The Cantabrigian tales

The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 5 - Masters of Theory
September 19, 2003

Scientists vs science studies. Graham Farmelo hopes for mutual respect.

Of the past decade's conflicts in academia, none has been more pernicious than the so-called science wars. These consisted of a series of bitter disputes between some scientists and academics and the historians and sociologists of science whom they considered hostile to their work. In essence, the scientists accused their allegedly "anti-science" opponents of not knowing what they were talking about and of publishing pseudo-intellectual poppycock.

Even if the wars achieved nothing else, they led quite a few scientists to see how much modern histories of science differ from the accounts they generally believe about their heritage. The scientists'

"internal history" of their subject is usually a caricature, gleaned from textbooks whose writers - nearly always fellow scientists - tend to plunder each other and rarely consult the work of professional historians, most of whom have, in turn, little contact with working scientists.

This cultural disjunction was at the heart of the science wars; it was a conflict waiting to happen. Now, with the worst of the hostilities behind us, it is time to take stock, a process that will be assisted by considering these two contrasting books, both about the physical and mathematical sciences. One is a new piece of virtuoso scholarship, the other an impressively wide-ranging collection of essays on the modern history of the field.

Mary Jo Nye's conspectus of the physical and mathematical sciences covers the subject from the early 19th century to recent times in 33 essays.

Predictably, most are "set piece" summaries of classic work by internationally regarded experts. Thus, there is a fine piece by Arthur I.

Miller on imagery in modern physics, another by Bruce Hunt on the development of electromagnetic theory in the 19th century and an intriguing review by Margaret Rossiter on the role of women in the physical sciences over the past 200 years.

In the aftermath of the science wars, one essay is especially striking. It is a history of quantum field theory by Silvan Schweber, a first-rate elementary particle physicist who subsequently turned his attention to his subject's past. Here, he summarises it crisply and accurately, as one would expect. Especially pleasing, however, are his wise and appreciative references to the work of leading contemporary historians including Ian Hacking, Peter Galison, Bruno Latour and Simon Schaffer. Perhaps Schweber's reflections foreshadow a full rapprochement between the particle theorists and the historians of science, between whom the antagonism has been especially intense.

For a collection such as this to be worth its price, its contributions must have not only authority but also genuine utility. I have spent two months dipping into this book to find out about a wide range of subjects including the history of geometry, the origins of the Manhattan project, the development of thermodynamics and early work on macromolecular chemistry. I am happy to report that it let me down only rarely: there was usually a helpful and adequately referenced passage to furnish at least the beginning of an answer to my questions.

The collection does, however, have some regrettable omissions. It is astonishing, for example, that it does not include an essay on the origins and development of chaos theory, a topic of pervasive importance to many disciplines, which is mentioned only once in the entire book (in a wide-ranging essay on the science of planet earth). Also, the treatment of the origins of the internet is disappointing, and the relationship between the physical sciences and the arts is limited to a meagre piece on literature and the modern physical sciences. (This article scarcely mentions drama, which has been especially fruitful over the past decade in generating thoughtful and entertaining material, notably in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia .) Despite these caveats, I warmly recommend this pricey book as good value, even for cash-strapped libraries.

Just as valuable a purchase is Andrew Warwick's monumental Masters of Theory , a cultural history of the rise of mathematical physics at Cambridge University from the 1760s to the 1930s. What makes his account innovative is its strong focus on a single institution, albeit one that could reasonably claim to be the most important in the entire history of the subject, having been the workplace of Sir Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Paul Dirac.

Warwick traces the growth of private tuition in Cambridge from the mid-18th century to the late-19th century, when its all-male students ("pups") were intensively "coached" by experts to take the increasingly demanding examinations. He argues convincingly that how the Cambridge students learnt and who taught them were as important as what they were learning. The transition to pen-and-paper examinations was especially important - presenting quite a shock to late-18th-century students who were used to displaying their knowledge by disputing in Latin.

Maxwell is a classic case of a student who flourished in this intensive teaching environment. He wrote his monumental Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) primarily as a text for Cambridge undergraduates, although it initially baffled most of his peers, who had to struggle to bring the new knowledge into the curriculum. This struggle can be interpreted as one incident in a long macho game, with players continually seeking to up the intellectual ante. The gender dimension is an important part of the story: women had been barred from graduating owing to their supposed lack of emotional stability and intellectual power, but eventually the new women's colleges adopted the coachers' methods, enabling women to sit the examinations "as if they were men". This led to national headlines in 1890 when the redoubtable Philippa Fawcett was judged to have performed better than the official "first wrangler".

The dramatic climax of Warwick's study comes at the start of the 20th century, when Cambridge was lagging behind the powerhouses of the relatively new German schools of theoretical physics. It was students educated in that foreign tradition who came up with crucial theoretical innovations of quantum theory and relativity, while the immaculately trained Cambridge scholars looked on uncomprehendingly, until they eventually caught up after the first world war, largely thanks to the astronomer Arthur Eddington. (Surprisingly, Warwick says little about the influential school of fluid mechanics led by Eddington's distinguished near-contemporary G. I. Taylor.)

Although the principal audience of Masters of Theory will be historians of science, physicists will enjoy Warwick's revealing account of how Einstein's relativity theory came to be fully appreciated in Cambridge. Contrary to the usual naive view that past theorists immediately saw the supremacy of theories that we now regard as correct, Warwick makes clear just how difficult it was for the inwardly focused Cambridge mathematical physicists to appreciate what the outsider Einstein was trying to achieve in his theory, let alone to accept its validity. For them, it made no sense to make hypotheses about the properties of space and time when these properties would emerge from their theories, which they held in high esteem but that are now all but forgotten.

Warwick offers his account "as a model of how a cultural history of mathematical physics might be written". In my view, his model is largely successful, though I occasionally found his focus on Cambridge oppressive - more material about contemporaneous activities of physicists elsewhere in the academic world would have given valuable additional context. Most physicists will also be perplexed by this treatment of the Cantabrigians as they tried to come to terms with Einstein's special theory of relativity.

Warwick argues eloquently in favour of their integrity, but the practising scientist is likely to be less compassionate, concluding simply that they were slow on the uptake.

These small points aside, Warwick's study is, I believe, destined to be seminal in his field. It will be fascinating to see complementary histories of internationally renowned departments in great institutions such as the Ecole Polytechnique, Gottingen University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It would be interesting, too, to learn more about how different academic areas have developed within the teaching and learning environments of a variety of academic centres. The results of all these studies may eventually sharpen our understanding of the perennially controversial relationship between teaching and research.

The exceptional quality of these two books could help to ensure that good can emerge from the science wars. Scientists - even those who are sceptical of historians and philosophers of science - will find much to learn here and much to admire. The content may even make them think differently about their heritage and their own cultural milieu. Certainly, the culture of science would be enormously enriched if its practitioners were closer to its historians.

Graham Farmelo is director, Dana Centre project, Science Museum.

The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 5: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences

Editor - Mary Jo Nye
ISBN - 0 521 57199 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £95.00
Pages - 678

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