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Letters to the editors

Vol. 7, NO. 3 / November 2022

To the editors:

David Kordahl’s review of Bruce Hunt’s Imperial Science raises many stimulating questions relating to the book’s claims and the general purposes and value of historical enquiry. Kordahl is disappointed that Hunt’s contextualist argument for the development of field theory does not go far enough, in either denouncing or celebrating the links between field theory and British imperialism. Indeed, he criticizes Hunt for pursuing the imperial connection “only halfheartedly.” This interpretation seems unfair for two reasons. First, as Kordahl himself acknowledges, Hunt’s purpose is not to show how “imperial doctrines have bled into the foundations of field theory.” Whether or not Kordahl chose “bled” to evoke the violence done to indigenous people in the name of imperialism, Hunt’s book is about empire rather than imperial doctrines or ideologies: imperialism does not even have an entry in the index. More specifically, the book is about the ways in which the British Empire and its particular needs regarding long-distance communication were the contexts within which James Clerk Maxwell, Oliver Heaviside, and other Victorian physicists worked. Their contributions to electrical physics were accordingly shaped by these contexts, irrespective of their position on imperial doctrines and ideologies.

The second reason it is unfair to criticize Hunt for not denouncing or celebrating the imperial connection is that he, like many other professional historians, simply seeks to better understand empire, and in his case, how the British Empire provided a crucial context for something seemingly so abstracted from technology, commerce, and politics as field theory. Considering how many histories—written by professional historians and scientists, science popularizers, and science teachers—explain the rise of field theory purely in terms of ideas, theories, and other factors internal to science, Hunt’s attention to the nurturing effect of the wider contexts on this abstraction is a huge step forward. Historians have long been challenging the idea that physics, astronomy, and other exact sciences, unlike the life and earth sciences, were untainted by the imperial contexts within which they were deployed or developed. But these historians are consequently no more inclined to denounce or celebrate electromagnetic theory than they are to denounce or celebrate the theory of biological evolution by natural selection because of its imperial roots.1

Kordahl rightly draws attention to Hunt’s general conclusion that “[s]cientific knowledge is inescapably contingent” because the evidence scientists encounter and the

weight they give to it … is typically mediated through various technologies—whether scientific instruments or technologies devised for more practical ends—that consequently shape the theories scientists (and others) form to account for what they see.2

Talk of contingencies challenges the widely accepted belief that scientific facts and theories stand independently of the circumstances within which they were produced, and causes problems for ideals of scientific genius. But our reverence for the genius of Michael Faraday, Maxwell, Heaviside, and others is surely more secure because of their ability to exploit specific electro-technological contexts—notably, the need to understand signal retardation on submarine cables and to develop robust standards and units of electrical measurement—in developing field theories of electricity and magnetism, and to mobilize a formidable array of material, social, and cultural resources in making these theories move beyond their contexts of production.

Kordahl suggests that today’s physicists see their Victorian counterparts as “displaced colleagues.” Many Victorian physicists whose names are enshrined in equations, units of measurement, and principles do indeed look displaced from today’s physicists. Faraday and Lord Kelvin, for example, did not even like being called physicists. Instead they preferred the older term natural philosopher. Many are associated with experimental and mathematical techniques that are no longer widely taught or used. And many engaged in debates about religion and other ostensibly nonscientific and pseudoscientific matters far more vigorously than do physicists today. Kordahl infers from Hunt’s book the lesson that Victorian physicists were “inextricably trapped in their own era.” This seems to be a critique of Victorian physicists’ technological entrapment, a critique somewhat resembling French philosopher Pierre Duhem’s view of 1914 that, on encountering one prominent late-Victorian physicist’s mechanical illustrations of Maxwell’s electrical theory, “[w]e thought we were entering the tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, but we find ourselves in a factory.”3 There are two problems with Kordahl’s inference. First, it obscures the enabling, rather than inhibitory effect, that the era had on theoretical and experimental developments in physics. Hunt’s work over the past thirty years has convincingly demonstrated this enabling. Without that era’s particular problems in long-distance submarine telegraphy and the application of steam power, electromagnetism and thermodynamics may not have developed in quite the same ways that they did. Second, judging Victorian physicists as “trapped” implies that their modern counterparts are not quite so trapped or not trapped at all by their era, and hence another reason for them appearing to be displaced. But how plausible is this as a description of modern physics? Modern physics is vastly more technological than its Victorian ancestor, the Large Hadron Collider being only the most conspicuous example of how dependent our understanding of the subatomic world is on machines that produce, represent, and process physical effects.4 But even if modern physics is so strongly mediated by technologies of our era, we shouldn’t necessarily see this as a form of entrapment.

