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Research at the Department of History of Science

Concept Dynamics in 20th Century Science and Medicine

Early Particle Physics (Arianna Borrelli)

Exploring the “dark ages” of particle physics: isospin, strangeness and the construction of physical-mathematical concepts in the pre-Standard-Model era (ca. 1950-1965)

DFG-Eigene Stelle of Arianna Borrelli

The 1950s and '60s are today usually regarded as a sort of “dark ages” of particle physics: a long phase of  theoretical uncertainty and confusing experimental variety which ended only with the rise of the Standard Model in the early 1970s. Aimed at a critical reassessment of this view, the project constitutes the first thorough historical analysis studying the conceptual developments of the 1950s and '60s in their own right, and not simply as a “prelude” to the Standard Model.  With an innovative historical-philosophical focus on the formation of concepts rather than on the construction of theories, the project explores the dynamics of formation and development of isospin and strangeness, two concepts which emerged in the 1950s, to be eventually embedded in the Standard Model two decades later.

The Formation and Development of the Concept of Virtual Particles​ (Markus Ehberger, Friedrich Steinle und Adrian Wüthrich)

Dissertation project of Markus Ehberger in collaboration with Adrian Wüthrich and Friedrich Steinle. Project A1 of the DFG-Resaerch-Unit The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider.

Virtual particles are an integral part of much of current particle physics. Even though they are taken not to be directly observable and are allowed to violate energy conservation due to their transient character, observable effects are often explained by invoking the concept. In particular, one of the main methods of handling the complexity of solving quantum field theoretical equations (“perturbation theory”) is today so bound up with the concept, as well as with its representation by Feynman diagrams (with physical particles represented by outer and virtual particles represented by inner lines), that the concept is easily taken for granted.

This project aims at locating the precise origins of the concept of virtual particles and to describe and explain the way in which it became established. Through the investigation of the concept’s evolution, an account of various definitions and interpretations of the virtual particle will be given, the uses will be historically contextualized and possible alternative ways of understanding the corresponding phenomena will be explored. Therefore, we will isolate and articulate the central aspects of the conceptual framework of quantum field theory and elementary particle physics pertaining to virtual particles and Feynman diagrams, which in consequence will contribute to answering questions concerning their proper interpretation. 

Concepts at work (Karin Pelte and Friedrich Steinle)

Dissertation project of Karin Pelte in collaboration with Friedrich Steinle. German Research Foundation (DFG) project „Concepts at Work. The dynamics of scientific concepts in the studies on multiple and interacting galaxies (1925-1980)”

The project proposes the thorough investigation of the dynamics of a central, yet to this day debated concept of astrophysics – the “galaxy” – in the context of the long term development (c1925-1980) of one of its instigating research strands: the study of multiple and interacting galaxies. Highly heterogeneous yet limited in terms of number of researchers, galaxy studies and their various branches emerging alongside with and after E.P. Hubble have so far been largely overlooked by the history of science. The analysis of this specific strand promises to uncover crucial aspects of the fundamental change in cosmology in this period, in which galaxies turned from stationary island universes and measuring points of a mapping science into 'laboratories' of an 'experimental' science. The project's main focus on the underlying networks of concepts put to work by the pertaining research collective constitutes an innovative approach in the historical study of research dynamics in modern astrophysics. Often thought of as a collection of unexpected, serendipitous discoveries based on technological innovation rather than theoretical predictions, concepts – as for example the “neutron star” or “black hole” – have come to be seen by the astrophysicists themselves as the only constants in this knowledge production. Aimed at a critical reassessment of this view, the project intends to explore the latent readjustments of the network of concepts by members of the research collective in their scientific communication and how these allowed for the integration and co-existence of the sometimes strongly diverging research outlooks before a more cohesive activity took shape in the context of international cooperations of extragalactic astronomy in the 1980s. Exploiting the comparative theory of science of Ludwik Fleck this historical study will contribute in the more general investigation of how astrophysical facts come into being and develop.

The medical and social construction of cocainism in the 19th and early 20th century. Addiction and deviance in the focus of medicine (Hannes Walter)

With the therapeutic use of cocaine, modern medicine had evoked, as the psychiatrist Albrecht Erlenmeyer phrased it in 1886, a "worthy third scourge of mankind" besides alcoholism and morphinism – cocainsm. By placing cocaine use alongside alcohol and morphine addiction, medical experts characterized the unauthorized consumption of cocaine over the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth as an uncontrollable and terminal pathological disorder and associated it with various forms of social and sexual deviance.

