Peter Galison

[Writer/Professor of History of Science]

microinterviewed by Benjamin Cohen

This issue features a microinterview with Peter Galison, conducted by Benjamin Cohen. Galison, a MacArthur Fellow and historian of science and technology, is more properly described as the consummate boundary-blurrer. That boundary-blurring began with his two doctoral dissertations at Harvard (on high-energy particle theory and history, respectively), where he is now the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor. He’s written several influential books on the history of science and technology: How Experiments End (1987), Image and Logic (1997), Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps (2003), and the forthcoming Building Crashing Thinking (on the ways technology reforms the self), as well as coauthored (with Lorraine Daston) Objectivity (2007). He has also directed two documentaries, Ultimate Weapon: The H-Bomb Dilemma (2000) and Secrecy (2008), with a third, Nuclear Underground, underway. And all this while coediting books on architecture and science, leading seminars on Thomas Pynchon, and continuing to work inside the triple helix of aesthetics, science, and politics.

Microinterview with Peter Galison, part I

THE BELIEVER: Your work with Lorraine Daston in Objectivity is fascinating in part because you show how human virtues and character traits accompany ideals of the objective self.

PETER GALISON: We explored the ways in which a certain moral self-regulation was fundamentally attached to a way of looking at the scientific world. For the scientists of the mid-nineteenth century, there was an ethical demand to hold one’s inclinations back, to restrain the desire to aestheticize, perfect, or confirm a favorite theory. But these reins on the self were simultaneously a way of delivering a certain kind of scientific image of the outside world, an image aimed at being as much “without us” as possible. Hold back the self and let nature speak.

Self-abnegation and objective depiction came in together. Consider that before the late eighteenth century, the will was just one faculty among others—such as common sense, imagination, memory. In a well-balanced person, reason controlled these faculties the way a king ruled his subjects. In the late eighteenth century, it started to become common for people to see the self as grounded around the will. So for many mid-nineteenth-century scientists, the achievement of mechanical objectivity quite explicitly meant the suppression of the will. But without a self that’s grounded and centered in the will, the idea that objectivity could be defined as a kind of will to will-lessness would be nonsensical.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Benjamin Cohen is the author of Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (Yale University Press, 2009) and a number of other academic and non-academic writings triangulating around science, the environment, and culture.

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