Kordahl concludes by asking “those who pursue science as scientists” to abandon history as a way of settling “questions about which aspects of our disciplines reflect nature and which reflect culture.” The implication that history should settle distinctions between nature and culture seems curiously at odds with Kordahl’s expectation that Hunt should have blurred these distinctions by showing how field theory was pervaded by imperial doctrines. In many ways Kordahl is right: far from offering clear distinctions between nature and culture, the study of history has proven remarkably successful in demonstrating that such distinctions change in time and space, and have been blurred, contested, and laborious to construct. But there are many practicing scientists who do value history, and pursue and encourage research collaborations with historians, precisely because it illuminates the changing and unclear relationships between nature and culture which, owing to anthropogenic climate change and other significant human impacts on our globe, have become vastly more significant than ever before.5

Richard Noakes

David Kordahl replies:

I disagree with Richard Noakes far less than he has inferred. For instance, I don’t claim that Victorian physicists were any more or less trapped in history than are modern physicists, nor do I advocate that the study of history be abandoned by modern scientists. Noakes chooses different emphases, but his thoughtful reflections on the contingency and remoteness of Victorian physics do not contradict what I have written.

Yet since there is a perceived disagreement, I will address it directly. Noakes finds that I have been unfair to Bruce Hunt by confusing the ideology of British imperialism—not Hunt’s topic—with its material circumstances—Hunt’s real topic. Noakes also suggests I have unfairly expected Hunt to either denounce or celebrate the historical links between the building of imperial infrastructure and the birth of field theory.

These criticisms are reasonable enough. As a professional historian, Noakes is undoubtedly a better judge of what is expected for professional historians than I am. And he is right to point out that practicing scientists should value history. I am grateful for the work that historians of science like Hunt—and Noakes himself—have done. As Noakes notes, such studies have usefully explored how “nature” and “culture” often blur.

However, we non-professionals cannot be blamed for using history to our own purposes. My main interest is to see what abandoned ideas might be re-explored, hence the invitation to my “displaced colleagues.” Likewise, questions regarding the path-dependence of scientific conclusions—whether, for instance, field theory required the British Empire, or might have been reached by some other historical route—are hardly settled.

Put bluntly, scientific progress depends on historical awareness as a necessary but not sufficient condition. History may only take us part of the way toward scientific progress, but it is an important part.

  1. Andrew Goss, “Decent Colonialism? Pure Science and Colonial Ideology in the Netherlands East Indies, 1910–1929,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40, no. 1 (2009): 187–214, doi:10.1017/S002246340900006X; Paolo Palladino and Michael Worboys, “Science and Imperialism,” Isis 84, no. 1 (1993): 91–102, doi:10.1086/356375; and Simon Schaffer, “Exact Sciences and Colonialism: Southern India in 1900,” in Science as Cultural Practice: Volume 1. Cultures and Politics of Research from the Early Modern Period to the Age of Extremes, ed. Moritz Epple and Claus Zittel (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 121–40, doi:10.1524/9783050087092.121. 
  2. Bruce Hunt, Imperial Science: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 274. 
  3. Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, trans. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 71. Duhem was referring to Oliver Lodge’s Modern Views of Electricity (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889), the very work inspiring the title of Hunt’s book. 
  4. Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997). 
  5. For example, see the scientists and historians participating in the American Historical Association’s 2017 discussions on the idea of the Anthropocene: “New Directions in Environmental History, Part 3: The Anthropocene in History,” American Historical Association Session 142, January 6, 2017, Hyatt Regency, Denver, CO. See also the combined scientific and historical approaches to environmental issues advocated in Science for an Ocean Nation: Update of the Research Priorities Plan (Washington, DC: Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology of the National Science and Technology Council, 2013). 

Richard Noakes is a historian of science and technology.

David Kordahl is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Centenary College of Louisiana.


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