Department of History of Science and Ideas

Experimental History of Science

Project Description

Historians of science have repeatedly argued that the concrete process of working in a laboratory or workshop can usually only be recovered with difficulty and incompletely from historical texts and illustrations. Illustrations in scientific publications and entries in scientists’ laboratory notebooks do not offer faithful, let alone transparent representations of actual practices. Often they are intended as idealized representations, leading a life of their own.

The performance of an historical experiment has proved to be a fruitful method of uncovering essential experimental techniques and forms of knowledge. Such forms of embodied knowledge are usually taken for granted by participants; having been constantly repeated, they typically constitute blind spots in laboratory records. This approach draws attention to the significance of non-literary traditions, which only recently have been taken into account in laboratory studies. As an archaeology of the taken-for-granted, it provides us with a key to the language of these silent witnesses of the past, and to gain some insight into the impact of sensual experience on the conceptual development of science. This is a long-term project, in the course of which several replicas of historical experiments have been built and the respectice reenactments closely studied.

This project is now taken a step further by exploring the means of making visible the working knowledge of past experimenters. We are exploring the potential encapsulated in filming the reenactments of past experiments in order to provide a new source for historians of science interested in practice. We are currently filming the various stages of the process of getting C.T.R. Wilson’s cloud chamber experiment to work.

About the Project


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