Science and the Changing Sense of Reality, 1870 - 1920
The turn of the twentieth century is usually described as a crucial moment in the history of the physical sciences. One especially striking issue is the increasing number of techniques for investigating microphysical objects, with x-rays, electrons and radioactivity among the most prominent. Sophisticated instruments and apparatus functioned as extensions of the sensorium and opened novel experiential spaces for scientists. These rare scientific experiences also challenged theory, putting new demands on those seeking to unify science. They induced among scientists an increasing reflexivity about their tools and methods and reshaped their sense of reality.
In this new world of scientific experience, physical scientists were confronted anew with an old debate concerning the relation between knowing and doing, and theory and experiment, which had accompanied the empirical sciences since their beginnings. According to the theoretical physicist Felix Auerbach, the various techniques applied by physicists to make the invisible visible were no longer mere practices of observation (such as those used in botany, astronomy etc): modern physics was, methodologically speaking, an engineering activity. “X-rays were not discovered by Röntgen,” he concluded, “but in the first place invented in his laboratory.” In the early 20th century, some scholars began to use the term ‘invention’ to refer to the working techniques applied in modern physical science. But the challenge was not limited to the physical sciences. It also had implications for mathematics, engineering and the arts.
This project focuses on a number of such techniques and their interrelations to understand how they changed scientists’ practice and their sense of reality. Furthermore we investigate the role played by this change of experiential space in the reflexive turn in the sciences, formulated with astonishing clarity in the early writings of Ludwik Fleck, Michael Polanyi, and Gaston Bachelard.
Workshop „The Heavens on Earth. Obervatory Techniques in Nineteenth Century Sciences,“ Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, December 2002
“Physical Science and the Changing Sense of Reality in the Early Twentieth Century.” Session at the Fifth British-North American Joint Meeting of the BSHS, CSHPS, and HSS, 5-7- August, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Workshop „Science and the Changing Sense of Reality, 1780 – 1920“ will be held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in November 11 – 14, 2004