Project (2006-2007)

Fabricating Reliable Phenomena in Industrial Laboratories ca. 1925

That the methods of the physical sciences could benefit engineering practice was a proposition widely embraced by the 1920s. Many scientists and engineers alike were determined to construe technology as “applied science.” For their own reasons, both Americans and Soviets were especially ready to proclaim “fundamental science” as the fount of true knowledge in a continuum flowing from quantum mechanics to high-voltage transmission lines. One such Soviet was AF Joffe, a leading experimental physicist who adopted a rather expansive attitude about the scope of the techniques available to the experimenter. “I don’t see now any substantial distinction between a physical investigation of phenomena observed in nature and industrial investigations of the means we use to satisfy our wants,” he liked to claim in the 1920s.

Yet there were other physical scientists like Michael Polanyi who felt that social and economic factors impinged upon epistemological ones in worrisome new ways that did not necessarily suggest a steady march toward unified scientific method. He actually detected an ever greater divide between pure science and industrial research. Speaking of materials strength, magnetism, electrical conductivity, viscosity, and other topics of lesser "purity," Polanyi complained that “no physicist will turn to these problems today if they demonstrate no relation to atomic physics. How is interest supposed to be attracted to these things that are situated in the middle between the field of open research and factory secrets?”

There were broader resonances too. A likeminded Weimar colleague fretted that continued division of disciplinary labor could even damage solidarity among scientists, asking, “Shall science then become fragmented just like the political parties and run roughshod over everything recognized, established, and old?” Polanyi’s own long obsession with the autonomy of the scientific enterprise originally stemmed from this very question: What is to keep science from fragmenting in a technological age?

Karl Hall's research project used an obscure episode from Polanyi’s own career to illuminate this problem and investigate its unacknowledged consequences for later anti-positivist philosophies of science, and for our own language of “practices.” What he sought to describe was a kind of pre-history of tacit knowledge, the notion for which Polanyi is perhaps best known among historians of science. Hall argued that Polanyi’s idiosyncratic circumvention of the purported perils of analytic philosophy for science has its origins in a particular nexus of technoscientific investigations that happened to end in failure, and that it was indeed the disagreements about what constituted “failure” that signaled the dangers of fragmentation—epistemological and political—to Polanyi most clearly.

Polanyi came to appreciate this problem in Berlin while investigating how materials break down when subjected to high voltages, a notorious refuge for brute empiricism that experienced a burst of optimistic theorizing in the 1920s. It was also a realm in which the instrumental relation between observation and measurement was both less attenuated and more subject to questions of judgment than usual, binding phenomena to the laboratories producing them in ways that laid bare the tensions between the risk-seeking epistemologies of the physicists and the risk-managing epistemologies of the engineers. Polanyi’s attention was drawn to these researches by his boss, the chemist Fritz Haber, who sponsored his involvement in a complicated international collaboration with Joffe under the auspices of the Siemens and Halske Research Laboratory in Charlottenburg (founded in 1920). There and at Joffe’s Physicotechnical Institute in Leningrad, physicists, chemists, and engineers struggled to explain and predict in microscopic terms under what circumstances a given material would disintegrate.

Reliability, replicability, the very status of observation itself—all were contested concepts when physicists, chemists, and engineers each tried to bring their methods to bear on closely related phenomena. In the early twenty-first century we take it for granted that the boundaries between science and engineering should be highly porous, not just because technology has become scientized, but also because science has taken on many of the organizational traits of industrial research. When Nature’s workshop was ringed by patents, as the scientist learned to his chagrin, this could put different demands on investigators than their university training had prepared them for. And experimenters might not actually behave like rational skeptics, but rather proceed with different working assumptions than minatory epistemology would suggest. Polanyi the philosopher famously declared that the experimenter knows more than she can say, but the aphorism can be construed historically as well as philosophically. Many of these lessons can be made explicit in studying the interdisciplinary context for what Polanyi the chemist knew, and how he knew it.