Roundtable with 2019 Sarton Medalist, Norton Wise

Bernie Lightman (left) HSS President presenting the Sarton Medal to Norton Wise at HSS-2019 in Utrecht.
Bernie Lightman (left) HSS President presenting the Sarton Medal to Norton Wise at HSS-2019 in Utrecht.

Editor’s note: The 2019 Sarton Medal-—HSS’s highest honor, which recognizes a lifetime of scholarly achievements in the history of science—was awarded to Norton Wise, Distinguished Research Professor of History (emeritus) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Newsletter is pleased to present a roundtable with Norton about his path to the medal. In alphabetical order, the panel of distinguished interlocutors includes: Soraya de Chadarevian, Jan Golinski, John Heilbron, Jay Malone and Mary Morgan.

Mary: Who were your role models when you first turned toward the history of science, and why?

Above all it was Tom Kuhn who inspired my turn to the history of science. In 1970 I was a young experimental physicist studying nuclear reactions with low energy accelerators when the Atomic Energy Commission decided to discontinue funding for such work. This became an opportunity to explore not only other areas of physics but also history and philosophy of physics, in which I had an active interest. Reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I had a Eureka moment. His analysis of a paradigm in crisis seemed to capture precisely the conditions I was living through in my own field. An NSF Fellowship enabled me to go to Princeton to study with him. It was a life-changing experience and I ended up getting a second PhD.

Equally important, my physics training had taken place in the midst of opposition to the Vietnam War and the formation of such new groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Forum on Physics and Society, which advocated social responsibility. In turning to the history of science I too was looking for a socially and culturally engaged history, which of course is just what was developing in our field at the time. That turn for physics was expressed most clearly in the new journal edited by Russell McCormmach (and then for many years by John Heilbron), Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (now Natural Sciences). In McCormmach’s path breaking introductions, advocating a full-throated cultural history of science, I found stimulating models. And in the first volume in 1971, Paul Forman published his brilliant, if highly controversial, article on Weimar culture and quantum mechanics, arguing that a hostile intellectual environment caused physicists to suddenly forsake their principles and pursue an acausal quantum mechanics. It was in wrestling with Forman’s article that I came to formulate my own preferred cultural historiography, in which scientists are best seen as participants embedded within their wider culture, rather than as somewhat separate beings “influenced” by it, and our task is to understand what the significance of that participation is for the work they do. The culture has to be inside the technical work. This sort of cultural history was missing from Kuhn’s paradigms. It is at the core, however, of recent books such as Deborah Coen’s Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (2007).

John: Going back to your roots in physics, how has your study of physics improved your understanding of historiography? And reciprocally, has your historical work deepened your knowledge of physics? If so, how?

This is for me a chicken and egg issue but a central thread has been complexity. My physics dissertation took up a small piece of the famous three-body problem, seeking to find out whether a compound nucleus ever breaks up directly into three particles. Although I could not resolve the question, I was already thinking about how the physical world exhibits aspects of complexity similar to those we often take for granted in human history. As the philosopher of history Paul Ricoeur put it, the problem of the historian “is not to deduce or to predict but to understand better the complexity of intertwinings that have converged into the occurrence of this or that event” (Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984), I, 154). He supposed he was contrasting history with physics, but I am ever more impressed with how much of recent physics itself is involved with understanding “the complexity of intertwinings” that give rise to a diversity of effects. If so, physics has much to learn from history.

From the other side, a quite general principle of classical physics is locality, meaning that nothing can act where it is not. Michael Faraday expressed that view for the action of one electrified or magnetized body on another as “contiguous action,” carried from one to the other by lines of force, as opposed to action-at-a-distance. As it happens my dissertation in history of science explored how that idea was mathematized by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, becoming canonical in physics as electromagnetic field theory. Living so intensively with the physics of contiguous action surely helped to shape my historiographical prejudice in favor of local history. That orientation infuses Energy and Empire, in which Crosbie Smith and I put great weight on Thomson’s personal experience in Glasgow. Even more explicit historiographically is my recent Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society, which I advertise as an “intensely local” study. The idea is not quite that all resources are local—e.g., for energy conservation as developed by Thomson in Glasgow or Helmholtz in Berlin—but that even for distant resources, such as the “industrial mechanics” of French engineers, the issue of local access is essential to the culture/science dynamic. 

