The view from somewhere
Is good science, to borrow Thomas Nagel's phrase, ‘the view from nowhere’—a special kind of knowledge divorced from spatial particularities and unencumbered by local cultural distortions? Or are the making and accreditation of scientific knowledge intimately bound up with questions of location?1 In recent decades historians of science have worked alongside cultural geographers, and with other scholars in the humanities, to ‘put science in its place’. Particular types of places have been especially potent in creating science: so what happens when scientific ideas and practices, scientific personnel and scientific instruments travel? The papers in this issue of Notes and Records, though varied in period covered and in intent, might all be seen as elaborations of such spatial questions. What kinds of scientific travellers and travel writers are trustworthy? How crucial were face-to-face encounters at centres of new learning for those seeking to disseminate that learning in new territory? How could skills and instruments honed and perfected in particular environments be trusted to deliver reliable scientific measurements after potentially disruptive travel to new places? Could a congress of apparently like-minded individuals, working across scientific disciplines, necessarily bring about a productive synthesis of ideas?
In the first paper, Gregorio Astengo discusses late-seventeenth-century illustrated accounts of the ancient ruined city of Palmyra by a group of British merchants. The reports appeared, somewhat surprisingly, in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions in the 1690s. Astengo raises several important questions. Not all travellers’ tales warrant trust, so how did the authors fashion their accounts of this distant place in such a way as to be credible? What was the appropriate ‘voice’ of the antiquarian and, eventually, the archaeologist? The fact that such accounts found their way into Philosophical Transactions at all tells us, also, about the continued negotiation of the boundaries between different species of knowledge and about the extent of the Royal Society's mission. Astengo's work is perhaps painfully timely, given the recent occupation and partial destruction of the site by ‘Islamic State’ and its recapture by pro-Assad forces in March 2016.
Jip van Besouw provides a careful revisionist account of the early exploits of W. J. 's Gravesande, a figure familiar to historians of science for his dissemination, from Britain to the Netherlands, of Newton's ideas and practices. The paper discusses, and in some degree discounts, the idea that an encounter with Newton in 1715 was key to 's Gravesande's appointment at Leiden, his career success, and his later Newtonian projects. 's Gravesande has been a rather murky figure, but the author constructs a mosaic, from diverse archival fragments, of that which can be positively asserted—reassessing early biographical claims and reconstructing the philosopher's social and intellectual networks. Assiduous historical work may get in the way of a good story—that Newton was the key catalyst and influence—but if our image of a dramatic encounter between two early men of science on English soil must be revised, we instead have a richer vision showing how well-qualified 's Gravesande was ‘at home’, through writings, social contacts and much else.
Historians of science familiar with the so-called ‘magnetic crusade’, an example of international collaborative mapping in the nineteenth century, will be interested to read Matthew Goodman's account of the prequel to that endeavour: a short-lived British Magnetic Survey of the mid 1830s. The author deploys the idea of ‘truth spots’: special places that provide, as it were, epistemological fixed points where instruments are calibrated and normalized and from which variations, in other places, are measured. Rather than seeing experimenters’ skills, and their instruments, as disconnected from particular spaces, the paper shows how skills and instruments might be honed and developed in special places—the Provost's Garden at Trinity College Dublin or Regent's Park in London—before they travelled to unknown, unmeasured, territory.
James F. Stark sets the scene for his paper by evoking a symposium at Alpbach in the Tyrol. The organizer of that meeting, and the protagonist in Stark's paper, was the mid-twentieth-century author and intellectual Arthur Koestler, a name perhaps best known to historians of science for his controversial but widely read book The sleepwalkers, and a figure whose scientific credentials have been seen as at best slight. Here, however, Koestler is presented as a man taken seriously by key figures in the biological sciences, working to contribute to professional science, and seeking to counter the dominance of reductionism in science. Koestler was attempting to encourage scientists to think more deeply and in philosophical terms about their methods, the ramifications of their work, and the interconnections between their studies. His opponents included prominent advocates for science, including Peter Medawar. But, as Stark argues, Koestler's key allies, brought together in the Alpbach Symposium, could not agree on a single articulation of anti-reductionism. Stark's paper might be seen as consistent with the current proposed rapprochement between history of science and philosophy of science, known in the UK as ‘integrated history and philosophy of science’.
Matthew Goodman and James F. Stark were joint winners of the Notes and Records Essay Award (2016).
This issue of Notes and Records concludes with Sir Paul Nurse's Presidential Address, ‘Ensuring a successful research endeavour’, delivered at the Anniversary Meeting on 30 November 2015.
↵1 Thomas Nagel, The view from nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986); Steven Shapin, ‘Placing the view from nowhere: historical and sociological problems in the location of science’, Trans. Inst. Br. Geogrs n.s. 23, 5–12 (1998) (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0020-2754.1998.00005.x).
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society.