The Ether Drag Show

Review of Jaume Navarro, ed., Ether and Modernity: The Recalcitrance of an Epistemic Object in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Endeavour 43 (2019): in press.

History often proceeds by tug of war between continuity and discontinuity. One generation of historians recognizes a sharp disjunction; the next responds by emphasizing the threads of stability that span it. Ether and Modernity: The Recalcitrance of an Epistemic Object in the Early Twentieth Century drags the historiography of early twentieth-century physics back toward the side of continuity. Most accounts of this era emphasize the swift, sharp shifts relativity and quantum mechanics represented. While in no way denying the import of those transitions, the essays collected here share a conviction that the categories “classical” and “modern” are too dichotomous to capture the richness of scientific practice and its popular image during this era of foment… read more.

Truth with a Vengeance

Review of Errol Morris, The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018)

Science 360, no. 6391 (2018): 864.

“Our post-truth moment is all Thomas Kuhn’s fault,” would be an unfair summation of The Ashtray—but only just. Kuhn achieved prominence with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Science, it contended, does not generate incrementally truer descriptions of reality, but develops through radical paradigm shifts, one understanding of the world capitulating to a new, incompatible understanding that better solves the puzzles scientists set for themselves. Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions motivated expansions and reactions that reconfigured the history and philosophy of science… read more.

The Experimenter’s Redress

Review of Jon Butterworth, Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future of Physics (New York: The Experiment, 2015)


The US high energy physics (HEP) community could have used Jon Butterworth in the early 1990s. Congress pulled funding for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), the machine US high energy physicists had pushed hard as the essential next step for American physics, in the face of waning public and legislative support in 1993. The discovery of the Higgs boson sent corks popping in Geneva, Switzerland, rather than in Waxahachie, Texas, where a half-built facility lies deserted, in significant part because of that cancellation. The SSC, to be sure, could boast some enthusiastic and erudite champions, but none was endowed with the common touch Butterworth, professor of physics and head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, brings to Most Wanted Particle, his first-hand account of the events leading up to the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. Named for the theoretical physicist—and, since 2013, Nobel laureate—Peter Higgs, the Higgs boson is most commonly described as the particle that explains why other elementary particles have mass, and so it addresses deep questions about the workings of the universe at its very smallest scales. Its discovery, it is not too early to say, is one of the century’s outstanding scientific achievements… read more.

Who Owns the Twentieth Century? (And Is It Worth Owning?)

Essay review of Stephen G. Brush with Ariel Segal, Making 20th Century Science: How Theories became Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Jon Agar, Science in the 20th Century and Beyond (Cambridge: Polity, 2012)

Isis 108, no. 1 (2017): 149–57.

The twentieth century enjoys a firm grip on our profession. Well over half the research articles published in this journal since 2000 devote significant attention to the period between the 1890s and the 1990s. Similar trends prevail in other leading publications. But this outpouring of scholarship alone does not create a collective sense of how historians of science should confront the twentieth century as an epoch. The synthetic reflection that established the scientific revolution as a historiographical category and lent the nineteenth century a sense of cohesion remains to be undertaken for the twentieth… read more.

A Paean to Contingency

Essay review of Léna Soler, Emiliano Trizio, and Andrew Pickering, eds., Science as it Could Have Been: Discussing the Contingency/Inevitability Problem (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)

Metascience 25, no. 3 (2016): 437–41.

The contingency/inevitability (C/I) problem consists in questions about the extent to which science is contingent or inevitable, what parts of it are contingent or inevitable, and whether alternative scientific trajectories might be just as successful as the one we have. It is relatively new as a well-delineated object of philosophical inquiry, dating to Ian Hacking’s observation in The Social Construction of What? (1999) that the social construction movement raises questions about contingency and inevitability that can be understood as distinct from, and perhaps more promising than, longstanding debates about scientific realism and anti-realism. In the years since Hacking defined the key terms of the C/I problem, a group of scholars has coalesced around the questions he posed. Those questions motivated, for example, a 2009 workshop at the Fondation Des Treilles in Tourtour, France, and this book synthesizes its results… read more.

"How Revolutionary Was the Scientific Revolution?"

