Department of History of Science and Ideas

Science and the Changing Senses of Reality circa 1900

Project Description

The turn of the twentieth century is usually described as a crucial moment in the history of the physical sciences. One especially striking issue is the increasing number of techniques for investigating microphysical objects, with x-rays, electrons and radioactivity among the most prominent. These rare scientific experiences also challenged theory, putting new demands on those seeking to unify science. They induced among scientists an increasing reflexivity about their tools and methods and reshaped their sense of reality.


In this new world of scientific experience, physical scientists were confronted anew with an old debate concerning the relation between knowing and doing, and theory and experiment, which had accompanied the empirical sciences since their beginnings. This project focuses on a number of such techniques and their interrelations to understand how they changed scientists’ practice and their sense of reality. Furthermore we investigate the role played by this change of experiential space in the reflexive turn in the sciences, formulated with astonishing clarity in the early writings of Ludwik Fleck, Michael Polanyi, and Gaston Bachelard.

First results of this long term project have recently been published: H. Otto Sibum (ed.) Science and the Changing Senses of Reality circa 1900. Special Issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39 (3), 2008,  295-458. Read Introduction.

Currently the project is concerned with the practices and uses of theorising developed within the community of physical scientists in Germany. In particular the works of the Jena theoretical physicist Felix Auerbach is of great importance.

H. Otto Sibum, "Experience-Experiments: The Changing Experiential Basis of Physics”, in Marco Beretta, Karl Grandin, Svante Lindqvist (eds.), Aurora Torealis. Studies in History of Science and Ideas in Honor of Tore Frängsmyr. Sagamore Beach: SHP, 2008, 181-191.

About the Project

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