Mary: Which book in the history of physics and/or indeed in the history of science more generally, do you wish you had written yourself?

I am especially impressed with books that upend a viewpoint that has acquired such apparently obvious validity that it seems to require no justification. In his very title, The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon (2012), John Tresch contests the notion that the machine-age and romanticism were somehow at odds. Granted, that view was already under attack—by Jardine, Richards, Dettelbach, and Jackson for instance—but largely for non-mathematical sciences and for Germany. Focusing on Paris instead, Tresch showed how views thought of as romantic could be pursued through rigorous mathematical and experimental science and technological innovation. Choosing the machine as his vehicle and the small world of the Parisian intellectual elite as his terrain, he plowed fertile ground for understanding the intimate interrelation of science and culture. These methodological choices of machines and local dynamics enabled Tresch to restore, in a wholly convincing way, diverse strains of romanticism to their once vital role in a creative historical epoch.

Another such upending book is Tiago Saraiva’s Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (2017). Sweeping past the myth that true science is incompatible with fascism, he treated the history of science and technology within fascism as also the history of fascism and as constitutive of aspects of it. He showed how geneticists and breeders, developing standardized and centrally controlled strains of wheat in Italy and Portugal and potatoes and pigs in Germany, helped to articulate and to realize the autarkic aims of fascist administrations for economic independence, reshaping the agricultural landscape and the social body simultaneously. The purified organisms themselves embodied the nationalist and corporatist ideals of the state. Thus “fascist pigs” is not so much a provocative title as it is a literal description of a modern technoscientific organism.

Soraya: You were also instrumental in building up the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. How did this particular move come about and what attracted you intellectually to the project?

It began in 2005. In the midst of the explosive transformation occurring in genomics, then UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale recognized that far too little attention was being paid to its social consequences, a situation in some ways similar to the lack of foresight regarding proliferation of nuclear weapons following WWII (his own expertise). He wanted to form a core group of scholars from diverse fields who would open up the issues to academic scrutiny. As a historian of science, I was recruited to conceptualize and organize this effort for the humanities and social sciences, complementing a colleague from the medical school. Having already spent years promoting cross-disciplinarity, this was a natural move for me. We set out to build an institute whose faculty held joint appointments in other disciplines but were committed to the cross-disciplinary goal. The Institute for Society and Genetics would serve as a portal through which people could pass easily between the natural and the human sciences and could engage in problem-oriented research and education that required the expertise of multiple disciplines. You, Soraya, were our first recruit, with obvious qualifications in the history of molecular biology and the visualization of DNA, and you were soon co-directing a project on the interpretive use of DNA in history. Another early recruit was the sociologist and anthropologist of science Hannah Landecker, who as current director has built the Institute into a flourishing center of activity, now counting some twenty faculty and a perennially oversubscribed major in Biology and Society.

John: In your new book you make use of paintings and other art objects; have you undertaken any special study of art history?

Unfortunately not, aside from a single college survey. But my mentor in German history at Princeton, Carl Schorske, provided in his Fin de Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture an inspiring model of how movements in art inform historical processes more generally. And right from the beginning of Aesthetics, Industry, and Science it was evident that an answer to the question of what local resources the members of the Berlin Physical Society could draw upon to realize their ambitious aims, both conceptually and technically, would require close attention to the vibrant world of art in Berlin with which so many of them were involved. Members included the major figures Brücke, Helmholtz, and Du Bois-Reymond, who successively taught anatomy at the Academy of Art. So I have spent a great deal of time in art museums and in studying interpretive works of art historians.

Invaluable also has been the advice of friends in art history, both at UCLA and at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, where I have spent many productive summers with Elaine Wise. For some time we have been studying the immense landscape gardens, originally built in the naturalistic English style, which are famous in the Potsdam area but extend in a variety of forms throughout Berlin. Virtually all of them were originally powered by steam engines, so these gardens present an unusual opportunity to see how aesthetics and technology developed together over the course of the nineteenth century. And since steam technology and industrialization were also front and center for the young scientists I have been studying, the two projects have greatly reinforced each other. 