This concept was refined after the First World War, when cocaine consumption became perceived to be a widespread practice in hedonistic urban leisure culture. It was first then when the practice became tantamount to a social disease that fears of a "cocaine wave" sweeping through society prompted more intense medical research activities. After physicians threw themselves into field studies, clinical observations, and controlled experiences of the problem, by the 1920s a common clinical conception of "cocainism" emerged. Indeed, this medicalization of cocaine use culminated in the terms' inclusion in the first manual for psychiatric diagnoses, the so-called "Würzeburger Schlüssel," which standardized diagnoses across the German-speaking lands. And this definition, in turn, shaped the medical and public image of this addition and of cocaine users thereafter.

My dissertation will trace the social and medical construction of cocaine-use in the German lands through the multi-dimensional forces shaping its development. The aim is to analyze the interaction of natural and human sciences, on the one hand, and normative as well as cultural beliefs, on the other, to reconstruct the emergence of "cocainism" in the medical and social imaginary. In so doing, my dissertation will demonstrate how the clinical understanding of concainism was a hybrid construct linking ideas of health and normality with  those of illness and deviance. Against the backdrop of the emergence of the "cocainist" as an ideal type of pathological and deficient being, in a second step I will explore how this stereotype affected not only the treatment patients received but also consumer behavior and cocaine users' self-perception. To this end, I ask how the picture of the ideal-typical addict, portrayed in medical and medial discourses, corresponded with the experiences of  clinical practice and the social structure of the patients. Since historical drug research has centered on the more influential actors in medicine, the media, politics, and the justice system, this study will contribute to this field more broadly by accounting for the subaltern voices and agency of the consumers themselves.

To examine the mutual interaction between psychiatric and psychopharmacological research, the creation and transfer of knowledge in medical specialist discourses, clinical practice as well as the self-perceptions, and the practices and motives of the consumers, my dissertation will weave together a wide range of source materials. Besides medical and pharmacological journal articles, surveys, monographs and conference reports, I will also draw on medical records from the psychiatric clinic of the Charité Berlin and the psychiatric clinic Leipzig-Dösen. By linking the sporadic ego-documents, which can be found in some medical records, with corresponding reports of police, judicial and welfare authorities, I will reconstruct the subjectivities and fates of a small number of patients in detail.

By examining the hybrid medico-social construction of "cocainism", my project will ultimately reveal the cultural forces undergirding public attitudes toward cocaine users and the types of medical treatment they receive, which in turn also shaped consumers' own self-image and influenced their actions in decisive ways.

History of Colour Knowledge

Publishing an index volume to the Leopoldina Edition "Goethe. Die Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft" (Vol. III 2) (Carmen Götz, Simon Rebohm and Friedrich Steinle)

Project leader: Prof. Dr. Friedrich Steinle, together with Prof. em. Dr. Irmgard Müller

Researchers: Dr. Carmen Götz (since February 2015), Dr. Simon Rebohm (since September 2016), Dr. Bastian Röther (February 2015 until August 2016)

Funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation

Working site: National Academy of Science Leopoldina, Halle/Saale, Germany

The edition of Goethe’s writings on the natural sciences, the so-called “Leopoldina-Edition”, comprises 22 Volumes, published in 30 books. The edition consists of three divisions:

Division I
11 Volumes
Goethe's works
Division II
10 Volumes
Materials, testimonies, commentaries
Division III
2 Volumes
index volume III 1 (published in 2014)
index volume III 2 (to be published in 2018)

Most of the volumes of division I and II, published between 1947 and 2011, include an index of proper names, sometimes also of geographical names, of different scope, quality and depth. Using those indices, and conducting a full anew inspection of the edited volumes (4.170 plus 12.190 pages), the project aims at establishing the following indexes:

  • Index of persons
  • Index of geographic names
  • Index of naturalia I: minerals
  • Index of naturalia II: plants
  • Index of naturalia III: animals
  • Catalogue of works mentioned in the edition

Specific (sub-)indexes will be given separately:

  • Index of biblical, mythological and fictional persons
  • Index of Goethe’s works and individual articles
  • Index of correspondences
  • Index of journals

All data will be recorded in a MySQL-based database especially designed for this project by the internet agency 3pc (Berlin). The development of the database is funded by the National Academy of Science Leopoldina. The XML-files generated by the database form the basis for the printed volumes. Additionally, the database will be made publically accessible through the internet.

The Order of Colours. Colour Systems and Colour Reference Tables in 18th and early 19th Century Europe (Tanja Kleinwächter, Giulia Simonini und Friedrich Steinle)

Dissertation projects of Tanja Kleinwächter and Giulia Simonini in collaboration with Friedrich Steinle. Funded by the DFG.

