The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science was founded in 1994. Today it hosts circa 90 scholars (including visitors), a support staff of 40, and a library of 45.000 volumes. The numerous research projects described in this report are divided among three permanent departments (directed by Jürgen Renn, Lorraine Daston, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger ) and two five-year independent research groups (led by Ursula Klein and H. Otto Sibum ). The range of these projects is extremely broad, spanning ancient Babylonian mathematics to early modern historia to the mapping cultures of twentieth century genetics, and the diversity of themes correspondingly great, addressing topics in the history of almost every scientific discipline. These projects are documented in their considerable variety on the following pages. All of the projects aim, however, to contribute to a common goal: a theoretically informed understanding of the historical development of scientific knowledge; a “historical epistemology” that investigates the conceptual and material structures - patterns of argument, spaces of knowledge, regimens of experience, techniques of visualization, mental models - that have made the sciences in their present and past forms possible. In all their diversity, the research projects conducted at the Institute share three premises: first, that even the most deeply entrenched aspects of scientific thought and practice have a history; second, that comparative investigations are essential to understanding major changes in the history of science; and third, that the sources for a historical epistemology of science should be expanded to include the material aspects of science - images, objects, spaces, and gestures - as well as texts. A few remarks about each of these premises will serve as a brief introduction to this report and to the common mission of the Institute.
History: Historical epistemology assumes that even the most fundamental categories of contemporary scientific experience and reasoning have a history. One of the longterm concerns of the Institute has been to understand the emergence of fundamental concepts of empirical science arising from the reflection of practical experiences, prior to the period in which experiments became the dominating experiential basis of science. The origins of ancient science in administration, and the professional knowledge of engineering practitioners and architects during the Renaissance are examples of the fields in which such long range concept formation has been studied )The history of objectivity and experiment in the modern period have been two other longterm foci of research at the Institute. In both cases, core ideals and practices of science originate in specific intellectual and cultural contexts, and then gradually spread by means of new techniques and institutions. In the case of objectivity, earlier work on new techniques of image-making (such as photography) was expanded to include maps, the unretouched photograph being the emblem of mechanical objectivity, the global map that of communitarian objectivity (). Experiment as a form of scientific experience emerged in the seventeenth century, and its history is still ongoing. One research project studies the relationship between eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century experimentation, natural history and artisanal practices with particular emphasis on a comparison between experimental philosophy and the pluricentred, chemical style of experimentation (). A second project investigates practical knowledge traditions of socially distinct groups like artisans, engineers and artists and their interplay with mathematical, philosophical and literary traditions in this period with the aim to understand the changing meanings of experiment within the physical sciences of the 19th century (). Another cluster of projects addresses the “Experimentalization of Life” in the nineteenth century, with its pervasive ramifications for the ambient culture, including technology and the arts ().
Comparison: Much of recent research in the history of science has taken the form of detailed case studies of specific episodes situated within a restricted disciplinary and chronological context. While recognizing the necessity of such contextual studies as the basis for reliable historical work, the Institute encourages and develops research projects that examine problems comparatively, across historical, cultural, and disciplinary contexts - hence the prominence of collaborative work at the Institute. In close cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a new research project systematically compares the development of mechanical knowledge in Europe and in China (). A large project on the “Moral Authority of Nature” analyzes the complex and controversial topic of nature versus culture, facts versus values both historically and cross-culturally, with case studies ranging from ancient Greece to twentieth century science and from Japan to the Americas (). The project on “Spaces of Knowledge” documents the material locations of knowledge production over several centuries, in different cultures and disciplines (). The goal of such comparisons is not simply taxonomic, i.e. to identify and classify variations. Beyond the necessity of broad sampling, the sheer amount of recent fine-grained contextual studies in the history of science has again raised the question of how certain forms of knowledge overcome their local origins to become global. In the end, geographical and historical comparisons should lead to an understanding of long-term developments in science with all their persistencies and ruptures.
Beyond Texts: The close study of scientific texts remains essential to almost all branches of the history of science. In recognition of this need, the Institute devotes considerable efforts to make sources available in modern electronic environments (see, e.g., the Archimedes project, and the Virtual Laboratory, ), thus creating the possibility of unprecedented intertextual comparisons. However, an ongoing focus of research at the Institute has also been the use and analysis of other kinds of historical documents. These include images, instruments, buildings, specimens, laboratory spaces, and other material artefacts. The construction of balances from antiquity to present (), the practices of ship building in the early modern period (), the craft of painting and its change in the early nineteenth century (), the laboratory architectures of the late nineteenth century (), and the molecular models of today’s biochemists () have all their own hermeneutics that historians must learn to interpret and to incorporate into their narratives. These new sources - e.g. cuneiform tablets, drawings of Renaissance engineers, or experimental setups - have stimulated the development of innovative information technologies to document and analyze them ().
The following chapters describe the projects currently pursued at the Institute in more detail. Quite a number of research projects that were initiated several years ago have been brought to a close; summary descriptions, together with the publications resulting from them, may be found in the relevant sections of the report. In addition to this Research Report, specific and up-to-date information about the Institute and its activities is available at http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.