More generally, the relation of aesthetics and technology has been a lifetime avocation. I come from a family where making and building things with our hands was a key constituent of life and where the beauty of things made always elicited admiration. This was true for me whether in designing experimental apparatus for physics research or in rebuilding our house, as well as in more explicitly artistic efforts like joining with an architect friend to build a kinetic sculpture for exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. So it was a rather natural continuation to explore how aesthetic judgement played a key role in Helmholtz’s design of dynamometers and construction of arguments for his measurements of the velocity of the nerve impulse. That is perhaps the analysis in the book with which I am most pleased.

Soraya: Another direction we see in your recent work is the attention to narrative structures in the sciences. Is there a link to your earlier work or is this a new departure?

It is surely a new departure but with long roots. When I was studying complexity in nuclear reactions I was also quite conscious of a more practical sort of complexity: of how hard it is to make anything work, whether because the apparatus does not function as you expect or because it produces confusing results, requiring rethinking, rebuilding, and reinterpretation. With luck, a positive result gets written up and published. I thought of this whole process as a matter of gradually building a coherent narrative in the midst of the “intertwinings” of the real world. It was a reality more attractive to me than the idealized image of a physicist whose goal is to deduce particular results from general laws. 

Then when I first began doing history of science at UCLA, Nancy Cartwright came as a visiting professor and lunch partner. Her new book, How the Laws of Physics Lie, became a topic of regular discussions and insights, which percolated for some years until they reemerged at Princeton in a workshop series with Angela Creager and Liz Lunbeck published as Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives. Contributors explored how trustworthy knowledge is created in non-lawlike sciences, with particular attention to techniques employed and narratives produced. We drew out analogies between the use of model systems in biology, computer simulations in physical science, cases in social science, and exemplary narratives in history. Mary Morgan played a prominent part in that volume and has ever since been my favorite analyst of how scientists use narratives in their work. One quite general insight involves the coherence-making power of narratives, their capacity to fit together in a coherent pattern a variety of elements that otherwise would seem disparate. In interesting ways, this power of narratives for colligation recovers one of the central features of Kuhn’s paradigms, their holistic character as pictures or patterns. That is the same power that he and others have ascribed to historical narratives. 

My own efforts focused initially on how computer simulations generate narratives that provide understanding of otherwise inscrutable processes, such as the formation of snowflakes, and how simulated movies of unobservably fast chemical reactions provide visual narratives that unveil highly contingent processes. Most recently I have been looking at earlier historical cases, such as the narrativizing role of Carnot diagrams in understanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Maxwell’s use of “physical analogies” as fictional narratives to make lines of force in electromagnetic fields comprehensible. All of these model-based narratives do their work by making the processes they investigate seem familiar in the everyday world of concrete and sensible things.

John: Turning to broader topics of craft, you pay considerable attention to method in describing your work, if not in the work itself. Do you find that this attention has inhibited or abetted your writing?

There once was a time when I thought too much attention to method interfered with finding out what happened. Now that I realize we can never know what happened but can only gain a perspective that yields a satisfyingly rich understanding of the large amounts of evidentiary material we are able to assemble, I would say that having a relatively clear methodological direction is crucial to deciding what materials to consider and how to interrelate them in forming a coherent picture. My first explicit encounter with this need occurred when I was trying to come to grips with SSK [Sociology of Scientific Knowledge]: how could I best think of the science/society relationship and the infamous internal/external dichotomy. Writing Energy and Empire, with its orientation to the “external” social and cultural conditions in Glasgow and its simultaneous attention to the “internal” technical content of Thomson’s mathematical physics, required an answer. Along the way we recognized that we could best meet the need by concentrating attention on the technologies that animated both his experience of the industrializing city and the concepts and methods he introduced to analyze physical processes. In this way steam engines, vortex turbines, and telegraph lines became the very active “Mediating Machines” that vitiated the internal/external squabble. More generally, I find that technologies offer particularly productive lenses through which to explore science/society relations, because they live in both.