This project analyzes, under the specific aspect of colour systematization, the full breadth of European colour research for the important period of the 18th and early 19th centuries, i.e. from Newton to Field. In two parallel, but connected diachronic studies, it collects and analyzes all colour systems and colour reference tables, respectively. It will examine those systems in their own right, investigate their mutual relations and references and their tradition lines, and situate them in their proper cultural, technical, theoretical and experimental context. As a result, a full-fledged panorama of 18th ct. attempts of colour systematization and reference will emerge. A particular challenge for the project is to find appropriate criteria of grouping and classifying the large number of systems. The project will analyze in detail, moreover, the role of natural history and of technical developments in colour systematization. To reach its goals, the project will combine detailed analysis and encompassing prosopographic research.

Science in the Early Modern Period

The Status of Practical Geometry and its Relations to Theoretical and Applied Geometrical Knowledge in Sixteenth-century Treaties of Practical Geometry (Angela Axworthy)

PostDoc project of Angela Axworthy at the TU Berlin within the postdoctoral program of the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge

This project offers to study the Renaissance developments of the notion of praxis in geometry and, more specifically, the status of practical geometry and its relation with theoretical and applied geometrical knowledge in the sixteenth century. During the sixteenth century, a strong development of practical geometry took place, which can be attested by the great number of treatises that were published on this discipline during this period in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England. These treatises, which were written by mathematicians belonging to various contexts, offer different interpretations of the notion of practical knowledge and of its relations to theoretical and applied knowledge in the field of geometry. While some of these treatises explicitly offer to teach means to apply the principles of geometry to mechanical arts, others rather present practical geometry as an extension of theoretical geometry. Others again stand half-way between these two types of treatises. They describe the procedures by which geometry may be applied to concrete problems (with or without instruments), but remain too general in their descriptions to teach how to directly apply the taught operations in context. The multiform character of these treatises thus reveal the difficulty to clearly mark the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as between practical and applied knowledge, in the sixteenth-century tradition of practical geometry. This difficulty points itself to the changing nature of the notions of geometrical practice and of "practical geometry" from the Middle ages to the Early modern period. Such epistemological transformations, which were correlative with the Renaissance developments of the mechanical arts and physical-mathematical sciences, as well as with the progressive integration of practical and applied mathematics within the university curriculum and with the growing interest of the learned public in "useful knowledge", led to transformations in the institutional status and place of practical and applied knowledge in the hierarchization of sciences. In considering this tradition of practical geometry in the Renaissance, the main goal of the project is to shed light on its multiformity and its underlying specificities, but also to bring forth, in a more general perspective, new elements regarding the transformation of the epistemological, institutional and cultural status of practical knowledge in Early modern Europe, particularly in learned contexts.

Quantitative Physiological Reasoning at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century: The Work of Sanctorius Sanctorius (Teresa Hollerbach)

Dissertation project of Teresa Hollerbach.

The work focuses on European Early Modern History of Medicine, especially in Italy. At the turn of the seventeenth century, we find a highly diversified European medical world. Intellectual and philosophical contexts played an important role in the development of medicine and can provide us with an insight into the broad connections that existed between medicine and other branches of natural knowledge. Despite the established traditional way of medical teaching and learning at the universities, many of those involved in medicine were open to new ideas and contemporary new trends. In this context, the Istrian physician Sanctorius Sanctorius (1561-1636) developed instruments to measure—and to quantify—physiological change. In this research, Sanctorius’ work will be considered in the process of the emergence and establishment of the methods of quantification in science and specifically in the frame of the formation of the iatro-sciences.

Attempts Towards an Empirical Validation and Legitimation of Astrology by Horoscope Collections in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Günther Oestmann)

Funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

The history of science in the Early Modern Period remains incomprehensible to a large extent without taking account of astrology. The project seeks to contribute to the development of this field of knowledge in the 16th and 17th centuries. A central part of the discourse on the legitimacy and scientific nature of astrology – attempts to empirically validate and verify astrological interpretation by employing horoscope collections – shall be researched. This specific type of source material has hitherto not been studied systematically. In addition to a comparative study of contents and examination of the context of origin and purpose, the position of the authors in the discourse on the legitimacy of astrology shall be investigated. From a comparative analysis of different sets of horoscopes conclusions will be drawn concerning the motivation of the compilers, their information networks and possible attempts to utilize this knowledge in  different confessional contexts.

