The material dimension of science is back in focus for historians. As far back as I remember, it was historians of technology who were the ‘materialists’, whereas historians of science were ‘idealists’. Didn’t really matter what kind of studies they did — historians of science have always tended to be intererested in mind (theories, ideas, concepts, discourses, etc.), whereas historians of technology have given higher priority to matter — material matter, not just conceptualised matter.
But historians of science are about to discover the material aspects of science. Next summer’s workshop ‘Scientific Objects and their Materiality in the History of Chemistry’ is a case in point. Organised by Michael Gordin (Princeton), Ursula Klein( Berlin), and Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld) and held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, 24-26 June 2010, it will explore the materiality of scientific objects with a focus on the history of chemistry:
For both experimental inquiry and technical application, the sciences depend on working with material things and processes. In this respect, chemistry is arguably the material science par excellence, primarily through the crucial role of the synthesis of chemical compounds, and the strong interactions with technological institutions and industry. In terms of the representation of its objects of inquiry, chemistry has a peculiarly materialized semiology in a long-standing tradition of graphic formulae and three-dimensional structural models, as well as a rich heritage of ordering systems such as the periodic table. In the middle-ground between representation and intervention there stand certain kinds of principles and entities, some of them invisible, that are both objects of experimental inquiry and theoretical speculation. Concepts such as the atom, element, or phlogiston have laid the groundwork for chemical research in defining the units of ordering systems, constituting the goals for material production, serving as limitations to the extent of chemical practice, or having crucial heuristic roles. And all of them have experienced variation, re-definition, development, suppression, and sometimes even extinction in the course of history.
And they tacitly refer to the notion of ‘mangling of practice’:
Commonly, the materiality of scientific objects has been described by two, arguably conflicting, dimensions: First, by studies of materially-intervening practice—the ways in which ‘real things’ are involved in and condition such practice. Second, by the significance and meaning ascribed to things in discursive practice. These two dimensions are not necessarily in contradiction, and their tension can be used in productive and innovative ways.
I hardly need to emphasise how important this kind of inqury is for museums of science, technology and medicine, because materiality is at the center of the museum enterprise.
The following concepts/objects are indicative of the organisers’ intentions:
• earth, air, water, fire, ether
• sal, mercur, sulfur
• phlogiston, caloric, oxygen, lumière
• element, compound, composition, mixture, alloy
• electron, atom, bond, molecule, structure
• polymer, colloid, crystal, glass
• salt, base, acid
• metal, halogen, rare earth
• gas, liquid, solid, plasma
• natural product, synthetic product
• supramolecular, nano
• pure, impure
• chemical reaction