Logan Lounge

A Collective Blog for Current and Former Members (and Friends!) of the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Paper Turn?

I just finished reading David Kaiser's new book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics. Like other recent books in what one might call "the paper turn" in the history of science--Andrew Warwick's Masters of Theory, or Ursula Klein's Experiments, Models, Paper Tools, for example--Kaiser urges us to look at theoretical work on paper with the same practice-minded, analytical scrutiny as laboratory experiments or field work. These historians taking the paper turn, in my opinion, have found a good way to engage their interest in theoretical science with wider concerns in the field, and for that they should be commended.

It is interesting that all three of the books I just mentioned examine the physical sciences. Can we see similar things happening the the life sciences, earth sciences, or human sciences? (Or in medicine and technology?) Perhaps there haven't been such long-term productive paper tool systems comparable to Feynman diagrams or Berzelian chemical formulas in these fields. On the other hand, one thinks of phylogenetic trees in biology, perhaps, or kinship diagrams in social anthropology. (One might even put Rob Kohler's drosophila biologists, from Lords of the Fly, with their gene "mapping" diagrams in this category...) Any other ideas?


  • At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    (Accidentally posted to the first December thread -- links there.)

    To riff on Latour -- No more turns after the social turn, I think. It's an overused trope, turn. Maybe this will end up revolutionizing the field, but probably not. Could you say exactly how you see this changing our understandign of the history of science.

    Having said that, I think you'r eright that there are lots of "paper tool systems" in the natural sciences. You're examples ar eright on.

    Interestingly, there seems to be a convergence, as well. While you are looking for paper tool systems in biology, literary scholars are using biological metaphors to understand the spread of genres. See Franco Morreti's work. Here are some quick links.

  • At 12:48 PM, Blogger Jeremy said…

    Thanks for your comment. I deleted the duplicate that you accidentally posted on the other thread. I'm not sure that something has to completely revolutionize the field in order to qualify as a discernible "turn" (or "methodological trend," if you prefer). But I do think it is important that theoretical practice in science is now beginning to receive the same kind of treatment that experimental and observational practice has received in the past. Just as previous turns have left their indelible mark on the field--and I, like you, believe that the social turn is perhaps the most enduring--so too will all this writing about paper tools leave its mark for the foreseeable future. We cannot now write about scientific practice and theoretical research as if they are separate things. We now have some rich and well documented case studies to show exactly how theoretical science takes place in material and embodied practices. I think that is a significant change, even if not revolutionary, and even if we might have foreseen that it could or should be done.

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