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Courtesy: Peter Galison
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Interview of Peter Galison by David Zierler on June 22, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard. Galison describes his numerous and overlapping appointments across Harvard, which allow him to teach in both Physics and History of Science, as well as the Philosophy and Art, Film, and Visual Studies Departments. He recounts his upbringing in Manhattan and a formative year he spent in Paris doing plasma physics before enrolling at Harvard as an undergraduate. Galison talks about the impact of the course Math 55 and why early on he knew he wanted to pursue a course of study that combined science with the arts, which ultimately coalesced into a course of study on history of science with a focus on physics. He describes the intellectual influence of Clifford Geertz and his anti-Vietnam war activism at Harvard, and he conveys the excitement surrounding fundamental discoveries in particle physics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Galison discusses his postgraduate year at Cambridge where he worked on the philosophy of relativistic quantum mechanics, and he explains his decision to return to Harvard for his thesis work. He discusses his entrance into the Harvard Society of Fellows with the support of Steve Weinberg and Ed Purcell, and he explains how his interests in the unified field theories of Weinberg-Salam-Glashow informed his dissertation work in physics and history of science. Galison traces the origins of his interest in the duality of Big Science and Small Science and the considerations he faced in choosing between physics and history of science for his postdoctoral work. He explains his decision to focus on the latter at Stanford where he joined what would come to be known as the “Stanford School” and how these collaborations informed his book How Experiments End. Galison describes his interest in experimentation as labor history and he discusses his connection to the physics department and to SLAC during his time at Stanford. He discusses the philosophical connotations around the idea that the concept of a multiverse is not science because it is not testable, and he mounts a defense of the future utility of string theory by drawing a distinction between what it demonstrates now against what it will demonstrate with further advance. Galison discusses his contributions to the Black Hole Initiative and the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, and he surveys the current advances made possible by AI and machine learning. He traces his interest in using film as a medium for scholarly research for its ability to convey a “density” in human interaction that is not achievable in print, and he explains why the notion of government secrecy bridges his interest in physics and social systems. Galison reflects on his own decisions as a graduate student and the lessons he has tried to pass on to his students. At the end of the interview, Galison surveys his current interests, and connects his scholarship as an avenue to understanding the contemporary pandemic, the related challenge of the disconnect of scientific expertise and public policy, and why ultimately science will offer a path out of the crisis.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 22nd, 2020. It is my great pleasure and honor to be here with Professor Peter Galison. Peter, thank you so much for joining me today.
It's a pleasure.
OK. So, to start—I know this might be a mouthful, but can you tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Of course. I'm the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard, and I have various other functions, but there are about 25 of us University Professors at Harvard, we're kind of ministers without portfolio, in the sense of being able to teach across departments. My primary departments are History of Science on the one side and Physics on the other, but I have affiliations also with the Art, Film, and Visual Studies Department, with the Philosophy Department and with the Graduate School of Design.
So, will you teach courses from the Physics Department?
I sometimes teach courses that are listed in Physics, sometimes across History of Science and Art, Film, and Visual studies. Sometimes between History of Science and Philosophy.
Do you like multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary more?
I don't know. I don't know which term is best, but I like occasions where work can participate in the discussions across the departmental disciplinary boundaries.
Right. OK. So, let's take this right back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents. Where are your parents from?
My family is many generations New York City. Both of them grew up in New York City, and my grandparents were in New York City, so were my great-grandparents—and so it goes back a while. And then, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, some 19th century, some early 20th century, they came from various places in Europe.
And what neighborhoods are your parents from?
My mother grew up not far from where I did, in Manhattan. We lived, when I was a small child up 'til about first or second grade, in Stuyvesant Town, which is a post-World War II housing development made for veterans and other middle-class families after World War II. And then we moved to the Upper West Side, which is where my mother grew up; my father grew up in Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898—so when my father was a child, the city had only been a borough of New York for a few decades.
[laughs] And people that grew up in Brooklyn never thought of themselves quite as being part of New York City—some still don’t.
They had their own world.
Exactly. And where did your parents meet?
Both of my parents had older sisters who were in art school, and their older sisters introduced them when they were towards the beginning of college. My father went to Colgate and my mother to Wellesley. And then my father worked on his master's degree at Harvard in Russian studies, joining the Air Force at the tail end of the Korean War, just post Korean War, in Air Force intelligence and Russian studies.
Was he interested in pursuing academic research for a career in the military, was that part of the plan?
He was in ROTC in college, Air Force ROTC, and then, when he was at the Russian Studies Department—he was interested in Russian culture, he was interested in literature. I don't think he ever had the intention of being an academic researcher. In the Air Force, they were stationed in Reno, Nevada at the Air Force base there, and he had work in escape, invasion, and the resistance to interrogation. One of his jobs was to keep the one team from being, well, overly enthusiastic in their interrogation of the airmen who were trying to escape and evade.
Some of the techniques they used were subsequently made rather infamous in the SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape) program.
So, he was a kind of referee in that. And then he wrote a series of papers, which I've never been able to get, during that period. But one of the things my parents liked about being in Reno was that they worked with people who taught escape and evasion, and so they learned all sorts of outdoor skills. They would go camping with guys that could pull a trout from behind a rock with their bare hands. So, they learned a lot about outdoors things. And when my siblings—well, I have a younger brother and a younger sister—when we were growing up, camping and the outdoors was always something that was seen with great pleasure. My brother and I both did a version of some of these outdoor survival programs when we were kids in high school.
And so, despite the love of the outdoors, the pull of New York was too great for them, they had to come back?
What were their professions in New York?
My mother worked on a master's degree in ancient history and she was an art history major in college. And she continued and continues to have a very strong interest, though they've turned more towards Japanese art history and especially prints. There's an ukiyo-e society which she spends a lot of time with, or did before the pandemic. My father worked for a chain of stores that my mother's father had started, clothing stores in New York City. They sold that in the early '70s, maybe the beginning of the '70s. He had been to art school also and wanted to see about work as an artist and did that for a number of years, painting, and sculpting. Then he started a company that worked with museums to produce books and cards, a business that then expanded in various ways. He sold that not that many years ago to the San Francisco Chronicle.
And you did your formative years in the Upper West Side? You were there for most of childhood?
Yeah. I was at Hunter College Elementary School, which was a school you had to test into, but it was (and is) a public school run by the Board of Higher Education under the auspices of Hunter College. Back then, after sixth grade, they kicked all the boys out. The high school was all girls—my mother taught social studies there for some years. After sixth grade I went to an all-boys middle and high school called Riverdale Country Day School for Boys in New York, a smallish private school in The Bronx, in Riverdale. It became co-ed in the late '60s when politics and everything changed. When I went there at the beginning, it was a very strict, tie and jacket, “yes, sir; no, sir” school, and that changed somewhat. I finished a year early. I had done what there was to be done there. I had done the AP courses and so, after what would've been my 11th-grade year, I went to France where I spent a year at École Polytechnique, which was still then in the 5th arrondissement in Paris. I worked in a plasma physics laboratory—oh, I had taken some college level physics in high school and an advanced calculus course at Columbia. The year I was in Paris was 1972-73. I delayed by a year going to Harvard where I had been accepted as a sophomore. I didn't really want to be two years younger than everyone else in college. I had a very interesting year at this plasma physics laboratory for the physics of ionized media. I worked on an experiment there, a tabletop experiment, with a wonderful scientist, Dominique Grésillon. We published a paper out of that on the exciting ionic waves, pseudo-soundwaves, that travel through a big glass evacuated container with the plasma in it. It was called a Q-machine. As that slow-moving ionic wave moved slowly through, it would trap the much faster-moving electrons. And we measured the distribution of energy of those electrons—that was the first paper that I published in any field. That was in '72-'73.
How did a high school kid—how was he even aware of this laboratory in Paris to work in plasma physics? How did that all come together?
Well, I had been especially close to a French teacher named Cleaver Forbes at Riverdale and had really enjoyed the work I had done with him. He had been a graduate student at Yale during the heyday of their French department, and so I read a lot of both French literature and philosophy, but also secondary literature like Lucien Goldmann's Le Dieu caché (“The Hidden God”), new French novels, and other works in literary-philosophical history. That was in '71-'72, and the Vietnam War was raging. I was very involved with political things, anti-Vietnam War. I was very against the war. Because I was fascinated by French literature and philosophy, I wrote to various labs in France. I thought I wanted to be in France, and I didn’t think I could get—no one was going to pay me to work in literary theory. But I had done enough work in physics, so I thought maybe I could get something agreed there—and with the help of a family friend, it worked out (I think the people at Polytechnique must have been amused more than anything else that an American student would want to come…back then it was very unusual). I came as an auditeur libre, a sort of free-standing auditor. Polytechnique is a kind of cross between West Point and MIT, if you can imagine such a thing.
So, it was very different. And in that period, the students were all in uniform and they were part of the French Army. I wasn't going to be part of the French Army, but this auditor status let me take courses. And I took a course with Laurent Schwartz, one of my heroes, a great mathematician, one of the people who developed the theory of distributions and convolutions. So, I took a course from him, and then I worked in this lab, and then I got to know people at adjacent schools and through other things that I was doing. It was a very evocative year. I lived on a street, la rue Cardinale Lemoine, which, at the time, had a lot of Vietnamese people living there. That's a street that, when you go higher up the hill, goes up to Polytechnique. And one of the people from Polytechnique had figured out a way to get me a maid's room at the top floor of one of these buildings. I would go into bookstores, and I would talk to people. There was a bookstore on the Left Bank called Maspero which was a hotbed of intellectual and political discussion, and I would go there late at night and hang out 'til 2:00 in the morning talking about politics and philosophy. I remember one time, late at night, everyone migrated over to an otherwise empty theater and we argued about Kafka. It was a totally chaotic, wild time, really fun. I had a great time.
It sounds like a short film in the making here, your year in Paris. [laugh] How was your French prior to the trip?
I spoke French. We have some French relatives, and my mother especially loved going to France, so we would go to France for summers, and out in Brittany or in Paris. I was young enough then so that I sort of picked it up just playing with other kids. I mean, I was still a kid when I went to Polytechnique. I had just turned 17. I remember I once went to a conference on plasma physics with my advisor and others from the laboratory—there was a lot of classified work there, and they said to the group that I was with, well, fine, welcome, but he (pointing to me) can't come in. I was ready to get on my high horse and say, just because I'm American, you can't exclude me! And they said, no, no, no, young man. It's not because you're American, it's because you're a child. You see the sign? He pointed to the big sign over the guard booth, it said “no children under the age of 18.” [laughs]
And I didn't qualify. Anyway, the scientist I was with talked me in, so I could go to that.
And, in putting this opportunity together, you were specifically and already interested in physics?
I was interested in physics. I had a great-grandfather, my mother's mother's father, Frank Alexander, who was an inventor and high-voltage electrical engineer. He'd come at a very young age from Romania—he came from a long line of civil engineers. His family had built bridges and things like that. But he wanted to be an electrical engineer, and the boys in the family went to Berlin and they studied at University of Berlin, down where now the Technische Universität is in Berlin. And the girls would go to Paris for something like finishing school, where they learned culture and literature. When he came to the States he worked for Edison for a while in Menlo Park, New Jersey, when the lab was there. Then he worked on his own. He had a company with colleagues, and they did high-voltage testing equipment, which meant that, in his lab—he lived 'til he was in his mid-90s, until I was, I don't know, 12 or 13 years old— so I would go in his basement, which looked like Dr. Frankenstein's lab with big double-pull, double-throw switches and arc lamps and bottles of mercury. He blew glass, and he built lamps that had filaments that would flicker, green leaves that would look like they were blowing in the wind underneath a rose. Unfortunately, I never learned to blow glass, but my mother when she was young, did. So, it was no doubt from there that I got interested in the machines of science, the technology, the materiality of scientific understanding.
So, far be it for me to be teleological here, but it sounds like even from the beginning you were comfortable in sort of both worlds, in a scientific world and a humanities world?
Yes. I was. I remember being a kid and thinking, oh, well, I should study math and literature because they were permanent. They're ideal forms in some way. But pretty soon, certainly by the time I got to Harvard—so this would've been in '73, '74—I took a famous course called Math 55, which sort of zoomed a small group of students up so they could take graduate courses immediately after that. I took that, and it was a great course and with great kids in it. Bill Gates was in that class and Jim Sethna, who's at Cornell, Matthew Malkan now in Astronomy at UCLA, and it was a lot of people that I liked and got along with. We would work late at night. I mean, we'd take all night long to do these problem sets, these killer, endless problem sets. We worked through Lighthill’s book on distributions—and Spitzer’s Calculus on Manifolds. And then, the next year, I took a course from somebody else, who's still a great friend of mine and someone who I admire hugely, Barry Mazur, one of the great algebraic geometers of the 20th and early 21st century. I took a graduate course from him on complex analysis. In the beginning of the second semester of that, I realized that I thought mathematical structures were beautiful, I just couldn’t see how I would ever come up with them. I looked at these works—the Riemann zeta function, number theory, as if I was seeing a work of da Vinci. But I didn’t seem to have the intuition for math that I did for physics.
To me it was like looking at sculpture of David or the Sistine Chapel. It was like I admired it and I wanted to learn about it, but there wasn't a chance in hell that I was going to be able to do something like that, even a much more modest version of that. I just thought, I have no fundamental intuitions on what should be done next. And I was with people—
Why, because it was too abstract?
No. I don't know—maybe because I couldn’t make pictures in my mind that could guide me, or even more tactile imagined models. Maybe my intuitions just didn't seem to go in that direction, whereas, in physics, I felt like I could think about things until they made sense for me. For me, partly the pleasure of teaching is sharing things that I've figured out a way of understanding in my own way. And I felt like I could do that in physics, but I felt a little bit lost in being able to do that in algebraic geometry. I could follow the argument, but I didn't feel like I could recreate the image that I had fundamental intuitions for. And I got more and more interested in physics and relativity. There was another pressure: because I started Harvard as a sophomore, I had to choose a major right away. I think, two weeks to choose a major.
