of the rise of theories. There are breaks in the strands of experiment, theory and instrument but the breaks don’t occur at the same time. And that’s to be expected because new instrumentation takes a while to yield new experiments and theories.

Doesn’t this just make the Kuhnian predicament worse? Now there are three strands with discontinuities, not just the strand of theort. “How do subcultures of science coordinate? What is shared between experimentalists and theorists, or between instrument makes and theorests…or between a subculture like instrument making and the wider technical world?” When a string theorist want to talk to a biochemist, do they have to engage in radical translation as posited by the anti-positivists? No, it’s more like the pidgins, jargons and creoles that build up at the real, “thick boundaries” between the natural languages. Prof. Galison wants to use linguistic anthropology to see how scientific disciplines talk. He calls the areas where these inter-languages are built up “trading zones.”

(There are no pure fields, he says. Physics, for example, contains elements of craft, math, experimentation, Plato…)

He looks at the growth and change of language, its local connections to people and places, and its contextuality within the wider world. E.g., Einstein had the idea that time is nothing but properly coordinated clocks. Poincare in 1898 had to figure out how to synchronize clocks so he could figure out the longitude of places around the world. He used this to talk philosophically about what simultaneity means. In 1900, he saw that simultaneity existed in the intersection of philosophy of time, technology of time synchronization, and the electrodynamics of moving bodies. New trading zones are emerging: Nanotech (surface chem, elec eng, atomic phyics…), string theory (geometers, field theories), simulations (computer science, stat, viz display). Each of these have had to develop jargon, pidgin and then a creole.

Of course these fields are collaborative. The question is how they’re able to. We should dig in to understand the shared techniques, theoretical notions, and instrumentation, and how they relate in the various intersecting fields. What exactly is the coordinative project, how does it change over time, and what does that tell us about the local knowledges?

Q: (ethanz) To what extent have people looked at languages between the engineering and business communities?
A: There’s been a little work. It’s a very important area for research. You can see the influence even in the architecture. When a lab is built, it reflects where ideas sit in the world. Does the lab resemble a church? A factory? Is it a place to bring VC’s? “VC’s don’t expect to go to PS 101 circa 1956. That’s not who they expect you to be.”

Q: (eric von hippel): When engineers talk to others, there’s often someone translating. What are the general principles?
A: There may not be a generic solution to this problem. In the coordinative process, what is characteristically coming from the different groups. E.g., in the development of radar, the engineers taught the physicists to look at the problem as that of providing a black box with voltage in and voltage out. So, look at what’s relevant to the exchange — part of it is knowing what to ignore.

A: (halley suitt) If two disciplines like biology and chemistry create a whole new set
of words to describe biochemistry, per your example, is the number of
new words in a new field — for instance all the Net jargon bursting
forth — predictive of the importance of that new field?
A: Boundaries are always thick. “In these thick regions of exchange, a lot of the vocabularies produced by these individual fields get thrown out. There’s a stripping away.”

Q: (judith donath) In a consulting company, there’s a different type of cooperation — it’s very competitive. They’re trying to use a new language to convince the clients that they have something unique to offer. It’s more about jockeying for leadership than cooperating. It’s intellectual scent-marking
A: Yes, complexification can sometimes be obfuscation. Cooperation and competition are closer together than we often think. Freud once said “Ambivalence is the basic emotion.” I’m trying to move away from an intentional account.

Q: (me) Do these intersections simplify the concepts? Do the participants translate back into their own terms? Do the translations change the theoretical understanding of each of the fields?
A: There’s a difference between simplification and regularization. We know how to talk differently to different people. The regularization doesn’t mean that you’re simplifying the ideas. When two famous physicists wrote a book on physics, they wrote a second volume for experimenters. All sorts of intra-theoretical connections were dropped out, but the calculations got more complicated. This was more regular but also more complex. So, is it simplification? Simple is not a simple concept. The “outspeak” becomes regularized. And does it feed back into the constitutive fields? Yes. And that’s why interests me most. It’s not that physics founds everything. The radar story is an example where the engineers taught the physicists. The fact of the coordinative activity begins to backform the science. I think that happens all the time, and it’s really important. The top down picture not only is bad business, but it keeps you from learning things.

Q: (wendy seltzer) Attorneys are called on to speak many disciplinary languages. What’s the role of formal education in differrent disciplines as opposed to learning on the job? Should law firms hire biochemists to talk to biochemists. Others hire generally interested people. I think the generally interested people are going to better at explaining it to a judge, etc.
A: People often think that’s what wanted in a book about science is to make it stupider. That seems to me to be empirically wrong. Pedagogically, we need to develop ways to speak about technical-scientific ideas that are not weighed down by jargon and don’t require prior knowledge, but are cognizant of the ability of people to deal with complex concepts. If you go to an art museum, it’s designed for adults. If you go to a science museum, it’s designed for children. You don’t have to write in one-syllable words and assume the audience wants to climb on the exhibit. [You go, Dr. Pete!]

Q: (john palfrey) People argue that locking up IP discourages research. Others disagree.
A: The idea of individual development is mythopoeic, although our institutions try to recuperate it, including the Nobel Prize. It’s trying to get back to an Edenic past, but it’s like chasing the sunset. In science and engineering, innovation always have aspects of collectivity. Patent lawyers sometimes want the physicists to do work they don’t want to do, patenting every variation on an innovation. Sometimes, though, patents can provide an incentive, and maybe makes us less interested in the classical ontological, philosophical questions. Physicists are thinking more like engineers. Patents and IP play a very complicated role in the changing ethos between science and technology. [Tags: berkman peter_galison science linguistics philosophy ]

4 Responses to “Berkman Lunch: Peter Galison”

  1. Darn… I left a comment here that was all gnarled up with assertions that I’d like to validate or withdraw, went off to the library for some books on Kuhn, and when I got back the comment was gone.

    Being a naturally paranoid person…

  2. You are not well informed about recent work in the history of mathematics, work which helps us understand Einstein as an advocate of natural mathematics. You can’t understand relativity at all unless you understand how it grew out of the history of natural mathematics. Here is a brief discussion of this work. I particularly recommend Garciadiego on Russell:

    Ryskamp, John Henry, “Paradox, Natural Mathematics, Relativity and Twentieth-Century Ideas” (May 19, 2007). Available at SSRN:

  3. Deborah Palfrey deserves the Pemberton Award for Good Governance.
    Palfrey list is like the black book of 1918.
    That trial of the century is deleted from all books.
    The list there had 47000 names.
    The list here is 46000 phone records.
    The listed are not womenisers or machos or ordinary sinners.
    They are power brokers, gay, lutheran agitators of all wars.
    These wretches are only the dirty cover for the real pimps deep underground.
    A curse on kingpins, Justice Charles Darling then and judge Adolph Kessler now.

    Noel Pemberton-Billing
    Trial of the Century 1918

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