The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

2013 April 8 - May 27
A New Approach to Experimental History of Science
Part 6: Forking Paths

The Oration of Pericles on the War-Dead (excerpts)
Background music: "Glykoparamythenia," (2005).
Singer: Pantelis Thalassinos. Lyrics: Alice Tori. Music: Yanni Nikolaou. [3 min]

2013 May 13:

Very inspiring, if you like that sort of thing, but did Pericles really say it, or did the historian Thucydides just invent a speech that would have been right for Pericles to give under the circumstances? In this particular case, one could argue either way -- after all, Pericles based his entire career on grand patriotic oratory -- but Thucydides and other ancient writers invariably ascribed such wonderfully appropriate and nobly phrased speeches to politicians and generals -- sometimes speeches delivered under circumstances where recording them would have been a bit challenging -- that doubts inevitably arise. Thucydides himself remarked [I, 22]:

"As to the speeches made on the eve of the war, or in its course, I have found it difficult to retain a memory of the precise words which I had heard spoken; and so it was with those who brought me reports. But I have made the persons say what it seemed to me most opportune for them to say in view of each situation; at the same time I have adhered as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said."

Although Thucydides has been celebrated for some 2500 years as the founder of objective "scientific" historiography, striking the balance between "what seemed most opportune for them to say" and "what was actually said" cannot have been easy. Modern historians, of course, wish that a professional stenographer (if not someone with a tape recorder!) had been present to document the latter, but a preference for the former was more widespread among ancient, mediæval, and even Renaissance scholars, especially those under Platonic influence. A king, after all, should talk like a king, and a slave like a slave, as in the tragedies.

Cenochronic history might take an intermediate line, closer to that of Thucydides himself. In Experimental History of Science (EHS), a very remarkable instance of this has already arisen:

Are we hearing it correctly? Bruno Latour: "... A very interesting event which happened in 1922, between Bergson and Einstein, and I think it's a debate that didn't go very well, because Einstein dismissed Bergson as a mere philosopher. And then, we try to do something for re-enactment, where we re-do the debate, but then we do it with a little twist. We make it go another way from what happened in 1922. So we try to obtain a sort of more equilibrated, more balanced view about the debate, so that Bergson and Einstein actually talk philosophy together ... "

(Further discussion of the original Einstein-Bergson debate, by Harvard's Jimena Canales, one of the most innovative and cenochronic thinkers in the EHS world and a participant in the Centre Pompidou re-enactment, may be found in Modern Language Notes 120, 1168 (2006); unfortunately, there does not seem to be any online account of the re-enactment itself.)

Does this sort of project -- a correction of history, the literal re-creation of an event which "should" have happened in a certain way but did not -- constitute valid scholarship? From the perspective of conventional diachronically-oriented academic historians, it clearly does not. Einstein and Bergson said what they said in 1922; that they failed to communicate is not the diachronic historian's concern, however unfortunate its consequences may seem anachronically to certain later philosophers. "Improving" the past is a job for science-fiction writers, perhaps, but not for diachronic historians.

Borges: Senderos que se bifurcan.
Foto: Pepe Fernández, 1969.

Of course, science fiction has a custom of turning factual, and recently two separate schools of thought -- the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the multiverse approach to cosmology -- have been encouraging physical scientists to consider alternate histories not merely as intellectual games but as actual realities. If these scientific ideas retain their currency, perhaps fashions in the humanities will change to match. For now, however, only a very few academics (notably the controversial right-of-centre economist Niall Ferguson) seem disposed to venture into the Garden of Forking Paths.

Fifteenth-Century edition of Livy. (Bavarian State Library)

Academic historians' nearly universal rejection of "counterfactual" or "alternate" history -- their insistence that such questions as "What would the world be like if the South had won the Civil War?" have no meaningful answers -- is in a way surprising. Speculation about "the way things might have been" would seem to be an intrinsic part of human thought; if it cannot be found in Thucydides, it can certainly be found in Livy [IX, 17-28]:

"Nothing has ever been farther from my intention, since the commencement of this history, than to digress, more than necessity required, from the course of narration ; and, by embellishing my work with variety, to seek pleasing resting-places, as it were, for my readers, and relaxation for my own mind : nevertheless, the mention of so great a king and commander, as it has often set my thoughts at work, in silent disquisitions, now calls forth a few reflections to public view ; and disposes me to enquire, what would have been the consequence, respecting the affairs of the Romans, if they had happened to have been engaged in a war with Alexander."

Part of the reason diachronic historians reject "alt-history" immediately becomes clear as we read on. Livy is a Roman patriot; when he asks whether a westward-bound Alexander could have conquered Rome as the eastward-bound Alexander conquered Persia, his tone is initially objective, but becomes steadily less so:

"The circumstances of greatest moment seem to be, the number and bravery of the soldiers, the abilities of the commanders, and fortune, which exerts a powerful sway over all human concerns, and especially over those of war ... I do not, indeed, deny that Alexander was a captain of consummate merit, but still his fame owes part of its lustre to his having been single in command, and to his dying young, while his affairs were advancing in improvement, and while he had not yet experienced a reverse of fortune ...

"How large soever the scale may be, on which our idea of this man's greatness is formed, still it is the greatness of an individual, constituted by the successes of a little more than ten years ; and those who give it pre-eminence on account, that the Roman people have been defeated, though not in any entire war, yet in several battles, whereas Alexander was never once unsuccessful in fight, do not consider, that they are comparing the actions of one man, and that a young man, with the course of action of a nation, which has been waging wars, now eight hundred years. Can we wonder then, if fortune has varied more in such a long space, than in the short term of thirteen years?

" ... Indeed, when I reflect, that, in the first Punic war, a contest was maintained by the Romans with the Carthaginians, at sea, for twenty-four years, I can scarcely suppose that the life of Alexander would have been long enough for the finishing of one war with either of those nations. And perhaps, as the Punic state was united to the Roman, by ancient treaties, and as similar apprehensions might arm against a common foe those two nations, the most potent of the time, he might have been overwhelmed in a Punic, and a Roman war, at once.

"Our soldiers, heavy laden with arms, may reasonably fear a body of cavalry, or arrows ; defiles of difficult passage, and places impassable to convoys. But they have defeated, and will defeat a thousand armies, more formidable than those of Alexander, and the Macedonians, provided that the same love of peace, and zeal to promote domestic harmony, which at present subsist among us, shall continue to prevail."

The difficulty of dispassion ... the almost-unavoidable anachronic tendency to shift from speaking of "the Roman army" -- one of many -- to "our soldiers, heavy laden with arms" ... here we see a major problem for alt-history. It does not, however, seem to me an insuperable one. While descriptions of a fantasy world naturally encourage fantasy, the "real" past is equally hard to examine with detachment.

More serious is the problem of unknowability and contingency: could not Lorentz's proverbial "flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil" determine the outcome of a war between Alexander and the Romans? Far better, then, from the diachronic point of view, to stick to the facts: it happened this way and not that.

In cenochronic history, and especially in the cenochronic history of science, these issues take on a different aspect. Next week, in the conclusion of this series, we will look at a specific question in the history of Nineteenth-Century physics and how it could have gone otherwise.

Magazine cover from a different universe?
Image by Fred Blanchard/ Manchu © Delcourt 2010 Pécau/Buchet

Next: Conclusion