I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but I thought maybe some way of combining mathematics or mathematical physics and art. I thought that seemed really interesting. And I had some cockamamie ideas about—I thought that some of the early Russian formalists who did these wire sculptures that were highly mathematical interested me: Naum Gabo, for example. But I didn't know what I was talking about. I had sort of these things that I'd seen that I liked from de Stijl and Bauhaus. So, I went to the Art department, and they said, that sounds like a great idea to combine math and art. I went to the applied math department and asked if I could have my area of application of mathematics be art. They said, in a slightly nicer way (but only slightly nicer), that's the single worst idea we've ever heard.
You can do mathematics and have your domain of application be physics. We think that's about the right way to do it.
But this art stuff, they said, not so much. So, I started doing applied math and physics, and I had a schedule filled with graduate courses in advanced courses in mathematics and in physics. And I took this Math 55 course and a physics version of that. And it was an exciting time in physics, and I was interested in that, but it felt like a supercharged version of high school to me, and I wanted to do something that had this other engagement that you pointed to that would somehow combine the sciences and the humanities in some way. I didn't know exactly how. I had read Gerald Holton's book. The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought had just come out in 1973, just then as I was getting to Cambridge. And I had read Thomas Kuhn's book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions which had been reissued about the same time, originally published in 1962, and then it was reissued with a new introduction and postface in '70, I believe. So, that was a hot item and much discussed in a myriad of courses. I read some things about it even when I was in France. But that was all I knew about history of science, Holton, and Kuhn. But I thought that was interesting, so I went over to the History of Science department—this is in my panicked first weeks there, when the sand clock was running out of sand to make the choice of what my major would be. I was talking to the Art department and physics and math, and I was really floundering a bit. I met the people [in history of science], like Erwin Hiebert, Bernard Cohen, Everett Mendelsohn, Gerry Holton, and Joan Cadden, who was then a young faculty member, and she was very nice to me. In fact, everyone was very nice to me about doing this, and they said I could do all the physics I wanted. And they told me I needed to choose a domain of history? And I said, I'd like to do European intellectual and clinical history. And they said sure, and there'd be a unifying tutorial that we'd go through. And I thought, this is great! I took the physics and math that I wanted to, and I took the mostly European intellectual history, but was very drawn to social history; I was reading E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson—Braverman who wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital. That wasn't so much what the Harvard History Department was interested in back then, but I took the courses in social history that I could (I took courses with Molly Nolan, then an assistant professor). So, I had a great time. I found a way that, for me—it was called then and still is the department of history and science, and I was able to do what I wanted. I took a course at the law school with Roberto Unger on law and social theory.
I know you're familiar with the Gallatin program at NYU. I'm a product of the Gallatin program. I'm curious; it sounds like what you did was create your own little Gallatin program at Harvard, right?
Yeah. I was lucky to have the undergraduate program in the Department of History of Science, but, yes, my son, Sam, went to the Gallatin and so I know it very well. I've even (much later) taught a course there. So, yes: I did find a way to put together a program of courses that was tremendously exciting to me.
I'm saying you probably had to make up, because there isn’t that sort of analog in terms of here's a whole school for students like you who wanted not to be bound up within one particular department?
Yeah. So, I had a pretty good idea what interested me, or the complex of things that interested me. Once I got going, I saw a way, and I began to work pretty early on a senior thesis project, mainly under the supervision of Gerald Holton, on Hermann Minkowski's development of the idea of spacetime, which intrigued me. And so, I began to work on that. It was great. I was able to do the mix of things that I wanted to do.
Yeah. And I'm curious, I mean, physics, it seems clear that you were pretty set on physics, but in terms of the most important questions you wanted to ask about science, did you think about other humanities programs like cultural anthropology or the sociology of science or philosophy of science? Did you sort of consider sister disciplines to history or it just sort of happened that history was there, and you liked it and you went with it?
I did think about philosophy a lot, and I took courses and became quite close with Hilary Putnam. Michael Friedman was an assistant professor at Harvard back then. I took a course on the Vienna Circle with Michael, which was terrific. I took some courses in ancient philosophy on the Nichomachean Ethics, taught by Myles Burnyeat who was visiting from Cambridge: so, philosophy much more than anthropology. I mean, at the time, anthropology of science didn't have the dynamic structure that it has in the last period—though I remember reading works from anthropology that touched on relevant issues: Mary Douglas, of course, but also Robin Horton in his Africa pieces. I think now there are ways of combining history, ethnography, anthropology of science in extremely interesting ways. I think it's one of the more vibrant domains of science studies. But, at the time (in the early 1970s), it wasn't so apparent (at least to me) how that would work.
I mean, certainly, by the time I was in the end of undergraduate time—I was reading a lot then of Cliff Geertz and his students and associates and colleagues, who were trying to combine anthropology and history to make anthropology something that you could do historically. Not the history of the discipline of anthropology, but to actually say, ‘no, there are no people without history.’ You can look at the historicity of Bali and ask anthropological questions of history like Natalie Zemon Davis or Lawrence Stone, or Robert Darnton--the whole Princeton group that, in my view, in the '70s created a kind of revolution in history: an anthropologically-inflected history and historically-inflected anthropology. That work had a big effect on me. But it was a while, then, before I really got a grip on how to think about science studies or history of science in a world with that. So, I would say my main interests, outside of the history-physics nexus, were partly political, and especially social history. And I read Labor and Monopoly Capital. I read a lot in sort of social history of the workplace and of technology. And, again, I think that began to activate sooner than history of science, or history of science per se.
Probably among the anthropologists, I would say Geertz was very important to me. Among the Harvard anthropologists, I read carefully the work of Stanley Tambiah.
Yeah, yeah. Were you politically active during your undergraduate years? Did you continue on from your concerns at the height of the Vietnam War?
Yeah. So, I got to Harvard in the late summer of 1973, and the Vietnam War was still raging and there were negotiations about that, and that had been the last part of my time in France. And Henry Kissinger was there for what was supposed to be the end-stage negotiations. But things got to be a bloody mess, and then there was the debacle of the withdrawal. But, yes, I was very—I mean, I remember early on in my Harvard time participating in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and being very interested in that. You know, one of the things that I thought when I was starting college—I was entranced by what I now see as an entirely romantic picture of the foreign correspondent, which was, I think somewhere between Edward R. Murrow’s reporting during World War II…
[laugh] You know, "This is Edward Murrow reporting from The Blitz in London." And Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism. Beyond the reports I read in newspapers, I had absolutely no idea of what it meant to be a foreign correspondent. But it had been such a revelation to me to talk to people from Cambodia and Vietnam whom I met in Paris, and then traveling through places, like Greece, which was in the midst of a brutal authoritarian regime. I had student colleagues I met who had been involved in the demonstrations against the junta. I traveled in Greece when the Sixth Fleet was parked outside Athens, outside Piraeus. And knowing people who have had friends being shot at or beaten up. I'd been on the beaches where someone would start to play a record by a forbidden recording artist, and seeing people flee in terror of being associated with that music. So, I had a pretty strong sense of a high-stakes struggle over politics.
But Vietnam was the core of my concerns. I mean, I remember meeting David Malament, who was and is a great philosopher of science, back when I was 15 or 16, maybe it was the summer of—maybe I was even younger—but it was the late '60s. He had just gotten out of jail. He'd been in prison, and I remember one of the first things he said to me, because we were talking about literature, and he said, "Yeah, I just got out of confinement with the Berrigan brothers, and we had a reading group about Musil’s The Man Without Qualities."
[laughs] And I thought, holy shit, this is the most interesting thing in the universe!
And he was and still is, I think, one of the most vibrant, interesting, technical philosophers of general relativity in the world, and one of the great philosophers of science. So, philosophy of science in this turbulent time of—Hilary Putnam was out on a soapbox in Harvard Square talking about politics, and Noam Chomsky was very active. And Chomsky and Putnam would argue about the innateness of language or something like that, but they were very much on the same page politically. So, it was a very turbulent time. And then, in the midst of college, I was in a graduate class with Robert Proctor, who became a close friend of mine. We've done a lot of things together. And he and I and spent endless hours talking with Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin—there was Science for the People, which was very active back then, and I was on the sort of fringes of that. I wasn't a biologically gifted anything, but I followed with interest the arguments that went on about biology. Politics saturated the world.
When I first went up to Harvard, it was just a couple months after Harvard Yard had been tear-gassed and the police had come and violently rousted the students out of University Hall, which they had occupied. And so, I knew a lot of people that were—it was a politicized world. It wasn't something that felt like an optional extra. It was around you all the time, literally and figuratively in the air you breathed.
Right, right. Were you careful, once you got comfortable with history of science, to maintain your scientific credo, your studies? Did you know that you wanted to sort of equally pursue both courses of study throughout undergraduate?
Well, throughout the undergraduate time, I was just taking the courses that I wanted to take, so I took general relativity and I took quantum mechanics…I did a coterminous BA and MA, so I don't remember exactly when, but I took quantum field theory—this was a time in the first half of the '70s when all this exciting work was coming out of CERN and Fermilab and—
—SLAC and the quark model, and that was being elaborated. And 1969, before I was at Harvard, was the deep and elastic scattering that showed that the protons and neutrons acted like they had hard little BBs of quarks inside. The early '70s was when people were beginning to think dynamically about how you could understand these things as actually interacting, how quarks were forming, binding, and scattering. And 1974 was really the consolidation of quantum chromodynamics. So, it was a super-exciting time in physics—I would hear about it week after week from my teachers: Alejandro de Rujula, Larry Sulak, and later Carlo Rubbia, Howard Georgi, Steven Weinberg, Shelly Glashow.
And I knew a lot of the people. I got to know Howard Georgi in the 1970s—he became my advisor in physics a few years later. And then I spent a year in Cambridge, England (1977-78), and Mary Hesse, the great philosopher of science, whom I adored, was my advisor. And I studied with Nick Jardine, whose work on Copernicus I found riveting. I got to know some of my contemporaries—Simon Schaffer but he was at Cambridge and I was at Harvard, and then he went to Harvard for a year and I was at Cambridge, and then I went back to Harvard and he went back to Cambridge. We knew each other, and I thought the world of him then, and I still think the world of him now, but we were never really in the same place for very long. I worked a lot with Nick Jardine. There also in the Cambridge department John Schuster, who taught scientific revolution; he took up a position at and then went to Australia. I worked with him. Gerd Buchdahl taught a course on Kant’s First Critique—actually it was not a seminar, it was a tutorial (with one other student) for the entire year. But, mainly, I was working with Mary Hesse, I would say. I was writing a thesis on the philosophy of relativistic quantum mechanics. I was interested in what happened when quantum mechanics and relativity crossed and the paradoxes that can come out of that. I was interested in that, so I took a course at the Cavendish. Cavendish then had moved out near Churchill College, where I was, actually, and somebody told on me and told the head of the Churchill College that I was taking a course there. I didn't think I was doing something sneaky, but I got called on the carpet, denounced by someone. Mary Hesse came all the way out to Churchill College and sat with me and the head of Churchill College at the time, the master of Churchill College, and I had to defend myself. I said, "Look, I didn't realize I was doing something wrong. I was just in this course because I was writing my thesis on relativistic quantum mechanics and I thought it would be good to have a course in relativistic quantum mechanics.” Mary was very kind and bailed me out of trouble. [laughs]
So, it wasn’t always easy combining them, but, on the whole, I'd say back then, at least, it was harder in Europe than in the United States because of the way we distribute credits. Nobody really cares what courses you take as long as you take the courses you've got to take, right?
And then starting in the fall of 1978, I went back to Harvard. I guess I must've taken the quantum field theory course after I got back, because otherwise it wouldn't have made any sense for me to do what I did at Churchill. I had thought about going to study with Thomas Kuhn at Princeton, but he was leaving, and moving to MIT. And I thought about studying with Marty Klein at Yale, but the Yale historians of science had gotten broken up: the program in history of science as a department had been dissolved and people had been sent back to their departments. There really wasn't a way to do graduate studies there. So, of the two places I most wanted to go other than Harvard were put out of the question—I assumed I'd go somewhere else—it didn't make sense to go to Princeton without Thomas Kuhn, and there wasn't any longer a program to go to at Yale. I didn't really know Berkeley well enough back then to have considered that. I suppose that would've been a possibility. But I decided to stay at Harvard, and they said I could do what I wanted there. When I came back, I was worried that it would feel like the same thing, but it didn't. It felt really quite different to me being in graduate school.
Peter, as an undergraduate, I'm curious if, in terms of your objectives in taking a class like field theory, if there was a duality to it? In other words, most of the kids in the class, they were just trying to learn field theory, right? Were you, in addition to that, also thinking about the historical and philosophical issues that you were interested in wearing your other hat in history of science? Did you try to sort of combine those objectives in real time or did you try to separate those in your mind and put them together at a later date?
I think that my motivation for taking the courses that I did was, in part, driven by my historical philosophical interests.
So, in terms of just physics, condensed matter physics was altogether vibrant and interesting.
But now I can look back and see all these very interesting philosophical historical questions that have been asked from Philip Anderson's More is Different and so on. But, at the time, special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, particle physics seemed like the place where I could ask the big HPS [History, Philosophy, Science] questions—
I mean, the questions that seemed to me compelling, both for their intrinsic scientific and for their extrinsic philosophical historical stakes. I did think of them together, but it wasn't like I did the physics to get a union card so I could do something else. I enjoyed doing the physics. I loved it. But part of why I loved it was because I saw these larger questions of what is space and what is time and what is causality and what is an explanation and what is the origin of the universe? What's the big bang? What's the fate of things? What are the basic constituents of all objects? Those kinds of questions, to me, were and still are very compelling questions.
They still get me out of bed in the morning.
[laughs] And, I'm curious, who were your intellectual influences, or was it just that it made sense to you that you needed to sort of live the experience that you wanted to study as a historian? In other words, lots of historians don't need to live the history or experience it firsthand in order for them to research and assess and write about their topic. What was it that you felt you needed to understand as an insider to be able to ask those question?