Special attention will be given to Johannes Kepler’s horoscope collection. The relationship between Kepler’s daily astrological practice and counselling as court mathematician and “Landschaftsmathematicus” and his proposed radical reform of astrological physics shall be examined. A chief goal of this project will be to contribute new answers to the question of why learned astrology, over the course of the 17th century, gradually declined until it was eventually excluded from the sphere of recognized science.

The Weight of Things. Quantification of Matter and the Exchange of Technical and Learned Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Cesare Pastorino)

Funded by the DFG.

This project investigates the quantification of matter in the Early Modern period, focusing on the notion of specific gravity. At a given volume, different substances can be identified by their particular weight, or specific gravity. Numerous early modern experimentalists, including Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler, viewed this seemingly humble principle as a fundamental key to the understanding of nature in general. Specific gravities were sought for a bewildering variety of materials, ranging from ivory, loadstone, and gold to ox horn, sheep blood or calves' brains. However, during the  sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century, this notion came to be crucial not only for natural philosophers and mathematicians. In fact, a heterogeneous group of early modern experts became interested in it, including instrument makers, antiquarians, humanists, alchemists, Jesuits and military engineers. This study will provide the first full investigation of this rich cultural and technical environment. It will analyze the contexts in which these experts used specific gravities and the knowledge transfer among them. It will provide new insight into how these groups of practitioners and scholars were connected.The project will focus on both discussions of specific gravities in learned works, and numerical determinations of specific gravities derived from texts, tables, and mathematical instruments. These data will be employed to study the determination, use, diffusion and transfer of knowledge on specific gravities across geographical areas, time periods and subject domains. In particular, this research will analyze mathematical instruments used in fields like the art of warfare and the goldsmith trade. These sources will permit the study of time periods and contexts for which textual sources are not available. This part of the project will be developed in collaboration with major European museums holding rich collections of historical instruments. The project will especially explore the relationship between applied and learned forms of knowledge, a crucial issue in the new historiography of early modern science. By redefining our understanding of the quantification of matter in the early modern period, this project will shed new light on the origins and development of experimental science in general, and open new perspectives for the discussion of the historical relation between humanities and sciences.

DFG-Project-Nr.: 339935097

Magnetism in the Early Modern Sciences (Christoph Sander)

Dissertation project of Christoph Sander.

Experiment and Practical Knowledge

Photometry at the Lighthouse: Practical Knowledge between Field and Laboratory (Martin Jähnert)

PostDoc project of Martin Jähnert at the TU Berlin within the postdoctoral program of the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge.

The project Photometry at the Lighthouse focuses on the study of lighthouse illumination from 1820s to 1860s and follows the pathways of the Stevenson family, Engineers to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses during the 19th century, and Michael Faraday, scientific advisor to Trinity House, as they crossed a number of times while dealing with the evaluation of lamps, the calibration of lens systems to the explorations of the optics of the atmosphere. While the Stevensons and Faraday stayed in close contact with actual lighthouse practice, they took opposing positions in studying lighthouse illumination. The Stevensons thought that lighthouse illumination was a complex technological problem, which had to be studied in situations encountered in the everyday practice of navigating the coast. Faraday, by contrast, sought to bring the question of lighthouse illumination closer to the space of his laboratory and to break down its complexity into manageable portions.

Reconstructing these approaches, Photometry at the Lighthouse examines how civil engineers and experimental philosophers made use of experimental spaces approaches and combines this question with the study of knowledge production. Further it analyses observational and experimental practices in the history of photometry and thereby use of the eye judging brightness in optical experimentation.

Environmental Factors in Agriculture: Observation and Experiment in Agricultural Meteorology (ca 1900-1950) (Giuditta Parolini)

Funded by the DFG.

Environmental factors, such as weather conditions, pest infestations, and availability of water resources, significantly affect success and failure in agriculture. Among these environmental factors the primary relevance of the weather is uncontested. For this reason, during the first half of the twentieth century, a new scientific discipline, agricultural meteorology, was established to investigate the impact of the weather on crop growth and livestock performance. A subject much neglected by historians, the developments of agricultural meteorology are instead highly relevant if we want to understand how weather conditions can affect food production and agricultural sustainability, issues which are increasingly raising concerns due to climate change. The project will investigate the institutional history and material culture of agricultural meteorology during the first half of the twentieth century by taking both a global and a local perspective. It will provide an overview of the contributions made by international organisations (World Meteorological Organization and International Institute of Agriculture) to the growth of the discipline, besides analysing the developments of agricultural meteorology in selected countries (the US, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy). In addition, the project will pursue in depth a local case study: the history of agricultural meteorology in Great Britain, where the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries set up long-term observational and experimental schemes on weather and crops. By connecting a global and a local perspective, the project will achieve three main objectives: 1) to uncover the origins of modern agricultural meteorology; 2) to investigate the role of observation and experiment in agricultural meteorology; 3) to examine how agricultural meteorology has contributed to our understanding of the environment and its influence on human economic activities. The historical account of agricultural meteorology developed by the project will be of interest to several research areas: the history of agricultural science, rural history, the history of applied meteorology, the growing literature on scientific data, the history of the field sciences and, of course, environmental history and policy.