Review of Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2015) and Demetris Nicolaides, In the Light of Science: Our Ancient Quest for Knowledge and the Measure of Modern Physics (New York: Penguin, 2014)

Physics Today 68, no. 4 (2015): 53–54.

Victor Frankenstein, the curious but callow protagonist of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, meets two professors of natural philosophy, Krempe and Waldman, during his fateful stay as a student at the University of Ingolstadt. The two render opposing judgments on the likes of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, premodern alchemists who had sparked Frankenstein’s interest in science. Krempe scolds the youngster: “You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names.” Waldman, however, praises the alchemists’ enthusiasm and reassures Victor: “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind”… read more.

New Straw for the Old Broom” 

Essay review of Jimena Canales, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015)

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 54 (2015): 138–43.

Relativity is one of the most overfished streams in the history of science. Albert Einstein has doubtless graced the covers of more monographs than any other scientist—possibly save Charles Darwin—in the decade since the 2005 centenary of his annus mirabilis. I was skeptical that Jimena Canales would be able land new catch from such thoroughly exploited waters. The Physicist and the Philosopher proved that skepticism misplaced. By exploring a decades-long feud that pitted Albert Einstein against the French savant Henri Bergson, Canales shows how relativity intertwined with an intellectual context that has been roundly ignored by historians and philosophers of science and presents one of history’s most iconic scientists in new light… read more.

Review of Linnda R. Caporael, James R. Griesemer, and William C. Wimsatt, eds., Developing Scaffolds in Evolution, Culture, and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013)

Acta Biotheoretica 62, no. 4 (2014): 531–35.

To understand what this volume is, we must begin with what it isn’t. That story starts a century ago when physics was king. Philosophers, economists, and sociologists appropriated tools forged for classical mechanics and thermodynamics as they tried to develop rigorous scientific explanations for human social phenomena (see Porter 1995). Through the century after the heyday of the Vienna Circle, the life sciences began to command the greatest share of scientific funding, prestige, and influence and we began asking whether evolutionary biology might offer a more apt basis for sound scientific insight into human culture and cognition. As important a transition as this was, it preserved many methodological assumptions that originated in the physical sciences and so early attempts to explain cognition and culture in biological terms proceeded from the same type of reductionist thinking that logical positivism epitomized. These are the foil for this collection, which considers evolution, culture, and cognition as mutually supporting processes rather than trying to understand the second two as straightforward consequences of the first… read more.

Review of Terry J. Quinn, From Artefacts to Atoms: The BIPM and the Search for Ultimate Measurement Standards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

American Physical Society Forum on the History of Physics Newsletter 11, no. 6 (2012): 10.

Terry Quinn wants to redefine the kilogram. This motive drives From Artefacts to Atoms: The BIPM and the Search for Ultimate Measurement Standards, his history of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). The title hints at the key question Quinn— BIPM director between 1988 and 2003—raises: what is the significance of transitioning from measurement conventions based on object prototypes to standards tied to fundamental physical constants? The kilogram is the last remaining metrological standard still defined by a physical artifact: the International Prototype Kilogram (IPK), a platinum-iridium cylinder envaulted at the BIPM since 1889. Plans currently underway would replace the IPK with a definition in terms of Planck's constant. Through the history of the BIPM, Quinn, an enthusiastic supporter of these plans, describes an inexorable progression from object standards to absolute standards… read more.

Review of Leon N. Cooper and Dmitri Feldman, eds., BCS: 50 Years (Singapore: World Scientific, 2010) 

American Physical Society Forum on the History of Physics Newsletter 11, no. 5 (2011): 10–12.

Superconductivity routinely vexed the most accomplished theoretical physicists for almost half a century after H. Kamerlingh Onnes first documented the phenomenon in his Leiden laboratory. The Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory of superconductivity, which appeared in 1957, surmounted decades of frustration and garnered immediate acclaim. Its larger legacy would emerge gradually as expansions and applications of the theory cemented its relevance for a broad range of physical phenomena. BCS: 50 Years, edited by Leon Cooper and Dmitri Feldman, unites 23 contributions from a range of physicists, many of whom contributed to the early development and application of BCS theory. Taken together, these essays represent a valuable first step towards understanding the manifold aspects of the BCS legacy… read more.