I'd say it was different at different stages. I think my initial interest in the sciences was probably prompted by my great-grandfather and a fascination that science could be realized in machines. It just seemed amazing to me. It still does, by the way.
Then, in college, I think—then I went to France and I—I should say that both in France and in high school, my friends who I would've shared intellectual interests on the whole were fleeing from science. Most of the people who I knew who were thinking about things in terms of politics and philosophy, were not only uninterested in science, they were horrified by science. You know, physics for them was one step from plastic shrapnel designed to not show up on the x-rays, or napalm.
In high school, I was with some people who were very gifted and clearly could do the math and the physics. And I used to talk a lot with Jim Gleick, who was in a class one above me, but then I skipped into it; there was another guy who became a musicologist at Yale, Joe Straus. There were people who I could talk to, but I used to leave school and circle around the back and go meet the physics teacher.
I worked through an advanced placement physics textbook with nobody in my class. So, it was not just indifference, science felt outside of intellectual engagement. But it was something that I cared about.
Maybe it was this personal experience of my great-grandfather, Alexander.
I don't know. I can't say exactly. But, as a kid, I remember once I made a tic-tac-toe computer, and my great-grandfather, Alexander, at that time was losing his sight, but I remember him sitting on the porch of his house, feeling where the wires went and the lights, and telling me how to make it better. And I don't know, I was entranced by that, really entranced. And then, in college, I just was doing things because I thought they were really interesting. I didn't have a life plan that I was going to become a historian of science when I was 17 or 18, I just knew what interested me beyond all else.
But I knew I wanted to study general relativity and quantum mechanics. That seemed clear. And then, by the time it came time to apply to graduate school, then I knew I was interested in continuing to learn more about mathematical physics, which I did in Cambridge, and then I continued to do at Harvard. And then, Steve Weinberg, who I got to know in graduate school—I was in Cambridge (Massachusetts) in '77-'78, and then '78-'79, and '79-'80 I was taking courses at Harvard again, and then preparing my general exams in history of science and taking some more advanced physics. And I got to know Steve Weinberg, and he and Ed Purcell, who I also got to know, suggested that they would nominate me to the Harvard Society of Fellows (a three-year postdoctoral position). Which, at the time, it was originally designed to be an alternative to doing a doctorate. So, I was not finished with my doctorate at all, I had a year to go, but I applied and I got it, and I was there from 1980-81 through '82-'83. And the first year, '80-'81, I finished my PhD dissertation in history of science in what became How Experiments End. And then, while I was in the midst of that, or coming to the end of that, Steve Weinberg said, "Why don't you do a PhD in physics?" I had done pretty much all the coursework. I also had a problem I wanted to work on—in How Experiments End, the book ends with a study of a debate over this crucial moment of deciding about the first of the big, unified field theories, the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow Theory, through the arguments that took place over whether a thing called weak neutral currents were real.
I remember hearing a lecture by Steve Weinberg, what became his Nobel Prize lecture in that period, '80 or '81. I was fascinated by this idea that there was this back and forth about whether these weak neutral currents existed or not, whether there was a particle called the Z, which would mediate that and allow a particle to decay with the weak interaction without changing charge. That had seemed to be—there was, like, dogma that that couldn't happen.
And the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow theory predicted that this should happen. So, there was a big debate, and I had talked a lot with Steve Weinberg about the historical work that I had done towards that. And I was interested in weak neutral currents and he said, "Well, why don't you do a PhD dissertation in physics on some of the problems that came out of that?"
And it didn't occur to you until Steve said this to you maybe that you should just do one since you had done all this coursework?
No, I hadn't really thought—I mean, it was really his suggesting. But, as soon as he said it, I mean, naively, I thought that would be a good idea. I remember finishing the dissertation in history of science in the spring of 1980-'81, and then starting again in the physics department at this lowly stage. They had these working groups which I very much admired as a structure and I've tried to replicate in history of science, in fact. I'm being somewhat digressive. I hope you don't mind.
No, it's great.
There had been a graduate student strike in physics, and graduate students were complaining and unhappy that they weren't given the intellectual support that they wanted in this very exciting period of physics in the mid to late '70s. And so, they had established these working groups that were senior faculty, junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students who had just finished their generals. I got into one of those groups that was led by Howard Georgi and Shelly Glashow. Steve Weinberg and his wife, Louise, left for the University of Texas at Austin about that time. I had a structured idea of what I wanted to do my dissertation on. And so, I started working on that. But I felt like Sisyphus with OCD, starting another dissertation from the ground up like two weeks after I finished my dissertation in history of science. It all sounded great until it was time to actually do it. I loved the work, but I felt a real shock at starting again.
And then I got quite discouraged, and it took a while to—it's one thing to take the courses. It's like a gap that you don't quite expect…between good term papers and doing something that's new.
Right. Peter, before we get too far afield, I want to go back just really quickly to something you said previously that struck me. You know, back to peers in high school and this idea that science was sort of verboten among a certain group of people and you had to meet the physics teacher out back. I'm curious, and just a little intellectual foreshadowing, the connection that you had with your grandfather was really a portal to what you might call small science, right? Like the basement laboratory.
And your peers, they're thinking of science and what you would later call big science, right? Science that was militarized, that was corporatized, that was something that could not be done in a romantic, single, solitary discoverer mode. And I wonder if that was sort of formative in terms of you thinking about this binary of science in its romantic sense and science in what would become big science, and what that would mean in terms of the way that scientists coming from "big science" would have trouble communicating to society what it was that they were doing? I wonder if that was a seedling that was planted even early on in terms of your later interests?
Yeah. The science or the technology that I saw my great-grandfather working on was literally romantic science.
Mary Shelley couldn't have described it any better.
It really was only a slightly updated version of science that was done pre-World War II, right?
My great-grandfather Alexander had patents out on how linemen on high-voltage lines could avoid being killed, testing devices to see if a line was live or not, or things like that. So, it was not big science, and it certainly was not big, militarized science. Partly because of the politics of the moment, it never occurred to me to do military work. I remember my father's mother, I told her I was really interested in physics, and she said, "Promise me that no matter what happens you'll never build nuclear weapons."
I did listen to her. For a lot of the public, physics back then was nuclear weapons.
And when I was a kid, I thought of World War II as long ago, but for adults at the time it wasn't long ago.
1968 saw World War II as just after the Middle Ages, but for adults it was 25 years ago. It's like 1995 to now.
It's like 1995 isn't a long time ago.
Now, if you're 15, it probably is a long time ago, but for me it's not a long time ago. So, anyway—I got interested in studying in my history of science work looking at the progression from tabletop—How Experiments End goes from a tabletop experiment, the Einstein-de Haas effect to these sort of small group collaborations, like those involved in the discovery of the positron and the muon in the 1930s into the '40s, and then this weak neutral current experiment which was early 1970s. And there were lots of things that were challenging about that. I was writing it starting in—I started working on it in '78 or so, and the experiments, the things that I was writing about took place in '74, '75, some of them were still going on. There were people who had told me you can't (must not) do history about something that comes up to the present, that's not history.
And I think if I had written the thesis entirely about that, it would've been a really hard sell.
And I did it deliberately trying to integrate it with this older work, and I had done some work on Descartes, not very much, but I wrote an article on Descartes for Isis in a trio with Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston when we were grad students—two of my great allies and friends in graduate school and beyond. So, I got to know a little bit about the big science in a civilian sense, particle physics in that, and that's what led to the work in physics. But it also led me to think about the dynamics of big science. And, in fact, I thought, before I settled on the thesis idea that really began with discussions with Steve Weinberg, I thought about going to Fermilab and working there on a thesis, because that was, after all, an experiment where I knew I wanted to be writing. But it just seemed the theses last a lot longer, you're dependent on the schedule of a—now they seem like small teams, but those neutral current experiments had a couple of dozen people on them. The W and the Z CERN experiments from 1983, UA1 and UA2 had 130, 140 people on them. Those now (in retrospect) seem tiny. I mean, there's a certain irony because I've been working with the Event Horizon Telescope, which we can come to later, which has a scale of 200 or 300 now. But even the EHT doesn't come close to where large-scale experiments are in size now, which are 2500 or 3000 for ATLAS or CMS, numbers like that, at CERN with comparable numbers of engineers.
But, anyway, back to then, I think that I was interested in understanding what happened when, at least what everybody thought of at the time as big science, like what went on at Fermilab or CERN, that changed. And intellectually I was interested in that. And How Experiments End, in a sense, is about how the dynamics of the scientific community, as a whole—epistemically, socially, publications, refereeing—how that gets pulled back from the larger community into these large experiments. So, the experiment that I wrote about in CERN, (the Gargamelle heavy liquid bubble chamber experiment), was in a sense many scientific communities as a whole. And such big-science ventures began to exhibit the dynamics that I saw writ large in the scientific community of 10 or 15 groups in 1935 or 1915. That was, in one way, that's one of the theses of how experiments end.
So, although my thesis in physics itself was theoretical (about electroweak theory, unified field theories), I was very interested in these large-scale experiments in the epistemology of machines. And that already began—I began thinking and publishing on things that would become Image and Logic in that period.
And while I was working on my physics, I published early versions of the articles that become How Experiments End, which I finished, I think, in '86 and was published in '87. But I also began working on history of the bubble chamber and the history of spark chamber and things like that.
I'm curious, when push came to shove and Steve Weinberg said, "So, what do you want to work on?"—and, as you were saying, it's materially different when you're just taking courses and when you have to actually do something. Given that you were fresh off this in-depth look at experimentation and, of course, you were well aware of this binary in physics and how physicists divide themselves among experimentalists and theorists, I was curious if you—what was your approach to that binary in terms of being so aware sociologically of how physicists divided themselves and how you saw your own opportunity right here at the doorstep in terms of choosing what kind of thesis you wanted to do yourself and where you would fit in with that binary, being aware of these—
In physics or in history of science or both?
So, in physics, I never really considered doing a mathematical physics thesis. Instead, the thing that interested me most about unified field theories was the Higgs particle. It just seemed to me obviously the most—I'm not saying it's obvious, but to me it felt obviously the most interesting question that you could ask: how did this particle basically combine with things to give mass to a heavy version of the photon that becomes the Z particle and leaves the photon massless, so these two kinds of forces, the weak force and electromagnetism, could be unified? I thought the Higgs particle (symmetry breaking) was the most interesting question in the universe of physics, so I wanted to work on the Higgs. And what I did for my thesis was—it was clear that the CERN experiments were going to see the W and Z, if they existed, and I assumed they did. I mean, it seemed like—my teachers were Glashow and Weinberg, and I was working with Georgi.
I didn't have to be a mind reader to think that—I knew very well what the arguments were for the existence of these things, of the Higgs. So, the question was, could there be variations of the Higgs that preserved the observations that had been made in the weak neutral currents experiments, but might give the W and the Z a different mass? So, that's what I was looking at. And so, basically, I asked, how different could the Higgs sector be in certain dimensions from what the standard model said if you do the mass of the W and Z? If you measured the mass of the W and Z, how would it restrict the conceptual space of what the Higgs could be like, and still have the predictions for the things that had already been seen that essentially measured the ratio of the W and the Z's mass? So, that's what I was working on. The reason that I bring the topic up is that it was this group around Georgi and Glashow that was phenomenological in the physics sense, not in the Heidegger-Husserl sense. It was theory, but theory that resided close to experimental prediction.
And that's what I wanted to work on. So, I was pretty clear. I wasn't trying to prove things like a mathematician—to give (for example) a rigorous, two-dimensional understanding of something that happens normally in four dimensions even if you can't prove it rigorously in four dimensions—I didn't care about that. I didn't care about making physics rigorous in a mathematical sense. I wanted to see what theory could tell us about what we would see. So, in that sense, it was connected to experiment very closely. The work that I most admired had that feature. I could see making predictions and seeing what happened at CERN or Fermilab or DESY or SLAC.
Were Weinberg and Glashow, were they hoping to make a real physicist out of you, was that part of the deal? They said, we'll work with you, but you really should become a real physicist, did you have those kinds of conversations with them?
I did. Well, I think two things: One is I knew them pretty well and they knew me, and the second was that, at the time, I thought I would continue working in physics. And I left Harvard, 1983 is when I finished being a junior fellow, and I finished my dissertation in particle theory, and I went to Stanford. And Stanford was just getting history of science going. There was a very nice and capable guy there named Wilbur Knorr who did ancient geometry and used classical methods of text analysis like stemmas and things like that to order the different demonstrations of Euclidian geometry and to figure out, by the propagation of error, what had come before what. Like recreating the sequence of ancient text versions of Sophocles or something like that. Like me, he was also cross-appointed between philosophy and another department (he was also in the Classics Department). And I was appointed in philosophy with a courtesy appointment in Physics. At the time, the Stanford History Department was not very interested in history of science at Stanford. That changed over time. Eventually, I became very close with a lot of the people there like Bart Bernstein, Jim Sheehan, and Paul Robinson—as well as the senior philosophers John Perry, Michael Bratman, Nancy Cartwright and others. I mean, there were a lot of people in history that I worked with closely. But, at the time, the provost that first established this new position in history of science, the history department wasn't so interested in history of science.
But philosophy was. In 1981, when they offered me the job, there was Pat Suppes, John Etchemendy was just joining, and Arnold Davidson was there as an assistant professor. John Dupré, a philosopher of biology, was there too—one of the best philosophers of biology, I think, and he was in my (junior faculty) cohort. Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking were key. Bas C. van Fraassen would come in from Princeton, Arthur Fine from Northwestern. It was a very dynamic group. We had in effect an informal group called "The Stanford School" and tried to make scientific practice a kind of bridge between philosophy of science and history of science. That effort—to make scientific practice the link—seemed incredibly promising to me, and still does.
Was disunity sort of right there at the beginning of these relationships that you were building? This was really an intellectual—this is what you all shared, this concept of disunity in science?
