From The Wall Street Journal:
In 1619, René Descartes resolved to transform the study of philosophy—a broad ambit that at the time embraced mathematics and the study of nature. He hoped to deduce all observable phenomena—the paths of planets, the beating of the heart—from a few foundational laws or principles. After years of effort, and despite triumphs such as the invention of analytic geometry, he conceded defeat. As he sought to explain events that were increasingly subtle (“plus particulières”), he realized that he needed more data and that experiments—many of them—would be required. But he had little interest in engaging with other researchers or relying on the assistance of volunteers (who would distract him with “useless conversation”). Descartes, explains the historian of science Lorraine Daston, “was probably the last major thinker to believe that science could be conducted in splendid solitude.”
A way had to be found for doing science—or, as it was termed, “natural philosophy”—in a collaborative form. How would it be possible to balance the benefit of working together with the challenge of tolerating competitors? In “Rivals,” a compact and elegant primer, Ms. Daston leads us through the evolution of scientific collaboration over the past 350 years.
Intellectual communities, she reminds us, existed even in ancient times, focusing on “the transmission of knowledge . . . deepened and broadened by centuries of commentary and criticism.” The observations within Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” and Ptolemy’s studies of astronomy, Ms. Daston explains, were diligently recycled through generations. What arose in the 17th century was something more expansive and original: an effort at coordinated empirical inquiry.
After several attempts at collective authorship failed miserably—a group of anatomists, for instance, descended to name-calling at their meetings—scholars tended to work on their own but correspond extensively. Even so, “animosity, not amiability” set the tone, Ms. Daston says, and savants readily savaged their rivals in public.
Some collaborations did at least get off the ground. One sought to measure the distance between the earth and sun by scrutinizing the so-called transit of Venus—the planet’s rarely seen movement across the disc of the sun, which occurred in 1761 and again 1769; another focused on discovering the common features of weather across the globe. While neither effort was all that productive—not least because of the difficulty in transporting fragile instruments and the variability in measurement technique—both stimulated the interest of a far-flung community of scholars.
The 19th century brought dramatic improvements in transport and communication, allowing distant scientists to connect and collaborate. One surprising source of inspiration: the Universal Postal Union, which harmonized international mail delivery. Established in Bern in 1874, it was, Ms. Daston writes, “the paragon of successful international governance, and the one utopian scheme that really worked.” It was organized by postal leaders (not government) and was composed of specialists who were immersed in quotidian challenges and had a stake in the outcome.
Several international efforts soon adopted a similar model. The Carte du Ciel aimed to map the stars, while the International Cloud Atlas aimed to catalog cloud patterns in order to improve weather forecasting. The success of both projects, Ms. Daston says, reflects the importance of a charismatic organizer, who functions as a “scientific diplomat.” She draws a portrait of Swedish meteorologist Hugo Hildebrandsson, who spoke three languages and traveled tirelessly championing the ICA, hearing out colleagues and smoothing ruffled feathers. She also highlights the sense of rapport among the expert participants—often developed over extended meals with flowing drinks. One enthusiastic ICA participant, Britain’s Robert Scott, recalled its bonhomie and “good fellowship,” suggesting, Ms. Daston writes, that it was “in the fostering of this feeling, much more than in the discussion of abstruse scientific questions, that the real value of these international gatherings is to be found.”
One of the enduring achievements of 19th-century internationalism was the standardizing of weights, measures and nomenclature, arrived at mostly in meetings of disciplinary specialists. Disciplines, Ms. Daston explains, had emerged as the foundational unit of scientific training and practice as universities, starting in Germany, shifted their focus from transmitting knowledge to acquiring it. Scholars strove to publish in specialized journals that “forged disciplinary reputations, standards of evidence and rigor, and accepted doctrine, often in the crucible of fiery debate.”
Over the past 75 years, we’ve witnessed an “explosive growth of science along all dimensions,” Ms. Daston reports. Alongside this expansion has arisen a concern about oversight. Since the 1970s, the peer-review process has been formalized, and a broader range of experts now evaluate manuscripts and funding applications. Keeping up with the volume of submissions has become an abiding challenge.
The sheer size of the science has resulted in a reliance on quantitative metrics, which, Ms. Daston says, “replace expert judgement with benchmarks.” The Hirsch Index, for example, seeks to distill a researcher’s productivity and impact into a single number. There is always the danger of gaming the system—e.g., reviewers insisting on the inclusion of their own publications in the work they are being asked to scrutinize.
While the scientific community “was never exactly a peaceable kingdom,” Ms. Daston writes, “it was held together by a hunger for recognition that only other experts could confer” and by “face-to-face relationships among its members.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal