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Thinking About Looking

Alix Cooper

HISTORIES OF SCIENTIFIC OBSERVATION. Edited by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck. vi + 460 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2011. $75 cloth, $27.50 paper.

2011-07BREVCooperFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhat makes science work? Many people have, over the years, attempted to define the key components of science as an activity. During the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, considerable controversy over the matter prevailed. Was reason the key to successfully acquiring true knowledge about nature? Or was it, rather, experiment, or the use of mathematics? Throughout the 17th century, advocates of particular methods of reaching truth launched vigorous attacks on proponents of other systems. Many of these debates, of course, calmed down after the arrival of Isaac Newton on the scene, with his stunning synthesis of the physics and astronomy of the day to create a single system of laws. Even the ascendancy of the Newtonian synthesis, though, did not completely resolve the question; it merely postponed it for another day. Subsequent generations have continued to tangle over what the key concepts of science are, and what role these ought to play in the science of the future.

One such concept is observation, now singled out for examination in a deeply thoughtful—and readable—new book of essays edited by historians of science Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck. Histories of Scientific Observation is the culmination of a research project undertaken over the course of the last half-decade at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Daston and Lunbeck argue that as part of the gradual emergence of modern science, observation came to be seen as one of its central techniques and was increasingly deemed responsible for its successes. “Never has so much been observed, as in our century” was one Enlightenment boast.

Yet the practice of scientific observation is not quite as simple as it might seem to us at first glance today. As the essays collected by Daston and Lunbeck show, scientific observation has been beset over the years by numerous difficulties and problems. To what degree ought an observer to rely on instruments, as opposed to the naked eye? What about the many circumstances in which different people view the same phenomena and see different things? How might one be able to observe such fleeting and seemingly invisible objects as atoms in motion, or radiation? By exploring the rich history of these kinds of dilemmas, Histories of Scientific Observation offers the reader an invitation to look at the history of this key concept—and thus the history of science itself—through a focused yet luminous lens.

The book is divided into five parts. The first, “Framing the History of Scientific Observation, 500–1800,” effectively forms the book’s core. It consists of three chapters offering a series of broad overviews of the concept of observation in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. It will be in some ways the most challenging part of the book for the general reader, but it is extremely worthwhile, because its insights help one to understand the more modern debates surrounding observation. The narrative runs roughly as follows: Contrary to popular mythology about the Middle Ages, medieval individuals did in fact carry out numerous empirical activities, such as making astronomical observations and keeping records about the weather. Nevertheless, their Aristotelian conceptual frameworks kept them from seeing these activities as “observations” per se. This began to change in the later Middle Ages, as these kinds of records began to be kept far more systematically. In the Renaissance, astronomical records began to be published under the label observations, along with many case histories in medicine and in jurisprudence, as a new genre of writing. Finally, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of observation, which had previously been seen as fairly interchangeable with experience and experiment, took on added focus as each of these terms acquired its own specific meaning over the course of the Scientific Revolution. The scope of the word experiment narrowed as it began to be used to refer specifically to “a carefully designed human intervention into the ordinary course of nature,” rather than to any encounter with nature (as had previously been the case). And observation came to be seen as a skill requiring rigorous training and the coordination of multiple observers. Furthermore, observation was by now viewed as an epistemic category crucial to all of the natural sciences, not just astronomy and meteorology. It had arrived.

So the first part of the book shows how observation came to be central to the modern scientific enterprise. The remaining parts offer a rich plethora of case studies (more than a dozen) showing exactly how scientists in different fields have struggled to carry out the imperative to observe their particular objects of study. These case studies, written up as elegant and often suspenseful articles by a mix of distinguished senior scholars in the history of science and talented new arrivals to the field, illustrate the many challenges that have faced scientific observers from the 17th century to the 20th.

In one particularly entertaining piece, for example, Princeton historian of science Michael Gordin tells the tale of a provincial entomologist in 19th-century Russia, whose passion for observation led first to a spectacular discovery but then to his ultimate downfall. In another, Jimena Canales investigates how the wider availability of electronic stroboscopic lighting in the 1950s opened up a new area of research for psychologists interested in studying the eye’s response to stimulation; as the topic became increasingly intertwined with the study of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on the human brain, however, the legitimacy of this particular kind of scientific observation came into question. In these and similar case studies, the reader is introduced to the possibilities and pitfalls that have arisen so often over the past several centuries—and that promise to continue to arise—as scientists are confronted with new techniques and new objects of observation.

One theme that emerges in a particularly striking fashion from the case studies is the degree to which observation has actually become more important in science over the years, even as an ideology characterizing experiment as active and observation as passive has taken hold of the popular imagination. Observation has spread beyond the natural sciences to those social and human sciences that have sought to emulate the natural sciences—hence the inclusion in the book of case studies detailing how early sociologists, economists and psychologists, imbued with a passion for the scientific method and for the usefulness of observing, sought to isolate and visualize such difficult objects as human emotions, society, the economy and the interiority of the psyche itself. The methods they used bear revealing similarities to the methods used to try to track such difficult-to-capture phenomena as Brownian motion and even the mating habits of frogs, which are discussed in other case studies. All in all, the lively yet deeply probing case studies offer much to think about as they explore how some of the most crucial concepts and practices of the sciences have been adapted as they have spread into new interdisciplinary realms, a process that shows no signs of stopping.

I highly recommend Histories of Scientific Observation, not only to historians of science, who have an obvious stake in its groundbreaking contents, but also to scientists curious about the role that practices such as observation and experiment play in their own research. There is much here to interest readers who have some background in science. Although a certain level of concentration is demanded, especially for the conceptually oriented first part of the book, no special vocabulary is required that a college education will not have provided; a clear effort has been made to avoid jargon. The case studies do not need to be read in any particular order, so the reader can with a clear conscience jump from one to another. I should note that the book has several dozen black-and-white illustrations, many of which reproduce the notes and drawings of scientists; five of the images are also included as striking color plates.

Alix Cooper teaches European history and the history of science, medicine and the environment at Stony Brook University. She is the author of Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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