I think yes, but I would put it a little differently. I'd say we had a shared interest in scientific practice, not in trying to find universal rules for science, but in following practices (theoretical and experimental) where they went. That led to reflections on disunity held in different ways by Ian, Pat, Nancy, John and me.
We were not doing—it wasn't Trolley Problem, it wasn't for hypotheses H1 through HN and initial conditions I1 through IQ, what kind of conclusions—it wasn't about universal criteria of scientific evidence, demonstration, verification, confirmation. We would teach that because we thought people should know that older literature. I taught an introduction to the philosophy of science course. And I taught the work of Hempel. Karl Popper came sometimes to visit the philosophy department and Stanford, and he was quite a bit older then. But those broad claims about science in general—that's not where our hearts were.
Suppes was very interested in what the practice of contemporary science could tell us, and so was Nancy Cartwright, and so was Ian Hacking. And some of the early work that really left a mark on me from John Dupré was about the species concept in contemporary biology.
And that remained true, even towards the end of my time at Stanford when I was head of the committee and we hired Peter Godfrey-Smith, who was finishing his PhD at San Diego with Phil Kitcher. I think that what was shared was a sense of practice. And the practices, in a sense—by attending to scientific practice, we were led away from the idea of universal statements about what science was like in general. Instead, we wanted to know how people did things in this domain of science or that domain of science. So, at least for me, I thought of the disunity of science as emerging from attention to the constitutive practices that put together different branches of science and that linked them differently to the wider world.
I'm curious; you definitely did not go and refine your dissertation, like, the next year. There was a significant amount of time between your history dissertation and the publication of How Experiments End. So, I'm curious if this intellectual atmosphere that you found yourself in at Stanford influenced your thinking and that went into the final book project?
Oh, absolutely. I talked a lot to—Ian Hacking left. I talked to him a lot—I delayed two years. I finished my history of science dissertation in '81 and my physics dissertation in 1983—between 1981 and ‘83 I revised some chapters of the thesis as history of science articles, for example, I wrote a version of my work on the discovery of neutral currents for Reviews of Modern Physics.
Stanford offered me the job—I don't remember exactly when, but roughly 1981, two years before I went. I asked them would it be OK if I finished my dissertation in physics before coming and used my second and third years as a junior fellow to do that. Sandy Fetter, who was chair of the physics department and a condensed matter physicist and was a great help and ally of mine. Suppes, Hacking and Cartwright did me an enormous, a truly generous favor by letting me have those two years. So, from '81 to '83, I did refine three chapters, one on the Einstein-de Haas effect, one on discovery of the muon and the failed revolution against quantum electrodynamics, and one on weak neutral currents for publication. And then, I remembered Chicago University Press said, well, maybe we'll be interested in just publishing these three articles. But I got very strong, and I think good, advice, though it was painful at the time, that I should go back and really rewrite the whole into a unified whole—pardon the expression—
—into an argument that read front to back. And, like I often tell my grad students, that I've never seen a PhD dissertation, including my own, that had a half-decent conclusion. So, I had to work that out.
I still don't think that the conclusion of my history of science thesis as it stood in 1981 was any good. But I went back and I wrote something; and that conclusion—understanding these experiments diachronically and synchronically, what they have in common, what's different about the way argumentation is assembled in a tabletop small group, in a large group—that really came out of thinking really hard and profitably with John Dupré, John Etchemendy, Pat Suppes, Nancy Cartwright, Ian Hacking, Arnold Davidson. I really learned a lot in the philosophy department—and the continued work in physics in those years helped too.
And the assertion that it's important to focus on experimentation as a key component of how discovery happens, what are some of the broader historiographical debates during that time that you felt you were entering into or contributing to by making—like you said, unifying all of these disparate interests into this book and emphasizing the importance of experimentation? What were some of the historiographical debates that compelled you that this was an argument that needed to be made?
I was interested in sort of social, material history.
And some of that was driven—
E.P. Thompson, I mean, going all the way back, right?
Yeah. E.P. Thompson. As I mentioned, Molly Nolan who was a young faculty member at Harvard and I took some courses from her. As I mentioned also, the work like Braverman and others did these studies of sort of neo-Marxist analysis of the workplace. I was reading The Annales School, Fernand Braudel was very important to me, Marc Bloch, above all. I loved it that Braudel asked things like: How long does it take to get a letter across the Mediterranean? Or: Can you police from a monarchical structure the mountainous regions. So, I was interested in The Annales School, and Marc Bloch I read very carefully. What can you understand about the partition of farms by the legacy furrowing of fields? What do place names tell you? I was interested in the idea of culture that could be ascribed outside of the universal high culture notions, so E.P. Thompson's idea of a working-class culture was important to me as I was trying to understand what different scientific cultures would be.
As I mentioned, in Braudel, I was very taken by the idea that geography could be understood as shaping political order. It's a lot easier to rule a rice field political economy with a monarchical police force, so to speak, than it was to—I remember Braudel saying, no one's ever successfully run a monarchical structure in a mountain region in Northern Italy or Switzerland. I mean, it's just hard to do. You can't get your horses; you can't get your enforcers—you can't do it. Braudel also looked at different time scales—this too impressed me—from event-history through to geological time. All that, materiality, time scales, was important to me. I read Durkheim carefully and I was interested in sociology. I remember thinking, I've written some things—I eventually published some of this, but I wrote some papers about The Annales School as a combination of Marxist and sociological accounts in different ways. I think too of the work of Gerry Holton on his essay on Milliken and Felix Ehrenhaft, I really loved the way he got into the fabric of things, the misfirings and working-out that left traces in notebooks. Holton himself had an experimental background. He had worked in Percy Bridgman’s high-pressure laboratory at Harvard for his dissertation in physics. Purcell, he measured the 21-cm hydrogen line in the universe and played a key role in developing nuclear magnetic resonance. So, he put his hand to experimental things, but he was also interested in the simplest possible theoretical explanation of things. And I think, of the people whom I talked to a lot, I think Purcell, Holton, Weinberg, Georgi, Putnam, those are teachers of mine who had a really big effect on me. I learned a lot from other people, but they were people whose work back at Harvard whom I admired enormously, whose work, in a way, seemed beautiful to me. Among the younger people I knew from the Society of Fellows, I spent a great amount of time with some of the humanists, Terry Castle (literature), Don Reid in social history, Leon Wiesenthal (literature), Nita Krevans and Richard Garner (classics), Suzi Blaustein (music)—and in physics, I spoke all the time with Mark Wise, John Preskill, and Paul Ginzparg. Howard Georgi was a senior fellow—I learned a huge amount from him about how to think about physics.
Mm-hmm. And, in terms of your political interests, it sounds like you were looking at experimentation as labor, in a sense.
It's people working.
And all that that connotes in terms of how they work, where they work, the institutions and all of those things.
Yes. In a way, Image and Logic was a kind of conjoined epistemological and work history; the forms of knowledge making associated with individual, cottage, and industrial-scale work. I meant the book to be, simultaneously, a material history of work and a material epistemology.
And so, I think, for me, being struck by—I think I talk about this in the preface to How Experiments End, but it was really dramatic to me to see how Bob Pound, who shared in the development of nuclear magnetic resonance, what made him think something was real and not an artifact.
It wasn't an argument from symmetry. It was adjusting a knob and seeing the flicker of a trace on an oscilloscope or a coincidence counter move this way not that. It was in the materiality of an instrument knowledge. And, in a way, I had been interested in that from my childhood experience and by my experience in France at École Polytechnique. And then, taking an experimental course with Pound, doing some work with Purcell, seeing him reverse the magnetic field on a tank of water and seeing these little, tiny, microscopic creatures go the other way to show that they were tracking the magnetic field lines as a way of navigating. I mean, I was fascinated by that, and I was completely persuaded that this was a different form of knowing from an argument from theory alone. But I didn't want to demean theory to say, theory is nothing but an epiphenomenal surface phenomenon explained by the substrate of experiment. It wasn't that. It was that I wanted to see science as having these different cultures, and eventually this idea of instrument makers, experiment makers, and theory makers as each having their own forms of persuading themselves that something is a real effect and not an artifact. That is one of the underlying methodological commitments throughout all of my work.
And even absent the materiality, theorists are certainly laboring, as well?
Exactly! I never thought of theory as being the opposite of practice.
And even at the end of How Experiments End, I wanted to talk about different forms of theoretical practice. So, I was very sympathetic to that, the kind of thing later that Andy Warwick did in his study of the Maxwellians. I always thought that it wasn't theory versus practice, it was theoretical practice versus instrument practice versus experimental practice.
As the history of science program grew at Stanford, it's a remarkable opportunity for you with your colleagues, this period of intellectual ferment and excitement, what were some of the broader objectives you had in terms of building the program?
Well, I think one thing was I thought that the—when I was an undergraduate and graduate, there was a big debate over who had the best universal model for scientific change, was it Kuhn or Lakatos or Popper, Larry Laudan? There were, many, many different models for what scientific change was. And then, the picture was that historians would provide the thumbnail sketches (or the potted history, depending on how much you liked what they were doing), to support or refute these different accounts. And that seemed to me both a degraded form of philosophy of science and a degraded form of history. I had zero interest in that. I mean, I had to teach it sometimes, but I didn't have any enthusiasm about trying to adjudicate between sophisticated falsificationism and naïve falsificationism or confirmationism and verificationism.
Because it was reductive?
Yeah. It just seemed sterile, isolated from what scientists did, what philosophers cared about or what historians considered history. By the time you generalized an account of scientific change so it covered all fields from Plato to NATO, what you had left was nothing.
It's like saying, what's there in common about all buildings? Well, maybe you can say some things, but it's not very interesting, what a thatched-roof hut has in common with the Empire State Building and a grain silo. It's generalized past the point of having any purchase on helping us make useful distinctions and advancing historical or conceptual understanding. I just had no interest in that. So, the Stanford School interested me because it was —we were—paying attention to practice but using it as a way of getting at real philosophical questions, whether it was John Dupré asking about what a species is, or Ian Hacking trying to use scientific practice to form a kind of entity realism—without being committed to a realism about theories. Or Nancy Cartwright interested in phenomenological theories or approximation methods—but not in fundamental theories (her emphasis was prediction not explanation). I mean, they were really interesting questions, and they were drawing on the reservoir of scientific practice. I was excited about that. And I think that has some legacy in what happened afterwards, but, over the course of the '80s, Ian left and Eckart Förster left and Arnold Davidson went to the University of Chicago. It began to splinter somewhat, and then I think also there was a change in philosophy of science, which got more interested in decision under uncertainty and new models of rationality. Game theory began to be of interest and game-theoretical accounts of so-called experimental economics or experimental psychology in this new vein, versions of the prisoner's dilemma. I wasn't very intrigued by that. I was very interested in what Peter Godfrey-Smith did with it, because he applied some of these new methods to real biological systems, but, as a whole and in the abstract, it didn't interest me all that much. And that was on the philosophy side. On the historical side, there was a bind with small group sociology, and the accounts of early '80s Edinburgh School STS, which was more focused on small-group sociology and less interested in philosophy. So, I felt like there was a pulling apart from both sides, that history formed a new alliance with small-group sociology, mainly, through that early conception of STS, trying to show that the category of the social was foundational. And philosophers got more interested in making an alliance with game theoretical and other forms of rational decision theory—or foundational (but ahistorical) problems in statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, or relativity. I felt that HPS, in a sense, the H[istory] and the P[hilosophy] delaminated somewhat into an H (history) and P (philosophy).
And I continued and continue to have an interest. Now, I think there's much more of a revival now with the philosophy of scientific practice group, and I think Hasok Chang has done terrific work. He was there during the latter part of this Stanford effort (he worked with Nancy Cartwright and me), now he's at Cambridge and he has lots of really interesting students working with him. Jordi Cat was there—he too worked with me and Nancy, back then on questions of Maxwell and the reality of the electromagnetic potential. There's a whole society for the study of practice in science and philosophy, and I think that's very promising. And I think, then, some of the philosophy of the specialized sciences, philosophers of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and things like that, or cosmology, have gotten interested in actual practice in these different domains. So, I feel like now in the last years it's gotten to be a going concern again, HPS, though perhaps in a new key.
During your time at Stanford, how closely connected were you with the physics department or even SLAC or science programs in general? Did you feel like you wanted to continue having one foot in the door in that world?
I did for a while. I had a courtesy appointment in physics and an office in physics, and I worked with people at SLAC, mostly continuing the Higgs work. At the time, the Superconducting Supercollider was still a going concern.
And so, there was a lot of excitement about Higgs searches, and I continued to work on that. I worked with a contemporary of mine, Mark Soldate, Pat Kalyniak, and Jack Gunion and some other people on possible ways to look for the Higgs concretely in the SSC which we thought and hoped would be built. I continued too to work with some of the people from Harvard. There was a model that Howard Georgi and some of his colleagues and students were interested in. On one of the visits back, it occurred to me that with it you could calculate the mass of the Higgs in their model, which I thought was incredibly cool. And so, we (Howard Georgi, David Kaplan, and I) collaborated on something where you could actually do that. Mostly the Higgs has been a free parameter that you just had to put in by hand, which is why measuring its mass in recent times was so important, because it distinguished between certain models. And so, I did that, and I collaborated with another guy, Aneesh Manohar, who's an active and terrific physicist at UCSD, and was a graduate student at the same time as me (both of us working with Georgi) about whether there were two different kinds of Z particles. So, this was sort of '83-'84, '84 up through about '89, I sort of went back and forth. So, I was at Stanford from 1983-84. I left in the summer of 1992. But, for the first years of that time at Stanford, 1983-89 or so, I continued to work in physics, as well, mostly around Higgs questions.
How closely did you follow the rise and the fall of SSC?
Oh, I followed it quite closely. I was calculating things for it, so I was involved. I wasn't doing work specifically on trying to follow the political developments in a professional way to write the history of the SSC, but I followed it. So, between '83 and '86 or so, I was revising, in various ways, How Experiments End, and working increasingly on Image and Logic. The work on Image and Logic, I did some work on very modern detectors, something called the time projection chamber that's part of that.
And that was going to be part of the SSC detectors. And so, I was interested in that, and I guess I did write a little bit about the planned SSC at the end of Image and Logic.
But I don't remember what year—was the SSC canceled in 1991?
'93-94 was when it was DOA.
Right. So, I continued to work on Image and Logic up 'til about '96. I was published in 1997, and the last chapters, I remember talking to Moshe Safdie, the architect, about some of the plans that they were making for the SSC. That was back when I was at Harvard, so between '92 and '93, right in there, I guess, if it was canceled in '93. But, with the ending of the Cold War, the writing started to be on the wall about the SSC.
Right, right. I'm curious if you were interested in the role of nationalism as a motivator for SSC, even among physicists who would say, you know, if we don't do this, we're going to cede world leadership in high-energy particle physics? Which is such a funny thing to hear physicists talk in such nationalist terms when the Higgs is sort of immune to that. It doesn't care where it's discovered. I wonder if you ever thought about those things in real time.
I did. So, since I was interested in Cold War science from early on, looking at the effect of the war on European physics was something that I had thought about a lot and written about. And conversely, the contradictory mix of nationalism and internationalism fascinated me with the SSC—as the contrary pulls interested me with CERN—toward a European counterweight to the United States on one side, and a broader internationalism on the other.
While writing How Experiments End, especially the parts on the heavy-liquid bubble chamber Gargamelle and CERN, and I got to know Dominque Pestre and John Krige and the others who were working on the History of CERN, the early volumes of their multi-authored history. I spent a lot of time at CERN, so I knew them pretty well. And so, we would talk a lot about the foundation of CERN, which was, in large part, designed to keep the brain drain (toward the US) from evacuating the possibilities for a next generation of science in Europe.
Between the ravages of the war, the people killed in the Holocaust, those lost fighting in the war, immigration, the looting of laboratories in the occupied countries by the Nazis, and the bombing of occupied Europe and then of Germany, and then Britain's absolute poverty at the end of the war—I think people forget how utterly destitute much of Europe was. People were hungry. Certainly, that was true in the devastation across Germany, Italy, and France. So, I think that the rebuilding science after World War II was a momentous and monumental occasion, and I was interested in that process. I wrote about the nuclear emulsions, and the story of nuclear emulsions which was all tied up in the rebuilding of European physics. European physicists were desperate to be able to counter, and said so, the draw of American big science. And these stacks of emulsion were (they hoped) going to be their ticket to particle physics. This was going to be their counterweight to the huge laboratories. For a while it did work—there were a raft of astonishing discoveries by Powell’s group in England (using emulsions) and numerous groups on the Continent that brought emulsions to high mountain peaks.
And then cutting them up and giving them to people working at microscopes. So, I was very interested in that. And that there was—I think nationalism and internationalism always enter together. They're never really opposites—they travel together.
Or perhaps I should say they're opposites in a Freudian sense, where opposites always enter as parts of the same thing. And even the idea of internationalism or interdisciplinary presupposes that there's the disciplinary or the national to cross. If you just have an amorphous structure, calling it inter doesn't make any sense. I think that, a lot of times, people forget that. And these international co-operations depend on having—the argument is, build up a strong national scientific or national artistic or national whatever it is, sports event, and then you can have international competition. Nobody would doubt that the Olympics, one of the international events pars excellences, is absent nationalism. It's obvious. You wear it on your sleeve, and they play the national anthem and they count medals. But I think that's true—people count Nobel Prizes and they count—so I always thought of them as tied together. Despite all, CERN was genuinely trying to build something that was pan-European, and it's often hailed as a predecessor of the European Union.
But it was also a way of facilitating the rebuilding of national scientific structures. And people were aware of that. I mean, the Italians wanted to rebuild Italian science, and the Germans were desperate to reconstruct a German scientific structure. De Gaulle made the rebuilding of French science and technology a centerpiece of what it meant to have a French state. So, I think that France was central to the development of CERN, and eventually they pulled out of NATO, and they participated in the…Figuring out what a national entity would be has always been part and parcel to these international collaborations.
Did you coin the term "microphysics" as far as you know?
No, I'm sure there are examples of people that used microphysics to describe, say, electron physics as opposed to—
Right. But in the way that you mean it?
I think I used it and I really—the emphasis on scale in my work was maybe somewhat unusual at the time, to look at mesophysics and macrophysics and what becomes visible at these different scales. And that's been a continuing theme that I've written on all the way through.
And I talked about it in How Experiments End and Image and Logic and all the way up through recent essays on the global and the local that I did for that volume honoring Raine [Lorraine Daston]. Yeah. So, that's been a theme. And that, in some sense, for me, comes intellectually out of physics, looking at the scales of visibility in physics. If you're looking at the dynamics of water waves at a kilometer scale, you don't care about 1000-kilometer scales or centimeter scales, that you can do the physics of different scales and ignore things that are different scales, and that seems to—that things come in and out of visibility as you focus on these different scales of occurrences. And I was very interested in emphasizing that in historical writing.
I'm curious—there's no need to name names, you might even know who I'm talking about, but I just want your reaction on this question of Image and Logic. So, when there are physicists who are repelled from the idea of a multiverse because it's inherently untestable and it's immune to being tested, and is that to say, though, that—so the response is, I can't accept it because it's not science. It's not science because it cannot be tested. And so then, the follow-on question to that is: Well, is that the same as saying that it's impossible? In other words, in the Venn diagram, is the realm of reality no larger than the realm of science? And that's where—physicists often have a hard time answering that question because, at some point, it bumps into even religious questions, right? What is your reaction to the kind of physicist who says, the multiverse simply can't exist because it's not science? How would you understand that line of thinking?
Well, let me focus on the claim that something's not science, because I think there's a history of that.
I'm actually interested in the history of claims that something is not science.
And that's the answer that I get, "It's not science."
Right. So, I think when Einstein's special theory, general theory of relativity came out, there were strong claims that this wasn't science. It wasn't science because it violated traditional notions of what physics should be—general relativity doesn't have a role for force, it used the difficult new mathematics of differential geometry, and challenged seemingly indisputable ideas of space and time.
It's just we don't talk about force. So, general relativity is not science because it uses what then was considered arcane mathematics of differential geometry and Christoffel symbols and parallel transport and things like that. And so, people said it's not physics unless you can use your bodily experience, body-based experiences to ground it. Others said quantum mechanics isn't science because it invokes a “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein said. Einstein said maybe it's science, but it's not science yet. It's not a full theory, it's not a fully-developed account. Or it violates our notions of causality or determinism. Or string theory isn't science because it has no tests. And people would say on the one side, Einstein teaches us that general relativity is an example of something that took a long time or a while to get beyond retrodiction, like Mercury's orbit, to actually be able to test things like the gravitational redshift. And more proximately it predicted the bending of starlight in the correct amount in the November 1919 Eddington expedition. And so, string theory is like that. It isn't testable yet, but it's going to be in the future. And the people who hated string theory said, no, no, it's like Einstein searching for a unified field theory at the end of his life, he was too far from experiment, he had lost the touchstone of reality and he wandered for decades in the dark. And string theorists are wandering in the dark. And the multiverse similarly. So, for me, each of these denunciations (‘that is not science’) presents an opportunity to understand what it is that people want from physical explanation, how much distance between the theory and its predictions is tolerable. How many layers of computer simulation or phenomenological models or whatever it is? I mean, how much will you allow? Or is a computer simulation an explanation or is it simply a heuristic to get you your results quickly? Is it to be replaced to be eventually an analytic understanding? I think those sorts of questions, to me, are invitations to dig deeper. And it's something I've written about. So, I'm very interested in those claims, maybe not because I think one can simply—I can have private views about what's going to survive in the long term, but wearing my history or STS or HPS hat, I would say these are opportunities to think about what is considered to be at stake in such debates and claims.
One of the things that I hear in these responses is that—they're not saying it's not science yet, it's almost what they're doing is they're ascribing to it, like, a religion. I don't believe in God because there's no physical evidence for the existence of God. And yet, religion doesn't ask you—it asks you to suspend your disbelief in physical phenomena. It doesn't ask you to integrate it, or at least certain strains of religion, I should say. [laughs]
Certain strains of religion. I mean, some people want relics and some people want revelation and speaking in tongues.
But, yes, I think that people make these absolutist claims about what is and what isn’t science: there are lots of books in the last 20 years that say physics has lost its way, real physics has much more direct attachment to prediction. You know, maybe; maybe it's just a long-term campaign. I have different views about the multiverse and about string theory, but there are many things that theory does. One of them is prediction, quantitative near-term prediction. But other things take a long time, and that's true of experiment. I mean, LIGO required people like Rai Weiss, whom you just interviewed, to devote their lifetimes, from early in their career to the borderland of retirement to getting a result. And, in retrospect, you can say, oh, yeah, yeah. Well, that LIGO project, that was real physics because it clearly had a successful outcome—but that's in retrospect, in prospect there were many doubters along the way.
And Rai tells me that, at MIT, he wasn't taken seriously for 30 years.
Right. And he's telling the truth. So, I think after Weber and that early, very problem-ridden epic that I think, in some ways, shaped Rai's precise, demanding constraints on what he would accept as a valid move in experiment and instrument design comes out of the cascade of misfires that Weber had before him. Now, Rai never wanted to be in the position of claiming to have seen gravity waves and then the next month having to say, sorry, just kidding. And so, it's one of the most beautiful experiments ever conducted in my view.
Many of the great successes of general relativity took decades.
Einstein made three predictions or three correlations with what could be observed at the end of his paper on general relativity in 1915, 1916. And one of them was the motion of Mercury, which had already been well established and so he could retrodict that. He predicted that observers would see double the amount of deflection that you might naively expect. And then he predicted that light, emerging from a gravitating body, would be shifted towards the red. Despite many failed attempts, that experiment took decades—until Pound and Rebka in 1957. That's 42 years later. Sometimes things take a long time. And, in a way, general relativity is still working out what the limits of general relativity are.
Right. You're historicizing. That's your response. Your response to the—these absolutist claims need to be historicized?
And string theory, like general relativity, had certain virtues that were apparent from the beginning.
There are theoretical virtues in the world.
I mean, like the kind of epistemic virtues that [Lorraine] Daston and I talk about in Objectivity, there are things that you want.
String theory can do things to tell you about the foundation of quantum field theory. It can give you an account of the entropy on the horizon of a black hole. It gives you insight into other parts of theory. True, it doesn't give you a direct experimental prediction. It's through a number of layers. It doesn’t do what some of its advocates hoped, which was to predict in short order the masses of the fundamental particles, but its virtues are many. So, I tend to be sympathetic to that.
Yeah. And we haven't really even talked so much with regard to Image and Logic about the role of technology in all of these things.
Right. I think of physics as composed of three interconnected subcultures—experimenting, instrument making, and theorizing. Each has its own set of skills and practices that are handed down, each finds its own way epistemically. In Image and Logic, I look at two traditions, one of image-making machines (cloud chamber, nuclear emulsions, bubble chambers) and another of logic (counters, spark chambers, wire chambers). Each had its own pedagogical and skill traditions as well as its own forms of arguing for the reality of an effect or object. In the 1970s, these two traditions began to merge, with the construction of divides like the time projection chamber…Similar phenomena occur in other domains, non-visual and visual traditions in medicine, in astronomy, in geophysics, all coming together in the 1970s and the decades following.
I'm curious, especially in more recent years as you've continued to develop these foundational themes in Image and Logic, the role of deep learning and artificial intelligence as a stop to these absolutist claims about what can be possible because deep learning and AI have at least the potential to entirely reframe the debate about how far experimentation can be pushed, so that maybe at some point a multiverse is not an untestable reality?
Yeah. There are various ways in which the multiverse might become testable. If you could show, for instance, that, under certain circumstances, it was possible to tunnel from one multiverse to another and that this could leave some cosmological trace in the microwave background or something else, then maybe that would be one way. Another would be to say—well, maybe the details of this don't matter. Maybe what you're asking is a broader question about what's—are you mainly interested in the multiverse in your question or the role of AI and deep learning?
The role of AI and deep learning to expand what it means that something can be testable, with the multiverse being a prime example of how, at least circa 2020, some very prominent physicists are quite comfortable making absolutist claims about what is science and what is not science.
Ok. So, let me give you a machine learning example from my direct experience and then talk more generally about what I think is going on. So, this is to jump ahead a little bit or a lot, but about five years ago—2015—with colleagues, Avi Loeb and Ramesh Narayan, both theoretical astrophysicists who have worked for years on black holes; Shep Doeleman, who was back then the director of the Event Horizon Telescope and a radio astronomy observer; Andy Strominger, a leading theoretical physicist and a long-time friend of mine, who has done foundational work on string theory and many other aspects of theoretical physics, and collaborated over many years with Hawking. Part of the Principle Investigator group too was Shing-Tung Yau, who's a great applied mathematician and, as the name suggests, a co-inventor of Calabi-Yau spaces, (you can't have string theory without Calabi-Yau spaces—they are the spaces where the tightly curled-up “extra” dimensions of string theory live). We formally launched his Black Hole Initiative in the spring of 2016. The idea was to have history and philosophy of science, physics, mathematics, astrophysics integrated. The Event Horizon Telescope work, which was aiming to make the first image of a black hole, came into the project because Shep and Ramesh were so active in it.
Mm-hmm. Can you say a bit about how your studies on scientific visualization related to the black hole work?
I hadn’t really intended to go back into physics—but having spent much of my life studying the way scientific images work, how could I resist the possibility of imaging a black hole? Scientific visualizations were central to my work on Image and Logic. In 1989-90, I was still working on that book, when I had a year at the (Stanford) Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Raine Daston was there too, and she had been thinking and writing some on the history of objectivity. One day I was trying to track down the origins of these strange (to me) “atlases” of bubble chamber, cloud chamber, and nuclear emulsion images. One of the author/editors of these volumes remarked that the idea came from medicine. So, I went down to the basement of the medical library at Stanford, and to my absolute astonishment there were dozens—hundreds—of these atlases, medical atlases. Not only that, I saw that the authors of these volumes were obsessed with the aim of making their work objective—using that term. I raced on my bike back up to Center to tell Raine: here was a motherload of working science, written not for the public but for practitioners, on how to make objective images, how to be objective. That began a project that lasted forever and a day. We published our first piece on it in Representations in 1992 and kept coming back to it. Then finally, in a year I was in Berlin, we finally got exasperated with the slowness of progress, and we barricaded ourselves in a seminar room and laid out our articles and printouts on a huge table. Hours went by and we finally came up with a workable structure: we could see how to make it work, from idealized images starting in the 18th century, through a more mechanical form of objectivity beginning in the 19th century, to the trained expert-inflected images that launched in the 20th century. We were really excited. And then all hell broke loose. We opened the door to the room to find utter chaos, people were walking around dazed, some were crying. It was September 11, 2001, and the twin towers had just collapsed. So much changed that day—plunging the US and many other countries into terrible wars and political upheaval. When we could focus again, Raine and I continued that work through 2001-02 and for some years to come. We finished Objectivity finally, and it appeared in 2007. It was one of the most productive and exciting collaborations I’ve ever been involved in. We had a blast figuring things out, exchanging sections, learning from each other. It was great. But back to Black Holes. So, in 2016, I started working on the science side in the EHT. The Objectivity work in some ways propelled my interest—the complementary forms of argument (idealized imaging, mechanical imaging, trained-judgment imaging) resonated with the Imaging Working Group of the EHT and we talked about all this at great length. Along the way, I wanted to follow on film, both the EHT work and the collaboration joining Andy Strominger, Stephen Hawking and Malcolm Perry who were trying to crack a key part of the information loss paradox. But I’m sorry I took a side path—back to your question of AI: In the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, the big problem—the black hole is so tiny on the sky, it's like reading the date on a quarter in Los Angeles from New York. It's a very tiny arc on the sky, and that image is both sparse (without much information) and noisy, so it's like the worst of all possible worlds. The question is, how do you extract a real signal from a lot of noise? Well, there are tricks to doing that, but many of these tricks involve presupposing something about the image that you're trying to extract. And then making the computer calculate the costs, so to speak, of interpreting what's there to be greater the more it deviates from certain features. You can prioritize image reconstructions that are smooth or contrasting or concentrated, for example. And you use these things all the time. Perhaps unknowingly, you want to sharpen up a digital photograph in whatever your favorite photo editor is, you're using this kind of AI—you are demanding, for example, that edges are given extra weight.
You're saying to the computers, essentially, take these pixels and if it looks like there's a gradation from dark to light, interpret that as being an edge and reassign the values of those pixels so that it makes that edge more salient. Now, that's great, but if you and the computer use that too enthusiastically, you can generate really weird artifacts and create stripes on something that has no stripes, edges where there are no edges, and holes in things that have no real holes. So, the nightmare is, if you use your machine learning too strongly, you could end up with a pure artifact. If you said, ‘computer, take this information from the supermassive black hole in the huge galaxy M87 and impose the fact that it should look like a doughnut and give me the best doughnut that you can get that's compatible with the data and the image’—and then the computer spat out a picture of a doughnut, that would be terrible. You could've made a doughnut out of a pizza, so to speak, right? That would be really bad. So, the danger is, if you impose too much your view into these machine learning algorithms or, in a more sophisticated way, AI, which imposes yet another problem, which is you don't really know what your computer is doing, you can get yourself into a world of hurt. On the other hand, if you don't use some knowledge, you can end up with something that's just noise-garbage. So, you face twin disasters: ending up with noise or artifact, and you're trying to sail between that Scylla and that Charybdis. That was the kind of debate that we had all the time on this image making and the Event Horizon Telescope. And there are ways of using AI and machine learning to improve, for instance, data from not black holes but just galaxies. And you can say to the computer—you do a training set. You say, computer, this is an elliptical galaxy, this is a spiral galaxy, this isn't a galaxy at all. And, eventually, you can get the computer, you can train the computer to use AI to sort galaxies into those kinds of bins: elliptical, spiral, and not-a-galaxy. Then you could try it on a test set where it hasn't been taught and it does amazingly well. So, now you say, OK, let's try it—I mean, the Hubble telescope is getting all sorts of—huge number of galaxies that have never been classified. Have at it, AI. And so, on the basis of a training set, a test set, you have enough confidence to apply it to an unknown set, and that's typically what you do. So, the advantages are so great that we're going to do it. Just like the way speech recognition—people tried to do speech recognition and translation using Chomsky’s transformational grammar and phonetic theory, but what really worked is just a lot of statistics about what people usually say. If you say I have to go...the next word is not going to be green grass, it's going to be home or to school or to work. And you see it when you're writing a text message all the time. Text completion, that's machine learning, right? That's how we do a lot of things. That's how Netflix chooses what you might like and does pretty well really. And so, in a way, this kind of inferential reasoning, whether it's machine learning or layers and layers and a multilayer AI system, do more and more work for us, which is not to say that it always gets it right, but there are all sorts of ways in which we think this is a good idea and helpful. And nobody really objects to being suggested some Netflix movies. But an epistemic problem can easily arise: we often cannot reconstruct, even after the fact, how the machine combined elements to arrive at its conclusion—in a way, in exchange for success, we humans have relegated part of our understanding to a black box.
But there’s worse. Suppose a bail-determining AI system is introduced—they are already operating in many districts around the United States. Now, when the algorithm says, your likelihood of being a recidivist [is high] and so we're going to extend your jail sentence or your bail hearing, or we're going to increase your bail, then some people say, whoa! And rightly so. I agree with that ‘whoa.’ You can see how these kinds of things (like an address, or like a complicated combination of variables) could become a proxy for race and in all sorts of ways that we would find immoral and probably unconstitutional. So, questions about AI have arisen not just in the epistemic sphere, but in the moral-legal sphere as well. And I think there are places where we will use more and more AI and machine learning to extend the reach of what we can do in observation and experiment, no doubt a good thing. But there are also places where we need to learn to be immensely cautious about where we run these systems; we need to be able to say here, no farther. Or at least, here, no farther until a lot more work has been done to guard against deferring injustice into the algorithms where they are often invisible and unexaminable. I have a very strong view—not just me—a very strong view that using multilayer AI to sentence people is intolerable. And, with inferences on—we use them in diagnosis and medicine where there are life and death decisions. And still, if it says, I, computer, say it's probably a tumor on your eye, I recommend removing that eye, you would like a doctor to take another look at that before ordering the excision. And, whether that will be true in the future forever or—forever is a long time—or 10 years or 50 years, I don't know. But I think that there are ways in which machine learning and AI present enormous advantages to us, when we use them in our cars when we're driving to give us warnings and run our brakes. When you step on the brake, you'd like the computer to calculate how to pulse the brake piston and not lock your wheels into a fatal skid. It could easily save your life. And we'd like it to signal that the digitized MRI that you just got has an 80% chance of being a tumor, but you'd probably like someone to look at it before they do something too dramatic. So, that's what I think.
We're way too far past the point of saying we're not going to use machine learning or AI in our epistemic armamentarium. We are going to use it. But I think there are lots of things—we don't want the computer to auto-fire a Hellfire missile against somebody they think is somebody else without human oversight—like robotic weapons, we want physicians, we want people to take responsibility and judgment. So, that's what I think. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are fabulous new tools, but like all conceptual tools carry epistemic danger. That’s a far-too-long answer to your question.
[laughs] I want to ask, Peter, about your work on Einstein's Clocks. Do you see the pursuit of pure time in the early 20th century, is there no other period prior to that where scientists were self-consciously pursuing this concept of pure time? In other words, in historicizing it, did Einstein and his peers and other scientists in that era, did they need the automation of the industrial revolution even to think in that realm?
Well, I mean, certainly in the Leibniz-Clarke debates, where Clarke is a proxy for Newton, in the Leibniz-Newton debates you already have foundational arguments over the nature of space and time. Are they relative or are they absolute? And if they're absolute, is there any way that we can get a hint of what they are? In kinematics, Leibniz kind of wins because, if there were no forces, you couldn't tell whether the earth and the planets are moving around the sun or is the earth the center and they—but, as soon as you start using dynamics and you can start to see the effect on the tides and centrifugal and centripetal forces and things like that, you can. Or as Newton's bucket experiment begins to—that's when Newton has his best moment in those debates. He says, look, actually we can tell whether the room is spinning and you're looking at the bucket, or the bucket is spinning, and the room is static because, if the bucket is spinning the water crawls up the walls. So, I think that the idea of absolute space and absolute time, and relative space and relative time, which were exactly what Newton and Leibniz were debating about, has 17th century origins. But the debate really opens in its more modern sense when you have to coordinate clocks, and ask what simultaneity at a distance is, and map the earth, and shunt railway cars off, and establish time zones. You know what I mean? These practical and philosophical issues surrounding the measure and transmission of time did not determine relativity. But they pushed the issue of time coordination into center stage for many scientists, including Einstein and Poincaré.
I want to ask—you don't have to ask a university professor why they write books, but it's compelling. I'm curious, when did you start getting interested in expressing your scholarly research through film as a medium? When did that start?
I had liked film and messed around with making films and editing things with Super 8 cameras and tape recorders, but at, like, zero budget just messing around in high school. And then, in college, I took a course on video, but this was like the dark ages of video. You look like Neil Armstrong on the moon with this portapack and giant heavy batteries and a camera that you had to sort of hold on your shoulder. It was horrible. Editing was a nightmare. But I took a course from a really great guy, and I started making videos then in that way. But I never really saw how I could connect the film work I was doing to science in a way that worked, because the films that interested me weren’t about science. I had no models for what the analog in film would be or the complement to writing about science in the way that interested me: process oriented, and skills- and practice-based, and attention to periodization, and the mix of politics and—it's like none of the things that interested me were part of the filming of science. It was like they were explainers, or the triumph of plastics, or the race to DNA. They were post-hoc, they started with the conclusion (a discovery or invention) and worked backwards, asking how did this or that person get there? The way they were made was, you start with something that you wanted to tell, you'd write a script by pre-interviewing people and saying roughly what they would say. And then you'd go out and get them to say those bytes and string them together, illustrating with archival footage. Often you had a stentorian, omniscient narrator and—I mean, they weren't very interesting films to me, whereas the kind of film that interested me had nothing to do with science. So, I didn't really see it. But then, soon after I got to Stanford, I saw a great film by Jon Else called The Day After Trinity.
Yeah. What was different about it?
I thought, whoa, this is really interesting. This is not about how we cracked the problem of the A-bomb…laboring in stupidity until the moment when a solution flashed before my eyes, I saw that we could make it—it wasn't that. It was really about this fundamental interaction of science, technology and warfare with morality and politics. But it was in film, and it made use of film to capture something about the place, about New Mexico, about the character, Oppenheimer and his brother, and Bob Serber and Freeman Dyson and Hans Bethe, people I had gotten to know—alas, I never met Oppenheimer (he died decades earlier). At Stanford I also got to know Edward Teller, his son was the philosopher of science, so I got to know the senior Teller reasonably well. I knew Bethe from various things at Cornell. And I thought, you know, this interests me, this idea that you could make a film about science and technology that was not the race to this or the triumph of that—it wasn't that. But I'd never made a film that could have a wide audience, and so I worked with a childhood friend of mine, Pamela Hogan, who is a very good filmmaker, and she was working for public broadcasting and had done some things for Public Television and various other things, made some films. We started filming during the Reagan era, I don't remember exactly but mid-'80s, around the topic of the moral-political struggles over the H-bomb within the scientific community. And that raised a different question. Do you know Jon Else's film?
So, The Day After Trinity is really about what Else takes to be the Faustian bargain that Oppenheimer made for power and influence.
And that physicists more generally had made. I was not so much interested in that particular notion, so much I was interested in this post-war moment, and I'd written a long paper with Bart Bernstein, the American historian at Stanford, on the moral-ethical political history of the hydrogen bomb. Not so much the tricks of how to make it work. I mean, some of that was classified and that just didn't seem to me the most important thing in the world. But I did think it was the most important thing in the world to try to figure out how these people navigated the peacetime debate that had been deferred from the wartime debate. And what it meant to be working on weapons of mass destruction, and how they understood that, and why they changed their minds, all of them, over and over again. So, I started filming, I started to film Bethe and I filmed Teller and I filmed George Kistiakowsky. Bit by bit, and we would film scenes and raise a little more money, then film some more. At the beginning of the project, things were still edited in an analog way. So, if you had A next to B and you wanted to insert C between them, you would record A to a fresh tape, then put on the source tape C, then put C onto the fresh tape after A. And then you would take the C source tape off and go back to your original tape that had A and B on it and transfer B. So, now you'd have A, C, B, but it was a generation down. Pretty rapidly, you had this horrible rendition—you had to squint, you couldn't see. It was horrible, horrible! But eventually Pam and I finished that film. I remember writing a script for that and I raising some money from the National Science Foundation. The National Endowment for the Humanities wasn't that interested in it, but NSF was. It came out on television in 2000. What interested me was really that it put the density of understanding in a different way. It had different, to use a techy term, "affordances," than writing. Writing, you can write a book that studies, what do biology departments look like in the 30 top universities in France? And you can go through them. Somebody interested can read the synthetic introduction or conclusion or jump those pieces they want. But film doesn't work like that. It's a time-based medium. Film doesn't do encyclopedic organization well—it doesn’t want three examples of something to prove a point. It has limits to how much you can cut back and forth in space and time without confusing the audience. Take an essay by Donna Haraway that I greatly admire, her Teddy Bear Patriarchy, which cuts back and forth over and over between the Museum of Natural History in New York City, early 20th century biological debates, contemporary arguments, feminist accounts, theories of human nature, Teddy Roosevelt hunting in the Congo, and all these worlds come together to form an astonishing essay. Print can do that very effectively. But film can do something else. Film can show you a density of what's going on in people's interaction, for instance, in a way that you can't do very well in print. And, in print, I could say to you, you know, this group of people have nothing to do with the way we think today, different cosmogenesis, different ways of reproducing culture, different modes of teaching the young, different ways of forming group solidarity, different languages. They are, it would seem, nothing like us. It's like a different world.
But if you film extensively with another group and you film, like, McDougall and McDougall (David and Judith) have done in their terrific film “Wedding Camels” (1980), a study in the amassing and giving of bride-wealth among the Turkana people in Kenya. You see a husband and a wife talking to each other about the marriage of their child. And you see the way they look at each other, and they're onscreen and they react. You can't do that in print. You can't say, “and he's looking askance,” while you are capturing the spoken word; you can’t have a verbal tick simultaneous with “and he's looking away,” “and he's rolling his eyes,” “and he's raising his eyebrow,” “and she’s smiling, alternating with casting a dubious look.” You can't do all that simultaneously in print.
Print doesn't allow that. And, in film, you're seeing eye movement and facial movement and tension on the forehead and gestures and hand gestures and tilt of the head, all at once. That is a different kind of density than print can provide. Perhaps this might be an analogy: theory and experiment or theory, experiment, and instrument making complement one another; similarly, that filmmaking is complementary to our print-based understanding. So, I go back and forth between them. I wrote on the hydrogen bomb, then I filmed on the hydrogen bomb. Then out of my interest in the history of nuclear weapons, I began writing on secrecy (a series of articles), and then I've gone back, and, with Robb Moss, we made the film Secrecy (2008). That led to work on the burial of nuclear waste and containment, and [I] went back and forth and have written on that—leading to the film, again with Robb Moss, in 2015, to “Containment.” And now I'm tacking back and forth between work on the physics, history/philosophy of black holes—and my recent film, “Black Holes | The Edge of All We Know.” So, for me, there's something complementary about writing and film. There's a dimensionality that I've tried to, in my teaching and in my work, tried to convey to give people ability to do this moving back and forth. To take advantage of what it is that each of these dominions can best bring forward.
I've had trouble in following your career where the interest in secrecy and this onslaught of classified information, where does that fit in, or does it not, within the broader themes that you've developed over the course of your career?
Well, I first got interested when I was working at Berkeley and Los Alamos on the history of—you cannot understand the history of physics without understanding its imbrication with the military after 1940, '41.
It's like make-believe, right?
You're living in a distorted fantasy world that's ignoring one of its shaping forces, its budget, its relationship to the government, the physical infrastructure, the instruments that it uses, the modes. I mean, it's just fundamentally connected. So, for example, when I went to Berkeley to do research on Image and Logic and I was working on the bubble chamber work, I was looking at Luis Alvarez's work, it was understanding that back and forth that was really transformative for me. I wanted to know, for example, where the compressor come from for the 72-inch bubble chamber that transformed particle physics into really large-scale work at the detector level. I kept asking people and I couldn't get an answer. And then finally one engineer said to me, oh, well, we got that liquefier from work on the device. And I said, "What?" He said, "The device." And I said, "What?" He said, "You know, the device." So, finally, I understood that they transferred a mass of equipment to liquify hydrogen from Enewetak to Berkeley—this was the same compressor that had been used to make liquid hydrogen for the first hydrogen bomb explosion on Halloween 1952. Alvarez, who had been involved with the H-bomb work, had it shipped back to Berkeley, because the liquefier was superfluous after the weapons group moved to dry bombs using lithium-6 deuteride. I mean, nobody wanted to make a weapon out of the barely-transportable “wet” hydrogen bomb. So, he had the equipment transferred back. You can't understand what's going on if you don't know that. You don't know the history of bubble chambers. It's just make-believe.
There were a million other examples like that, radio-astronomy and radar, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (which led to Magnetic Resonance Imaging). The whole infrastructure of post-World War II physics in a way comes out of the experience of 1939-1945 and then what happens in the Cold War. So, as I was working on those projects and constantly dealing with classified, declassified materials, I began to think about that. And then, I think, in—in 2004. Critical Inquiry was organizing—I'm an editor of Critical Inquiry—and they were organizing an international conference and an issue on the subject of the transmission of knowledge. They asked me to contribute to the volume and I didn't know exactly what I'd do. But my go-to technique, when I'm trying to understand something, is often to flip it around and ask the opposite, because that often throws things into a new light for me. So, I wondered: if I'm going to understand how information is transferred, maybe I should understand what people think they can do to block transmission. So, I thought, that's interesting. I had remembered reading about various censorship manuals that taught censors how to stop information from emerging. So, I went back, and I started looking at things that way—how do people learn to censor? And, as soon as I started to do that, I realized, that if you have a theory of what to censor, you have a theory about what's important, right? If I tell a car mechanic to disable your car so it doesn't get stolen, he doesn't take off the hub caps, he takes off the distributor cap or removes the spark plugs or something. Every act to try to disable something is revelatory about the necessary, maybe not the sufficient, but the necessary components of that thing.
So, I was thinking by analogy to, like, taking off the distributor cap, not the hubcaps, I could learn something from this plan. That led me to write this piece I did called Removing Knowledge, which has been used a lot. In turn that got me interested in sort of the negative epistemology, what the disabling conditions of knowledge were. There was, in a sense, a theory of knowledge implicit in censorship. I remember talking with Robert Proctor, and he was interested in what he called agnotology, the study of what we don't know, and why don't we know it, especially in the context of industrially, deliberately-produced ignorance, for example the decades of intentional confusion about the health damage from cigarettes. And so, we talked a lot about that and there was a book that came out on agnotology that he did. Naomi Oreskes has done a lot, in Merchants of Doubt. So, that led to a series of other pieces. I did a piece called Secrecy in Three Acts, looking at the Sedition and Espionage Acts of World War I, the World War II/Cold War Atomic Energy Commission Acts of 1945 and the 1954, and then the Patriot Act that followed 200, and what each presupposed about the nature of knowledge. Then I did a piece on Freud and censorship. Robb Moss and I started teaching a course in 2000 called “Filming Science,” about basically what's revealed and what's obscured by print and film. And the year I started teaching that, was the year the H-bomb film was broadcast for the first time. So, we started teaching about the relation of film and writing. (We taught that course every other year for quite a while.) Around 2003, we thought we'd make a film together. And I said, "Well, what about making a film about secrecy?" He replied, "Well, you mean the film where nobody's going to talk to us and there's nothing to show?"
And I said, "Yeah." [laughs] And he said, "That sounds like a great idea." We pushed the boundaries in various ways. I liked the idea of trying to make a film that was less standard in form than the H-bomb film. No narrator, more in the mix of things, using animation to get at the desires and fears about secrecy. We employed a mix of interviews, archival sources, verité shots—and animation. We made that film together—it came out at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. But yes, all of my work in some ways has tied back to the history of physics, whether it's nuclear secrecy leading me toward a broader consideration of what secrecy tells us about knowledge—or whether it is the collaboration with William Kentridge in the art world (“The Refusal of Time;” “Refuse the Hour”) or the Event Horizon Telescope. So, that’s a long answer to your question: my work on secrecy came out of a combination of dealing with historical materials on nuclear secrecy, and the more abstract notion of secrecy as a kind of anti-epistemology, the rules for blocking the transmission of what is known. But it always comes back to my interest in the nature of physics.
And Containment is obviously no exception to the rule?
Do you see the issues that you raised in Containment as being as relevant today as they were when you were first thinking about them?
Well, I think two things. One is that we, or any other country, still have no very good plan for getting rid of nuclear waste. We began filming in 2010 or so—the triple disaster in Japan happened in March 2011, and we filmed in the devastated Fukushima Prefecture, in 2013.
So yes, the disposition of nuclear waste very much remains a policy issue. Indeed, in the time since, I’ve been very interested in some of the ways that the film has been used. The Northeast Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Northeast Region) has shown it to their people. The big European company that buries nuclear waste showed it at their conference in Paris; activist groups have shown it a lot in the States and in Europe and Japan. So, I think it has a policy aspect, but I also made it, in part, to get at more philosophical themes that have to do with our relationship to the future and our responsibility for future generations. I should say that I’ve always thought about the containment of nuclear waste, (even as big a problem as it is), as a kind of exercise for the present in modeling what it might be to think about global climate change.
That, as big a problem as nuclear waste is, it's dwarfed by climate change. But the fact that governments and consortia of governments have moved to think about the ten-thousand-year future, or the hundred-thousand or million-year future is good news for our ability—it's a model, it seems to me, for thinking beyond our political cycles of two, four, six years, or end-of-the-year fiscal constraints and so on. So, my hope is that the film, in addition to whatever specific nuclear policy issues are raised by it, continues to be a model for relationship of our present technological and economic decisions to the far future. And I think that, at an even more abstract level, the very idea of being able to contain and, in fact, our inability to contain things, whether it's biological or nuclear or chemical, is a really deep lesson. It is a lesson that we never seem to learn.
Yeah. And what are some of the larger lessons? What does it say about physics generally that we have the capacity to harness these materials and use them either for civilian nuclear energy or for weapons, but physics really doesn’t have an answer for how to dispose of them safely?
I think that it's not just disposal but operational accidents. Fukushima and Chernobyl may start as catastrophic events—but eventually become nuclear waste problems.
But, originally, they are problems of operation, two very different kinds. I think the lesson for physics in a way, and for technology more generally, is that the ability to harness something to present ends does not mean that we have control. Certainly not for the long run. We have not been really careful about that. In a way, one could say that the science of nuclear fission and chain reactions begins in 1941, '42, or you can say it begins with the discovery of fission in '39, but the weaponized program starts a little bit later. Whatever one says, it was always out of the ability of scientists and politicians to control how these weapons will be used or how the factories and waste would be made safe. When they built the weapons of World War II, they thought maybe they'll build 10 or 20 or 30. But nobody thought that the US and USSR would build 80,000 on each side.
Nobody in World War II imagined that people would speculate about gigaton weapons or a proliferation of rockets with ten independently-targetable megaton warheads. And that's just the nuclear weapons side. Then the nuclear power side, too. At first, policy makers and engineers fantasized that they’d produce energy “too cheap to meter;” nuclear power was going to be this perfect solution—but really it was never within the scope of our scientific, engineering and social imagination to think about what happens with a Fukushima or a Chernobyl. So, I think that the simplified version of the lesson is, don't mistake immediate, short-term technical harnessing for control.
We might decide that we don't care, we're going do something because otherwise we're all going to die. But don't fall into the too-cheap-to-meter phantasmagoric stories that we tell ourselves that, because we can blow up Hiroshima, we're going to be able to control this technology for the long term: politically, in terms of waste production, in terms of accidents—all of this range of things that seem to continuously escape and surprise us.
Well, Peter, in the time that we have left, one aspect of your career that we haven't touched on at all yet is your style as a mentor. And I'm thinking particularly—you had such a unique trajectory in terms of your own education and in the kinds of relationships you built with your professors. So, I want to ask generally, not specifically who have been some of your best graduate students, but what is the type of graduate student that responds best to the kinds of things that you want to do with them? In terms of their interest, in terms of their abilities, in terms of their ambitions, what are the kinds of students that have been most productive in your role as a graduate mentor?
I think the lesson that I take from my own trajectory is how important it is to have people help a young person figure out the work they want to do. I mean, it's really hard to be a graduate student. I don't have any golden-hour light on those years. I remember very well what it's like to be a graduate student, and I remember how hard it was. And now, in this moment of the pandemic and political pandemonium, staggeringly hard.
But even pandemic aside, someone's going to say to you, are you still in school? Don't you want to be out in the real world? As a graduate student, you are working often ferociously difficult hours without a lot of financial resources, and you don't know where you're going to end up figuratively or literally. It's not like you can say I'm a dentist and I'm going to work in Minneapolis or as a lawyer in Los Angeles. You can't say that. You're making a big gamble on the future, whether it's going to work out, and what kind of job you will get, if you're going to get a job, and how it's going to work.
Do you feel like you took gambles as a graduate student?
I think there were times when I was—there were certainly people who told me, don't work on something contemporary, because it could turn out to be wrong. As one teacher of mine, a later Nobel Prize winner, said to me around 1980 or so, "How do you know this gauge theory approach is going to really work out?" I wasn't so dissuaded by that. But I did hear some of my elders saying (when I mentioned I was looking at the history of weak neutral currents), “what you are doing isn't history,” or “are you really a historian?” I don't know if it was a gamble, but there were times when I certainly felt the weight of that kind of pressure. In the end, I decided to do it, but it's not like I said with a psychological shrug, “I don't care what you say.” I thought about it. Another moment was in film. I certainly had people who said to me in private and in public, even now—film is mere popularization, it cannot be scholarship. I don't really care now, I’ve made my choices—so it's not any a gamble now—but, when early in my career, I kind of forgot to tell some senior colleagues, (when I was a junior faculty), that I was working on a film. It's not like I was sure they were going to be against it, I just didn’t want to find out. I just figured, I'll do it, I'll do my other work, we'll see how it comes out. And in the event, it took me 15 years to finish that first film (from 1985 to 2000), because I was working on it so much on the side. So, are there things that I've done that I was not sure would work out? The answer is yes. Are there things that I've done where I felt like not everybody approved of it? Yes. Did I feel like I was going to be thrown out of the academy for doing it? Not really.
