New “Beside Discovery” additions

I recently added a few items to my “messy micro-histories of science” section here, reproduced below:

Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote “A Pedagogy of Diminishing Returns: Scientific Involution across Three Generations of Nuclear Weapons Science” (2005) about the strange sort of inward-turning and withering of nuclear weapons science in the post-testing era. That field (as well as national labs and megaprojects more generally) often seems to be dramatically idiosyncratic or even dysfunctional — but as with many of those dramatic features, the process Gusterson describes is a magnified version of something that plays in some form in all sorts of labs as fads and funding wax and wane. (Not to mention that perhaps most actual work in science is done by people in temporary and training positions, who today are very likely to leave science, taking a great deal of tacit knowledge with them.)

The Hanbury Brown and Twiss experiment is an interesting case where classical electromagnetism easily produces a correct answer, while the quantum mechanical explanation involves important subtleties. It caused controversy when it was performed in the 1950s, with critics saying that if the results were correct they would call for a “major revision of some fundamental concepts in quantum mechanics.” This was not at all true, as some people recognized immediately. From a certain perspective the quantum theory necessary for a correct explanation had been developed decades earlier (doubly true for the debate’s reappearance in the 1990s), but certain distinctions, particularly in source and detector physics, had not yet been made relevant by experiment. (Additionally, Dirac had written something that made a certain sense in the context of the 1930s but confused many physicists trying to apply it to understanding HBT: “Interference between different photons never occurs.”) The HBT paper in 1956 was then one of the motivations for developing theory along these lines, laying the foundations for quantum optics. I may write more about it someday, but for now The Twiss-Hanbury Brown Controversy: A 40-Years Perspective is a good overview.

A Half Century of Density Functional Theory (2015) celebrates a theory exceptional in that it in some sense fits the “discovery” narrative very well — it wasn’t at all “in the air” as these things often are. On the other hand, DFT’s value took some time to be recognized, especially among quantum chemists, for somewhat arbitrary reasons. [Additional links are quotes.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *