Saturday, January 15, 2011

On history

When I was a student I read Constructing Quarks: Sociological History of Particle Physics by Pickering. What I remember of the last part of the book was that he noticed that in the early 1970s people studied hadron spectroscopy, but in the late 1970s research switched to studying deep inelastic scattering of quarks. None of the problems with hadron spectroiscopy had been resolved -- in fact people are still worrying about them now.

Pickering suggests that the study of physics is relative, because people just study what the community thinks is important, rather than objective reality. I don't want to downplay the importance of "fashion" in choosing research projects, but the reasons people started working on deep inelestic scattering was because they found quarks, And quarks are fundemental particles, the study of which is the whole point of particle physics. So I thought that Pickering's conclusions were a bit stupid.

The reason I mention all this is that I have just read "in defence of history" by Richard Evans. The book was discussion of the debate between historians and those nasty post modern "scholars". When I was at school, I remember being taught in history about primary and secondary sources. However, many of the postmodern people don't even distinguish between fiction and history, so they don't worry about primary or secondary sources, or any concept of reality.

On the whole I though that Evans tried to be balanced and see some positive things in the all the crap of postmodern theory. He did point that they have extended the study of history beyond what Kings and States do.

Evans spent over 50 pages complaining about some of the reviews about his book in the afterword. After reading that I will try to be more careful in making sure that I quote with the "no" and "not" included.

The irony of this for Pickering's work is that if all is relative, then so his work.