by Anita Guerrini, Oregon State University
On 16 January 2015, scholars, former students, friends, and family members packed the Asian/Pacific Room at the Oregon State University Memorial Union to honor Mary Jo Nye, Horning Professor in the Humanities emerita at Oregon State University. The “Mary Jo Fest” included a day-long conference, a festive reception at Special Collections at OSU’s Valley Library, and much extramural merriment.
Current Horning Professor Anita Guerrini organized the day, with lots of help from OSU staff members Bob Peckyno and Dwanee Howard, as well as the Horning Endowment, the OSU School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, and external funders. The six speakers at the conference reflected Mary Jo’s research interests in the history of chemistry and physical science and in the philosophy of science, and included two of her former students. Each speaker had an hour, and discussion was lively. The day began with Alan Rocke (Case Western University) on “The ‘Indifferent Hypothesis’ Redux: The Dilemmas of Pierre Duhem,” which explored Duhem’s opposition to atomic theory. Personal, political, and philosophical motivations, as well as Duhem’s fervent Catholicism, all played roles in his arguments against atomism, and Rocke noted the difference in this period between chemical and physical understandings of atoms, and the influence of Duhem’s chemical ideas on his philosophy of science.
Leandra Swanner (Arizona State University) received an MA in History of Science at OSU with Mary Jo Nye, and completed a PhD at Harvard. In “Mountains of Controversy: Colonialism, Environmentalism, and Modern American Astronomy,” she discussed the history of the astronomical observatories atop Mauna Kea in Hawai’i as an example of “big science” and its reception. The conflict between native Hawaiians and astronomers over the siting of big telescopes on Mauna Kea led to a redefinition of the moral imperatives of astronomy and the marketing of astronomy to the public as an “environmentally friendly” science. The conflict forced scientists to come down off the mountain to meet the public and justify their science.
In “Arnošt Kolman against His Generation: The Dark Angel of the Social Construction of Science,” Michael Gordin (Princeton University) turned to the multiethnic Habsburg milieu that produced many of the most significant figures in twentieth-century history and philosophy of science (including Michael Polanyi, subject of Mary Jo Nye’s Michael Polanyi and His Generation). Born in Prague a year after Polanyi, Kolman turned east to Moscow rather than west. His significance, argued Gordin, lay less in his philosophy than in his life. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Kolman showed up for significant events such as the 1931 London conference where Boris Hessen gave his famous Marxist interpretation of Newtonian physics (Kolman spied on Hessen) and the Stalinist show trials of the late 1930s that claimed Hessen and Nikolai Bukharin. Late in life, Kolman became a dissident and defected to Sweden.
Marsha Richmond (Wayne State University) studied with Mary Jo Nye as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma and later received a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. Richmond also recalled Michael Polanyi and His Generation and the value of thinking in terms of generations in “Women as Public Scientists: Rachel Carson, Charlotte Auerbach, and Genetics in the Atomic Age.” Carson and Auerbach, near contemporaries, both worked on genetics. Auerbach’s 1956 Genetics in the Atomic Age, like Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), reached directly to the public to explain the unintended results of scientific and technological change. Richmond argued that their gender was a factor in the effectiveness of their message, noting that both Auerbach and Carson made a point of speaking to women’s groups.
Carsten Reinhardt (Chemical Heritage Foundation) turned to more recent science in “The Dynamics of NMR in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.” Reinhardt (who can also claim to be Mary Jo’s student, since she served on the committee for his habilitation) compared two methods employed for finding the structure of biological molecules: the older method of x-ray crystallography, and the newer nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or NMR. He found that each of these techniques developed in specific institutional environments, noting particularly the influence of industry funding in the 1960s and 70s, which favored NMR.
The last talk of the day returned once more to Polanyi, with philosopher Alan Richardson (University of British Columbia) and “Neither an Accusation nor a Confession: Michael Polanyi, Hans Reichenbach, and the Political History of Philosophy of Science.” Polanyi, Reichenbach, and Rudolf Carnap, all born in 1891, were equally disillusioned with what they perceived as the failure of the Enlightenment project after the outbreak of the Great War. Richardson argued that each in his own way attempted therefore to revise Kant, recognizing that the increase in scientific knowledge had not in fact led to an increase in either rationality or morality.
The papers from the conference will be published as a festschrift for Mary Jo Nye in the form of a special issue of an academic journal.
About the Author
Anita Guerrini is the Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University.