Of what use are scientific textbooks? To scientists and their students, textbooks can inspire admiration and nostalgia, but also a sense of limits, of being far from the intellectual frontier. After all, research in the physical sciences long ago ceased to be a bookish affair. For at least a century and a half, the most important developments have been communicated in journal articles and cognate forms such as conference talks and preprints (Frasca-Spada and Jardine 2000; Gross et.al. 2002). The British scholar and statesman
At the same time that Snow offered his observation,
We might liken this historical use of textbooks to physicists’ uses of test-bodies when marking out an invisible field. Like pith balls charged with slight static electricity or tiny iron filings sprinkled near a bar magnet, early textbooks on quantum theory might help to delineate a clearer path, enabling historians to chart a conceptual trajectory during times of unusual variation. How did the physics community move from early hints about black-body radiation, specific heats, and the photoelectric effect to a full-blown armory of state vectors, Hilbert spaces, and Hermitian operators? Surely textbooks composed at intermediate steps along the journey are invaluable resources for reconstructing that path.
The pith-ball approach assumes that textbooks reflect underlying conceptual developments, but do not affect them: there existed a genuine conceptual trajectory, and textbooks help to reveal it. Yet many chapters in this collection suggest reasons to reconsider such an assumption. Consider the range of books produced in short order by physicists working at the same university, for example: quite a gulf separates
In place of the pith-ball analogy—which, after all, hearkens back to the era of classical physics—we might turn to
With hindsight, of course, physicists, historians, and philosophers have drawn and redrawn various candidate trajectories for the conceptual history of quantum theory. Indeed for a long time the history of modern physics seemed almost indistinguishable from the history of quantum theory, given the great mass of work published on the topic. Moreover, though significant challenges of interpretation remain open even to this day, the range of approaches and techniques to quantum theory has surely narrowed compared to the turmoil and tumult of the period from 1900 through 1930. Some shadow of a conceptual trajectory appears to have emerged from all the dust and smoke.
We might therefore pose some new questions, inverted from the type that animate pith-ball historiography. Among the wide range of possible (and competing) efforts at the time, through what means did a narrowing of approaches and interpretations occur? What work was required for something approximating a conceptual trajectory to emerge? These last questions suggest yet a third analogy, alongside the pith-ball and smoky dragon: decoherence and the emergence of classical behavior from quantum systems. An influential line of thought among contemporary physicists suggests that classical behavior—such as the possession of a sharp trajectory through space and time—might emerge from quantum objects’ interactions with the environment. Repeated scatterings between a quantum particle and the flotsam and jetsam of its surroundings can cause the strange superpositions endemic to quantum theory effectively to get washed out. Even inside the tyrannical box,
In addition to providing hints of competing approaches or supplying fodder for adjudicating priority claims, scientific textbooks like the ones examined throughout this volume can be used to chart just those interactions with the “environment”—pedagogical, institutional, intellectual—by means of which something approximating a conceptual trajectory emerged. Rather than assume that the textbooks and ancillary pedagogical efforts from the time reflect an underlying trajectory, we might train our attention on the means by which books like these helped to reduce the ever-multiplying possibilities, producing what would later appear to be a recognizable conceptual path. The detailed and revealing chapters in this volume provide an excellent resource with which to pursue just such an investigation. As quantum physicists learned not so long ago, sometimes a little decoherence can be a very useful thing.
Beller, Mara (1999). Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette (2006). Textbooks on the Map of Science Studies. Science and Education 15: 667-670
Camilleri, Kristian (2009). Heisenberg and the Interpretion of Quantum Mechanics: The Physicist as Philosopher. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Carson, Cathryn (2010). Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Davies, P. Charles W., R. Julian Brown (1986). The Ghost in the Atom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frasca-Spada, Marina, Nick Jardine (2000). Books and the Sciences in History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gross, Alan G., Joseph E. Harmon, J.E. H. (2002). Communicating Science: The Scientific Article from the 17th Century to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
Howard, Don (2004). Who Invented the Copenhagen Interpretation? A Study in Mythology. Philosophy of Science 71: 669-682
Kaiser, David (2005). Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Kuhn, Thomas (1977). The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research. In: The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 225-239
Mody, Cyrus, David Kaiser (2007). Scientific Training and the Creation of Scientific Knowledge: Historical, Sociological, and Anthropological Perspectives. In: Handbook of Science and Technology Studies Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 377-402
Olesko, Kathryn M. (2006). Science Pedagogy as a Category of Historical Analysis: Past, Present, and Future. Science and Education 15: 863-880
Seth, Suman (2010). Crafting the Quantum: Arnold Sommerfeld and the Practice of Theory, 1890–1926. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Snow, Charles P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Vicedo, Marga (2012). Introduction: The Secret Lives of Textbooks. Isis 103: 83-87
Warwick, Andrew (2003). Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Warwick, Andrew, David Kaiser (2005). Kuhn, Foucault, and the Power of Pedagogy. In: Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives Ed. by David Kaiser. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 393-409
Zurek, Wojciech (1991). Decoherence and the Transition from Quantum to Classical. Physics Today 44: 36-44
For recent historiographical reviews, see (Warwick and Kaiser 2005, 393–409; Bensaude-Vincent 2006, 667–670; Olesko 2006, 863–880; Mody and Kaiser 2007, 377–402; Vicedo 2012, 83–87).
These distinctions are similar to the contrasts drawn by Andrew Warwick in the teaching of special relativity at Cambridge a decade earlier: see (Warwick 2003, chap. 8).
See, e.g., the interview with John Wheeler in (Davies and Brown 1986, 58–69, on 66–67).
Table of Contents
1 Pedagogy and Research. Notes for a Historical Epistemology
of Science Education
Massimiliano Badino, Jaume Navarro
2 Sorting Things Out: Drude and the Foundations of Classical Optics
Marta Jordi Taltavull
3 Max Planck as Textbook Author
5 Fritz Reiche’s 1921 Quantum Theory Textbook
Clayton A. Gearhart
6 Sommerfeld’s Atombau und Spektrallinien
7 Kuhn Losses Regained: Van Vleck from Spectra to
Charles Midwinter, Michel Janssen
8 Max Born’s Vorlesungen über Atommechanik, Erster Band
10 Paul Dirac and The Principles of Quantum Mechanics
12 Epilogue: Textbooks and the Emergence of a Conceptual Trajectory
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