Spaces

“Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” Owen Hannaway

            After stressing the significance of the development of the laboratory, author Owen Hannaway structures his article around the disparate plans for two scientists’ places of work: those of Andreas Libavius, a chemist, and Tycho Brahe, the famed astronomer. The two men had very different ideas of what their duties as scientists were, and the layout of their labs suggested this. Brahe, who preferred to work in isolation, not sharing his ideas with many others, housed his laboratory in the basement of the structure he had built to observe the heavens. Libavius, on the other hand, believed that scientists also had humanistic civic and paternal duties, and he placed his lab on the main floor of his design, directly attached to and accessible from the more public areas of the home. Both laboratory designs give the historian unique insight into “the intellectual and ideological roots of a new mode of scientific life.”[1]

“The House of Experiment in Seventeenth Century England,” Steven Shapin

            The space in which scientific queries take place, coupled with who is allowed in that space and how knowledge from that space is disseminated to society as a whole, have major implications for the way in which historians analyze scientific knowledge. This idea is the impetus for Steven Shapin’s microhistorical account of the development of such spaces in seventeenth century England. He discusses how the culture of the period shaped the evolution of scientific space; the obligation of “gentlemen” to open their private residences to men of equal position provided the basis for how early experimental science was performed and discussed. Gentlemen were free to come and investigate one another’s labs and bear witness to the kinds of work being done. Once these experiments were refined, they were welcomed into a space where the implications of the phenomena illuminated could be discussed between men of social standing (and thus worth trusting, since being a gentleman bound men to a certain standard of behavior). Thus, the culture and society these early men of science were a part of had a major impact on how they conducted science.

“Pavlov’s Physiology Factor,” Daniel P. Todes

            In his article on Pavlov’s laboratory between 1891 and 1904, Daniel Todes elucidates the particular kind (and volume) of knowledge, product, and technologies the Russian physiologist was able to produce due to the structure and methods employed in his lab. Pavlov’s authority in conjunction with the freedom his assistants had in conducting and recording the results of their own experiments created a unique dynamic in which individual observations, under the direction of Pavlov’s own methods, were discussed and analyzed by the entire lab — and the entire lab was responsible for the creation of overarching theories and ideas. His methods granted Pavlov authority on many levels: his many coworkers could offer testimonies, theories were constructed based on the experimental and to some extent intellectual contributions of many scientists, and new technologies gave credence to the data gathered. The products of the lab — gastric juices, publications, and alumni — extended Pavlov’s influence and importance. Due to its singular characteristics, which included a plethora of incoming and outgoing fledgling lab technicians with different skill sets, the relationships between coworkers and those between coworkers and master, and the cohesiveness of the lab as a whole, Pavlov’s laboratory was able to sustain a mechanism that generated unique and important products.

“Industrial Versailles: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Scott G. Knowles and Stuart W. Leslie

            In “Industrial Versailles,” authors Scott Knowles and Stuart Leslie tell the story of the post-war “corporate campuses” built by GM, IBM and AT&T by the renowned architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen’s work created spaces in which “basic science” could be performed, and yet these spaces were designed not with the scientists’ vision in mind, but their corporate patrons. As such they were very much focused on a fabricated image of scientific modernity; instead of promoting collaboration between different departments, they tended to isolate scientists in peaceful and serene offices. Research facilities that promoted collaboration, on the other hand, produced some of the most important advances of the period. As the 50s transitioned into the much more competitive 80s, these spaces designed for “basic science” increasingly became liabilities to companies that were not focusing more of their money on the practical applications of basic scientific discoveries. These “corporate campuses” thus fell short of their intended purposes, representing more of a corporate ideal of scientific discovery.

Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, Peter Galison

            Peter Galison attempts to tell a history of physics through an alternative method that he claims traces the changing meanings of “experiment” through time; he recounts the history of machines, or technology, that physicists (and the copious other individuals involved in the experimental process) have used to garner scientific knowledge. Machines have changed the nature of experimentation fundamentally, a phenomenon Galison argues was not unique to any period in history, but continues to take place today. What does and does not count as valid experimental knowledge is in a constant state of debate, and these arguments are more fundamentally about what constitutes an “experiment.” Who and what are involved, and what sorts of constraints affect the type and function of the results? How do members of vastly different “subcultures” communicate, and how does this affect the experimental methods they use? Galison attempts to explore these questions through a history of the machines of the laboratory.

Authors with an obvious constructivist outlook, as elucidated in Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge, wrote the readings for this week. They emphasize the importance of places and materials involved in the research process, and they place scientists in the social and cultural context in which they were working. Galison’s piece on the machine in the modern physics lab was certainly of the same methodological approach as Bruno Latour’s chapter on “Visualization and Cognition.” Both ascribed importance to the inanimate participators in scientific investigation. Pavlov’s laboratory, and the products it was able to generate, were clearly possible in no small part due to the many Russian doctors who wanted to obtain an easy PhD; the recognition of these social factors as important pieces in the puzzle of what influences scientific research is a clear indicator that Todes shared the beliefs of the Strong Program. This week, I have seen how the revolution in the history of science initiated by Thomas Kuhn has manifested itself in the works written by more recent historians.

Something interesting (and something I will probably bring up in class) that I noticed is that, when constructivist historians look at the different locales, instruments, and cultural influences involved in the production of scientific knowledge, their conversations typically concern how these factors have affected the way in which scientists communicate. Galison talks about how different machines changed the way that scientists talked to one another and other classes of individuals involved in the research process; Knowles and Leslie discuss how different layouts for corporate laboratories either promoted or stifled communication between scientists; Shapin is concerned in his article about how the concept of the unspoken gentlemen’s code promoted scientific exchange. It appears that what lies at the heart of all of these moving pieces involved in the experimental process is how effectively machines, social conventions, economic motivations, etc., promote or depress scientists’ ability to collaborate with one another. Could it be that this is what the constructivists are getting at?

[1] Owen Hannaway, “Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” The History of Science Society 77, no. 4 (1986): 587.

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