'Studying marginalised physical sciences

Johnston, S. F. (2007) 'Studying marginalised physical sciences. 'Writing the History’ of the Physical Sciences after 1945: State of the Art, Questions, and Perspectives, Strasbourg, France, 07-09 Jun 2007. (Unpublished)

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The second half of the twentieth century offers distinct perspectives for the historian of science. The role of the State, the expansion of certain industries and the cultural engagement with science were all transformed. The foregrounding of certain strands of physical science in the public and administrative consciousness –nuclear physics and planetary science, for example – had a complement: the ‘backgrounding’ or neglect of a number of other fields. My work thus far in the history of the physical sciences has focused on this little-noticed intellectual terrain, and could be categorised into several types of case study that share distinct research questions, conceptual understandings and historiographical ramifications. My attention for some years has been drawn to physical sciences that may have been identified as peripheral, if at all, by a previous generation of historians of physics. By this I do not mean peripheral in the geographic sense, but marginal, interstitial or boundary-crossing in the context of occupations, disciplines and professions. The types of case study investigated include (i) scientific instruments; (ii) emergent professions or would-be professions; and, (iii) subject areas falling between academic science, industrial application and State interests. Within these categories are specific studies of (i) Fourier spectroscopy and interferometry; (ii) chemical and nuclear engineering; and (iii) holography, photometry and colorimetry. All have explored the nature of the working life of scientists and technologists. This sense of ‘otherness’ is, of course, described in relation to definitions of inclusiveness or the mainstream. Thus the labelling of a subject as ‘interstitial’ or ‘boundary-crossing’ may be a matter of employing established practitioners’ categories, or historians’ conventional subdivisions. The establishment of a visible profession correlates only weakly with intellectual distinctiveness, or even with economic value. And, in some cases, the definition of the ‘marginal’ is no more than recognition of a lack of historiographical attention. These categories nevertheless can have profound consequences for defining research directions, for formulating organising explanations, and in setting certain constraints on research. There is also value in examining subject areas and scientific specialists that have been neglected by institutional bodies and historians alike, because I would argue that they may be functionally and structurally distinct from more established and renowned sciences.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Johnston, Professor Sean
Authors: Johnston, S. F.
Subjects:H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Interdisciplinary Studies

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