The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

2012 October 15

Scientists in general are Whigs; they view history as the inexorable advance of Reason illuminating ever-wider swathes of territory previously hidden in darkness and ignorance. To be sure, most scientists would deny holding this attitude; they have been well-conditioned to advocate in public the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn. In private, however, while many will admit that the current paradigms may someday fall, few expect to witness such a collapse, and hardly any would conceive of this event otherwise than as a "revolutionary advance", a great leap forward in the understanding of Nature.

To most historians of science, this attitude seems rather quaint. Indeed, Kuhn himself is for them a bit of an archaic figure. The "advance" of science is most often depicted in the historical literature as a semi-random walk driven by the less-deniable advance of technology along with economic and political forces. The "great men" of the traditional canon have been replaced by institutions and collaborations; the vast structures previously seen as characteristic of the Twentieth Century are now seen as intrinsic to the scientific enterprise from its beginning. Knowledge of Nature, on the other hand, once the all-important output of science's machinery, is now considered a sort of propaganda, or at any rate hard to distinguish from cultural "knowledge" of any other sort. Such is the view of "Science Studies" in the waning years of postmodernism.

Thus three intellectual generations hold the stage at once: the postmodern generation in "history of science", the generation of the mid-Twentieth Century in the official rhetoric of the scientific establishment, and the generation of the Enlightenment in the private thought of scientists. Oddly, it may be that the oldest of these three generations is the one whose influence is most swiftly rising, marking the start of a new cycle. This may be seen in the mounting popularity of the "New Atheists" and other advocates of a pre-Kuhnian scientistic triumphalism associated this time with biology instead of physics.

It is perhaps to be regretted that our current exponents of the March of Progress have chosen merely to revive the bombast of their predecessors with some neurological flourishes rather than to seek an Hegelian synthesis incorporating the best of more-recent developments. (Indeed, the age of Hegel, the first half of the Nineteenth Century with its Idealism and Naturphilosophie, seems to be a period quite unrepresented in contemporary scientific thought.) After all, the postmodernist critique of science is in many of its aspects unquestionably correct, and the academic historians of science have rediscovered countless obscure figures from those "margins" so beloved of theorists in the humanities, figures whose contributions the scientific mainstream has in some cases ignored to the detriment of its own "advance".

Yeats in his vision saw history advancing in "gyres", mighty loops of a slanted helix around the axis of progress. This, I believe, is the best image of scientific and technological change, teleological but not unidirectional. It is in this spirit that I propose, on this website, to examine what Hobsbawm named the Long Nineteenth Century, an era once-removed from our dawning one and thus both near enough to be remembered but (unlike the Twentieth Century) far enough away to be seen with some detachment. By considering both the rising and the falling stretches of this turn of the thread of time, the parts of the gyre parallel to our segment, those opposite, and those transverse to it, I suggest we may hope to benefit from contact with a past which, whether we learn from it or not, we are certainly doomed to repeat with variations.