And that's partly just maybe the luck of the draw—or the match between what I could do and what was recognized at the time. But I had enough that was legible to people who were making the judgments over whether I got a job or whether I was promoted to this or that, whether I got tenure, so that I wasn't traumatized that I would be pushed out. But I've certainly felt at times that for certain colleagues this or that that I wanted to do didn't count, that making films would be considered ‘just popularization’ and not scholarship, or that—a dozen examples. One senior historian of science got up after seeing my film “Secrecy,” and said: why don’t you do a purely historical film? Collaborating with William Kentridge was a great delight for me, tremendously evocative—but certainly some folks asked, “what are you doing collaborating with an artist on an installation or chamber opera?” I've followed the things that interested me. And, to me, there's a logic that flows from one project to the next, but I’m not requiring anybody else to say that they see that. I do it because I love doing it. But, yeah, so that's a long answer to your question, but yes, there are projects that seemed to me something of a gamble. But I never lose sight of the fact that I have seen people who have risked more than I have to do—who really have been hurt by their decisions, despite making, in my view, good, inventive, well-executed scholarly decisions.
So, I don't mean to—like I'm a white senior-faculty man and I've not been given the grief that women scholars and scientists have faced, or minority scientists and scholars have faced, or people that really pushed early-on feminist epistemology. I have nothing but admiration for the people who have worked in various ways to provide a more expanded sense of what counted as history of science. And I've tried to do my part, not only in my own work, but encouraging others to be able to do that, to make room for a more capacious sense of what the discipline could be.
And building up the department and teaching at Stanford and then at Harvard, I wanted back in the early/mid-80s to make sure that my graduate students would learn about, for example, Donna Haraway's work, and Sharon Traweek and other people who I admired, Helen Longino. We had conferences together with Donna Haraway. I wanted to make sure that my students would be exposed to this wide and expanding range of scholarship, not just to what I did. There were a bunch of undergraduates back then who worked with me who then went on to graduate school, some with me, some elsewhere. And then, in graduate school and at Harvard and in building up the department there, too, it was important to me that there be a diversity of approaches, a diversity of people. I never thought that I wanted my graduate students to just replicate or franchise what I was doing. I remember Marga Vicedo came already as a tenured professor of philosophy of biology in Arizona at ASU, and she did a PhD in history of science with me at Harvard. Now she's at the University of Toronto. She did great work on the biology of the maternal instinct—still does. This is not particle physics or nuclear secrecy or black holes!
But I so admired what she did and wanted to encourage her to do the kind of work that she did. Then there have been people who have been closer in their interests in the history of physics, like Dave Kaiser or the history of chemistry Michael Gordin, who wanted to work on Russian things: he wrote his thesis on Mendeleev. I worked with Michael since he was an undergraduate and admire hugely all he's accomplished. Back in Stanford, Naomi Oreskes worked with me and Nancy Cartwright at Stanford—so did Hasok Chang. I only had a handful of graduate students at Stanford, but I had lots of undergraduates. Some came with me to Harvard, like Conevery Bolston. At Harvard I've had more graduate students and fewer undergraduates. That's just the way it worked. I don't think, on the whole, that the people come to work with me who are purely interested in institutional history. I think all have wanted to combine conceptual issues with the material, institutional, political, or other frames.
I think there are better advisors for someone who is purely an institutional historian or a classic biographer. But people who are interested in scientific practice and seeing where the topic and exploration is in some ways propelled by a philosophical interest or question seem to resonate with me, even if the person is fundamentally historical in approach.
Dave and Michael are both great historians, and I don't think they think of themselves as on the border with philosophy, but some of the questions that drove their interest I think of as conceptual. Let me put it that way rather than as the center of the philosophical panoply.
And that's why they were so successful with you, because of that perspective?
Yeah. I think they were—and they had different expansive ideas. I mean, Michael wanted to work on standardization—and to see Mendeleev’s work emerging from the full arc of Mendeleev’s career. He began by being interested in the position of standards across the Russian Empire—rather than working backwards from the periodic table.
And Dave Kaiser, I think the center-weight of his concerns historically was the Cold War in some ways, and he's explored that in lots of different ways. I mean, he's done other things, too. He's written on Bohr and early quantum mechanics—and then beautifully about the range of outside-the-box thinking that he chronicled in How the Hippies Saved Physics. But I think that opening the windows in history of science has been my biggest goal, not just for my own work, but to allow people the excitement of the discipline, to try out new things. I can’t list here all the amazing students who have worked with me over the years—I have learned so much from them, it has been one of the great pleasures of my life.
Yeah. Right, right.
I suppose in one way my overarching goal—whether in my research or my teaching is to help transform things not considered to be historicizable into questions that can be. You can do history about something like that. And telling stories a different way or looking at a different scale. In my own work, working with [Lorraine Daston] on the Objectivity book, that was very evident. When we asked after the history of objectivity, the answer was all too often considered to be natural, obvious. People would say, we already know what objectivity is, it is not something that has a history—or its history is just the history of the birth of science itself.
And trying to denaturalize that and to frame it in a way somewhat different than the way it had been thought of before. That was the great pleasure of working on the objectivity book with Raine. And that's my hope for my graduate students, and I've taught a lot of graduate students now, and I enjoy it tremendously. Right now, in addition to respecting their work, my students have my admiration and huge empathy for all the difficulties that are always present for being a graduate student, and on top of that the archives are closed—
Everything else, right.
—sources of income are uncertain; universities are suspending many jobs. And so, I consider it part of my job, and what I want to do, not just obligation from outside, to help the grad students see their way through. Each of them has different ways of doing it. Some of them have paused to be politically engaged. Some of them are trying to give meaning by taking their work in a different direction, making use of those sources that can be accessed. Some of are trying to give themselves the running room to finish their work so that they can keep themselves steady in an unsteady world. It's different things. Whatever they choose ultimately to do, I admire people who choose to go to graduate school—always a brave choice—and now all the more.
Even more so. [laughs]
It's a pretty brave decision.
Nobody drifts into graduate school.
A lot of people end up in college because their parents expect them to go to college, but nobody goes to graduate school because their parents expect them to—well, practically nobody.
It's pretty rare.
Certainly, my parents didn't say, well, when are you applying to graduate school?
That was not even on the top ten.
[laughs] Well, Peter, if we could push just a bit past the 6 o'clock time, I want to ask you one final contemporary question, and then a forward-looking question. A theme throughout your scholarly career, either as a spotlight issue or operating in the periphery, of course, is how scientists are both a product of their society and how they struggle to communicate their work within their society. And so, to historicize, as you just mentioned, the pandemic that we're in now, one of the many crises is the crisis of this disconnect between scientific findings and recommendations and the public's unwillingness or lack of desire or suspicion to do the things that scientists say we should do, right? So, how do you historicize these macroscopic developments, both just as a matter for understanding how we are in this very bizarre situation that we're in right now, and also as a way to think about how we might get out of it in the most productive way when this current catastrophe does become a matter of history?
Well, I would say first: we're in a multiple catastrophe right now. It's not a single thing.
In some ways, the condition in which we find ourselves is in a global pandemic that's already killed hundreds of thousands of people and is, with virtual certainty, going to do more of the same. Because of the pandemic, we're also in a major economic crisis. Maybe that crisis was going to come anyway sooner or later, because of the gross inequalities that our society has generated in a financialized, globalized world. And maybe this has distributed wealth in a way that has driven people into rather desperate conditions, and other people into political alliances that are antidemocratic and foreground racism and nationalism in ways that I think are extremely dangerous. And then, because of its differential effect, this slogan that "we're all in this together" is, I think, highly dubious in a lot of ways. Inequality makes the pandemic worse, and the pandemic exacerbates conditions of inequality.
It's not hitting all countries equally. The United States has not done well. I think the United States and Britain and Italy did very poorly compared to other comparable countries. But, however bad it is in the United States, hundreds of thousands of people will have died, unnecessarily in my view, in the sense that we could have avoided a significant part of that disaster that with prompt, proper, aggressive, scientifically-based public health measures. And then, it's going to hit the third world in catastrophic ways, and it has already differentially affected Black, indigenous, and people of color throughout Western Europe and the United States. And so, we face this multiple disaster that's biological and economic, and its iniquitous impact on urban immigrant, Native American, Black populations in a catastrophic way. And how we got here is no doubt complicated. The zoonotic illnesses have a lot to do with the way we treat nature, the ecological system, and the system of animal farm-raised wet markets, factory animal production. Tragically, you couldn't design a better system than what we have to generate new forms of diseases, like swine flu and the various coronaviruses, including the novel coronavirus. We've made a kind of laboratory for destroying ourselves that way, which is terrible. But the decisions over finance, inequality, taxation, race disparities—those are things that come not just from technical or food issues, they come from other deep sources of racism and nationalism. And it worries me how activated all of that is now.
So, that's in the background of our current condition. I do think that science in an expansive sense, including public health measures, equality of medical care, accessibility of medical care, research into treatment, not having just-in-time economics for our hospitals, but stockpiling and systematic supply-chain design for the vaccines—there are a million things that we could do that would be what I would consider to be a rational, not just anticipatable but anticipated need that we would have. It is not a surprise—
—that we needed ventilators, we need PPE. I mean, I lost my father's sister in a nursing home, in a high-end nursing home in New York where neither caregivers nor residents had personal protective gear. Nurses were going around in home-grown ponchos and plastic bags, and these inadequacies killed a huge number of people. Nurses and doctors themselves have died in terrible numbers. There's a lot wrong, and I think that science in this expansive sense, public health, medicine included, can be part of making better and saving lives. And I would like to see that we'll follow the science. I think we can understand science in a world that's engaged, that's part of, that's embedded in the world and still see a hope in recognizing that masks and social distancing and ventilators and hopefully antiviral vaccines will play an important and crucial role. I've never seen the social-embedding of science as being the opposite of the importance of science in understanding and navigating the world that we face.
Mm-hmm. That's the thing, right? In terms of anticipation, scientists had been saying for a long time how dangerous these practices are, and how dangerous it is to not pay attention to zoonotic flues, and how dangerous it is not to keep a national stockpile of PPE and other medical materials. So, in terms of historicizing this, do you think that there's going to be a real paradigm shift in terms of society's willingness to take what scientists say more seriously?
I think it's going to depend on—
—political leadership, and how insistent populations are that drive that political leadership. Are they willing to make the economic sacrifices to do that? I would be optimistic about the European Union. I would be optimistic about Canada. I'd be optimistic about the Scandinavian countries. The United States? I can only hope that between now and November 2020, they're going to start reestablishing and anticipating the next round. Alas, this is not the last viral pandemic that we're going to face.
And whether people will put aside their ideology in favor of a more collaborative and scientific work, I hope so.
Not those black holes have anything to contribute to the pandemic, but I have seen both as an analyst in my historical work—and as a participant now—how collaborations can work. Over the last six years, I have had this experience that was tremendously moving to me, when people from graduate students up through the most senior people in the field, working 'til 3:00 in the morning trying to get this image right, scientists from dozens of different countries and institutions. Out of it, I really came with a great admiration for what a diverse group can do when people are able to collaborate and be critical without being ad hominem. I'm not trying to idealize this. There were moments of tension, outbursts, conflicts under the enormous pressure of preparing for publication. But, on the whole, people willing to say, this part of what you said is right, this part's wrong, let's try that, to try to really get at here's why—that had an astonishing power to it. It was incredibly moving to me and redoubled my commitment to thinking that we want science, medicine, technology to be a place where people can be LGBTQ+, where women can get listened to and not get shut down, where African Americans can speak and not be asked insulting questions about why they're there. I really believe that the Event Horizon Telescope would not have succeeded if it hadn't been for the diversity of disciplines and skills that people brought to it.
A computer scientist works on computer vision and this other person is a theorist and somebody else—it was really [thanks to the myriad expertise, that we were able to synthesize an image]. If we get out of this pandemic without hoping for herd immunity, where 70% of the world's population have had it, I think it's going to be by real collaboration. I tend to be an optimist.
So, I'm hopeful. But there are things that we're seeing now that I never thought I'd see. I never thought we would see the anti-science raised to the banner of a major political party. If you read Dan Kevles' book, now older book, The Physicists, and many, many works since then, the Republicans were, in the Cold War, the biggest defenders of high-end science.
And it's like that old phrase, predictions are hard, especially about the future.
[laughs] That's right, that's right.
I don't know. I'm hopeful, but I recognize that we live in a time when I can no longer assume that in 50 years democracy in most of Western Europe, the United States will prevail.
I was surer of that 15 years ago than I am today, but I'm hopeful that it will.
Well, Peter, on the matter of prediction, for my last question, as I'm sure you know, it's a bit of a parlor game to ask, what's the next thing Peter Galison is going to work on, right? And it's only retroactively when you look at the thing that you put out next, does it make sense in that arc of your career and scholarly interests where that fits in. And so, of course, that begs the question generally, what are the issues that most excite you looking forward? What are the topics that you want to engage in and what are the areas of research interest that you want to make the biggest impact on looking toward the future?
Well, I don’t know about the long run, but I have some immediate things I'm keen to do. One is finishing a book with the art historian, my wife, Caroline Jones, who's at MIT, in architecture and art history. It’s called Invisibilities: Seeing and Unseeing the Anthropocene, about the way that visual evidence has shaped our understanding of the Anthropocene and what's happening now. It's a short book, but it's a polemic about a different kind of understanding that comes from visual evidence. We did a piece together in Artforum a couple of years ago about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the way that images from that disaster functioned both to obscure and to reveal.
So, we've expanded that in this little book into an inquiry about which images did what—which were effective and which not; about the incessant battles between invisibalizing and visibalizing the spew into land, water, and air. Then, I continue to work with the Event Horizon Telescope. Now we're trying to make images and hopefully movies of the center of the galaxy, the super-massive black hole called Sagittarius A*. Related to this work, my film, Black Holes | The Edge of All We Know, is done and it looks like it's going to get wide distribution, so I'm happy about that. After the Invisibilities book, I want to turn to a project I've had for a long time called Building, Crashing, Thinking, about modern technologies that change the scientific self as you go from the early 20th Century—the time of Freud and Rorschach—through the middle of the century and wartime exigencies to the present. That book is something I've been working on for a long time and I want to finish it.
Well, Peter, I'm not surprised at all how fun it has been talking with you, as I knew it would be. So, I really want to thank you for your time, and this is just a real honor to be able to spend this amount of time with you, and this is going to be a tremendous addition to our collection. So, thank you very much.