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Scientists' Nightstand: Peter Galison

Frank Diller

Peter Galison is Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard. He is most recently the author of Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps (W. W. Norton), which will be reviewed in the November-December issue of American Scientist.

Peter GalisonClick to Enlarge Image

B.A., M.A. History of Science, Harvard University 1977;
M. Phil., Cambridge;
Ph.D. History of Science and Physics, Harvard University 1983;
Stanford University (Department of Philosophy, by courtesy Physics 1983-92);
Harvard University, Department of History of Science, Department of Physics, 1992-present.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

For work:
Laura Otis, Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science and Politics
An astute and rich look at the way that 19th-century figures contemplated the boundaries of the individual. The section on Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the neurohistologist/novelist, was particularly useful to me (for a book that I am now writing with Lorraine Daston on the history of objectivity).

Albert Newen et al., eds., Building on Frege: New Essays about Sense, Content and Concepts
Excellent recent studies about Gottlob Frege, one of the founders of modern logic.

For pleasure:
Philippe Roger, L'Ennemi américain. Généalogie de l'antiaméricanisme français
Best book I've seen on the European view of America, and in particular the sharpest examination of the French domestic function of the Parisian perception of the USA.

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
A remarkable, beautifully crafted study of the ideas and social position of the framers of American pragmatism and their allies.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Oddly enough, I am awake each night from about 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., and I read in the quiet of those undisturbed hours.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
It is a long story why, but these days I've been thinking a lot about Don DeLillo (especially his White Noise), and the smart, paranoid work of Thomas Pynchon—I still think Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 are two of the most remarkable postwar American novels ever written. Perhaps I'm coming back to these works because we are in the midst of such a strange and unsettling world moment.

An offbeat, wonderful author I adore is Jakob Arjouni. Arjouni's Turkish/German identity shapes his "Kayankaya" detective stories set in Frankfurt—and they illuminate the complex world of contemporary Germany.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
Before I started college—or perhaps just as I was starting—I read Gerald Holton's Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They were crucial for me as I was figuring out what I wanted to study and how. Then, perhaps, I was most affected by E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class and Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Culture. Beyond individual titles, a few times in my life I have focused for a very long time on a particular author, reading and re-reading as I tried to understand a way of thinking. First, no doubt, Marx and Freud; then, later, Michel Foucault, and most recently Martin Heidegger.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
I don't know too many science books for young people that I really like, but perhaps a good start would be Russell Stannard's "Uncle Albert" series on physics. Peter Sis, the fascinating illustrator of children's books, has done some sophisticated and beautiful books on Galileo and Darwin.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
There are very, very few popular scientific books that I think really capture the systematic character of scientific thought and refuse to switch metaphors after each paragraph. On my list of all-time favorites these three stand far above the rest:
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes
Richard Feynman, QED
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
Among recent books in history of science, I'd suggest:
Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750
A study that shows a form of early and pre-modern science, utterly forgotten today, the world of oddities, curiosities, and symbol—objects that populated "natural" collections.

Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin
Fascinating combination of physics and technology—a real window into the whole of 19th-century science that includes both the science and the intellectual, cultural and industrial surround.

Olivier Darrigol, Electrodynamics from Ampere to Einstein
A lucid "internal" study of electrodynamics that frames debates and work in ways that physicists will immediately understand (but without historical distortion).

And in the history of technology, one of the very best books is Ken Alder's Engineering the Revolution, about the ways in which new engineering practices both emerged from and shaped the ideals of the French Revolution.

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