The need for methodological perspectives like this that aid the selecting and interpreting process has been apparent to me in all of the subjects I have explored. I would like to think, however, that the subjects have called up the methods, which remain implicit in the writing. 

Jan: I am curious about how you have moved from one research focus to another—Kelvin, Helmholtz, et al.—while exploring different methodological or thematic issues along the way—energy, precision, models, narrative, etc. Which came first: the general problematic or the individual focus? What connects these themes to one another over the course of your work? 

I would pick out from what I have already said are two long-term interests. They are the questions of just how people are able to do the stuff they do (what are their tools and techniques) and how do they participate in their surrounding culture. The overlap between these two general interests pretty much spans everything I have done. Importantly, it is an overlap that has emphasized concreteness, whether as locality, materiality, or technology. But I would not have been able to pick out these threads with any confidence forty years ago. The themes have developed more or less organically from pieces of work that have grown together over the years, while acquiring more dimensions. 

For example, both Energy and Empire and Aesthetics, Industry, and Science deal with the social and cultural conditions of industrialization within which Thomson and Helmholtz, respectively, articulated their versions of energy conservation. And both emphasize locality and technologies of knowledge. But separated by nearly 30 years the two books are worlds apart in terms of their ambitions as cultural history. That is true not only because Glasgow and Berlin were themselves so different historically but especially because I would not have been able to do for Thomson what I learned to do for Helmholtz, to thoroughly integrate the aesthetic dimension as a primary contributor to the energy story. I neither knew enough nor would I have been able at the time to work it out methodologically. 

The topic of narrative in science has a similar developmental history for me, as I have already indicated. But along the way there have also been topics that did not require long gestation. They just seemed ripe for the stress I have wanted to place on how technological developments in history are bound up with social, political, and economic change. The volume on the Values of Precision was one of those. It grew out of another workshop featuring people who had already made precision instruments and measurements a lively subject of discussion. 

John: Do you think that there is any subject more worthy of the attention of a scholar than the history of science? If so, what? 

And if not, Jay asks, what are the most valuable lessons that the discipline has to offer?

To state the obvious, the greatest strength and simultaneously the greatest weakness of academic scholarship is its silo structure. Disciplinary specialization is necessary to acquire the tools and knowledge to work at a high level in any area of the university, whether in the natural or human sciences, to say nothing of medicine. And yet that specialization makes communication and fertilization across different areas difficult. In personal terms, by the time I became credentialed as an experimental-nuclear-physicist-studying-breakup-reactions-of-light-nuclei-at-low-energy I had little or no time for history, philosophy, literature, biology, or languages. The opportunity to pursue the history of science let the world open up again, making cross-disciplinary study not a luxury but a necessity. As I noted previously, it was the prospect of promoting cooperative work on problems that escaped disciplinary isolation that attracted me also to launching the Institute for Society and Genetics. History of science provides a rich model for such approaches to multifaceted problems in a complex world.

But there is another great virtue in studying the history of science, one that is particularly relevant to today’s politics. Sciences of all sorts aim to enforce the discipline of evidence and reason on their practitioners. I take this goal to be the bedrock of liberal democratic societies. So to study history of science is in part to study the history of evidence and reason as the basis of knowledge and judgement, the changing conditions under which it has functioned well or poorly, and in whose interests. John, your own Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck and the Fortunes of German Science is a worthy example. As Lorraine Daston, director of the long-running project on “Ideals and Practices of Rationality” at the Max Planck, might put it, we need to study the deeply historical nature of the very terms of rationality: fact, objectivity, reason, data. But history of science teaches us that rationality is fragile. The most emotionally troubling paper I ever wrote looked at how the mathematical physicist Pascual Jordan, who played a key role in the initial articulation of quantum mechanics, also turned it into a Nazi propaganda vehicle for the Führerprinzip. The point cannot be simply, as Saraiva makes clear, that scientists can quite successfully join in the construction of egregious regimes, but that even so, without the discipline of evidence and reason, we are left with no defense against the willful and arbitrary rule of autocracy. 

More From Our July 2020 Newsletter