For more information about this project see https://agriculturalmeteorology.wordpress.com.

Science and its Media

Science on the Film Strip. Collecting and Archiving Documentaries in the Postwar Era (Anja Sattelmacher)

PostDoc project of Anja Sattelmacher at the TU Berlin within the postdoctoral program of the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge.

In the years between 1920 tand 1930 the Austrian zoologist Otto Storch visualized animal motion and behavior with the help of cinematography and made it analyzable at the same time. After the Second World War, he was one of the first ones to develop the idea that animal locomotion and movement, as well as animal behavior, must be systematically documented and collected. Since he considered the film to be the best research tool in order to do so, he pronounced the idea to found a zoological film museum. Other than still objects in a museum, moving pictures of animals in his opinion were able to demonstrate activity of living things. Collecting films of the movement of different animals, patterns, structures and rules about their behavior, so the idea, could be compared to each other and thus contribute to the production of animal behavior in general. It turns out that the idea of such a zoological film collection was soon picked up by a group of European scientists who decided to establish an encyclopaedia cinematographica (in the following EC) that would document the behavior of all beings (humans and animals alike) and even the movement of machines through film. Among those scientists were Konrad Lorenz, Otto Hahn, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeld, Werner Heisenberg, Nikolaas Tinbergen and others. The idea was to build up a collection of all species (and even machines) and all types of movement. It was divided into three main sections, each of which comprised short film sequences about topics like biology, technical sciences and Ethnology. Filmmakers and scientists from all over the world made contributions to this encyclopaedia. The EC was intending to deliver a scientific method to scientists, namely to ethologists, who studied the behavior of animals and human beings. Wolf stated in 1967 that film was to be considered as a “continuously moving prepared specimen” (Bewegungsdauerpräparat) for the ethologist. The film roll, he stated, conserved animal behavior by fixating it on the film strip, just like a biological prepared specimen did for the biologist.

This research project aims at historicizing the circumstances that lead to the foundation of this cinematographic encyclopaedia and looks at the disciplinary, as well as at the political discourses that undermined the idea of documenting all forms of animal and human behavior (and technical machines) throughout a time span of 20 years. My aim is to connect the spheres of media history and the history of science and asks for the specific role of film as a historic source. Placing the history of documentary film within the practices of knowledge means to start with the practices that were connected to the production and the collection of these films. If film was to be seen as a research instrument, it will be necessary to find out how and with what methods it could produce knowledge.

Trajectories, Institutions and Networks in 20th Century Science and Mathematics

Parmenides, Engels, Einstein - Continuity and change of East German gravitational research between science, philosophy and politics (Raphael Schlattmann)

Dissertation project of Raphael Schlattmann.

Werner Heisenberg's Leipzig Years (Gerhard Rammer)

Supported by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences. Additional support is provided by the Heisenberg Society, the Archives of the Max Planck Society and the TU Berlin.

Werner Heisenberg received his professor position at age 25 and turned Leipzig, together with his colleagues Peter Debye and Friedrich Hund, into an international centre for the study of quantum mechanics. The project examines the specific atmosphere of Heisenberg's institute on the basis of archival sources as well as research literature and autobiographical memoirs written by numerous guests and disciples of Heisenberg. Particular attention is payed to Felix Bloch, Heisenberg’s first doctoral student, who was forced to leave Leipzig in 1933, emigrated to the United States, discovered nuclear magnetic resonance and earned the Nobel Prize in 1952. His research was the basis for the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which is central for the current research at the Leipzig Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The one and a half decades (1927–1942) constituting Heisenberg's time span at Leipzig were characterised by many changes and challenges: he established a new area of reseach, universities were reorganized by National Socialism, the Second World War started, and Heisenberg became part of the Uranverein. In the private sphere, there was marriage and foundation of a family. To understand the connexion of these contexts with Heisenberg’s scientific activities is a main purpose of this project.


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