“Scientists have not generally needed or wanted to be philosophers.” Thomas Kuhn. (1)
Recently on a balmy November evening hundreds of people crowded into a San Diego hotel conference room to hear a seminar on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Some rushed in pulling their suitcases, anxious to arrive on time, not wanting to miss a word. I don’t know which was more improbable, the fact that Kuhn’s book is now fifty years old or that a discussion of a book written in 1962 could fill a hotel ballroom in 2012 or that I’m still quoting it. “Out-of-date theories are not in principal unscientific,” says Kuhn, reminding this historian to explore the world of late medieval alchemists and Renaissance physicians with respect. (2)
This meeting of the History of Science Society and the Philosophy of Science Association brought together a dynamic group of specialists in diverse time periods and fields of science, to spend three days hearing papers, asking questions, collecting email addresses, noting book titles, discussing their research. It was well worth the time away from my own dissertation to benefit from this energy, and encounter some surprise personal highlights. Friday morning I headed for a talk on the Point Four Program in Iran in the 1950s called “Jackasses aboard the Plane,” referring to a still much-maligned project to fly in quality donkeys from Cyprus. Did Point Four leave any positive results that we can see at this time, I asked, mentioning that my dad was part of the project (the university part, not the donkey part). Maybe for some individuals, the speaker answered, and the agricultural college is still in operation. Later we talked a little about life in Teheran and I wished her well as she returned to Iran.
Closer to my research topic, I attended a presentation on “Teaching material medica in a botanical garden,” and heard a familiar voice behind me in the question period. It was a friend from Wolfenbuettel, Germany, where I recently spent a year doing research! In the course of the conference I ran into at least five people who had spent time at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbuettel, a haven for research in the early modern period.
A slight amount of anxiety arose when a (much younger) fellow doctoral candidate gave a talk about New World plants in European texts, but (sigh of relief) her interest lay in 17th-century England. What a difference time and place make! Plus her approach is so different from mine that I am convinced our dissertations would be entirely different under any circumstances. In hearing this panel, I regrettably had to miss a panel on alchemy which included people I knew and/or had read. This is a common conference experience. Another time slot might have nothing directly relevant at all. But I looked at those as a chance to explore a little afield, learning about the first women gardeners at Kew or the literature of medical biographies in the medieval Middle East. I have to admit, the philosophy of science panels did not draw me. Too many words like “epiphenomenal” and “functional reference” for a hands-on technical person. But it was wonderful to have philosophers in the conversation. We need the “why” along with the “what.” From the telescopes of Galileo to eighteenth-century Russian military-medical gardens, the shifting priorities of times and places remind us to consider the assumptions of the times we work with and ask ourselves how their paradigms were challenged. Or, in better words, “the reception of a new paradigm often necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding science.” (3)
Thank you, Thomas Kuhn.
(1) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 88.
(2) Kuhn, 2-3
(3) Kuhn, 103.
Dissertation update 11/27/12, First draft
10,406 words, 31 pages, est. 13% done