A Microinterview with Peter Galison

[Writer/Professor of History of Science]

A Microinterview with Peter Galison

[Writer/Professor of History of Science]

A Microinterview with Peter Galison

Benjamin R. Cohen
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

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.

–Benjamin Cohen


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.



THE BELIEVER: Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps is an accessible book on the era that led to relativity theory. It offers a real sense that these physicists were embedded in the world they theorized about, that materiality and theory were of a piece.

PETER GALISON: Poincaré, the great French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, said: Imagine two telegraphers who are sending signals back and forth to determine longitude. Einstein says: Imagine a train comes into the station at seven o’clock.

BLVR: And we usually treat the trains and telegraphers as purely imaginary references, right?

PG: That’s how we’ve read their ruminations on telegraphs and tracks—as pure fictions. But a lot of what I wanted to do is to say: What are these guys really doing? What were Poincaré and Einstein actually engaged in back at the turn of the century? Were they really concocting just-so stories about telegraphers and trains? Or can one look into these metaphors and see them as being both literal—really involved with trains—and allusive at the same time? We forget that Poincaré was actually working with real and brave souls who clambered up mountains and sailed across oceans to pull telegraph cables.

BLVR: Plus Einstein the patent clerk…

PG: Right; his patent office was responsible for evaluating clock coordination along rail lines. We think, after the fact, Oh, isn’t it amazing that this patent clerk finished the theory of relativity with
a metaphor of trains in thought experiments? We take Poincaré’s ruminations on longitude- finding telegraphers to be philosophical just-so stories, like postwar analytic philosophy’s endless imaginary stories about brains in a vat. But those physical, material, everyday elements were anything but incidental back in 1900. They were part of the world Einstein and Poincaré inhabited.

The thing is, we are always embedded in the world. I like the idea of a world that goes back and forth between being literal and allusive, and that’s what I like about science. It seems constantly to be saying that these objects that are very prosaic are also our way of understanding the big questions: What is the self? How do we understand what the world is made of? Is democracy possible?


PETER GALISON: While writing Image and Logic, I came across what struck me as peculiar volumes of images—“atlases” of, for example, cloud-chamber pictures—a weird literary form, I thought. I eventually discovered that these physics “atlases” were based on medical atlases—those great compendia of skulls, hands, and organs. It was a surprise to me: physicists generally don’t think of themselves as learning from medics, but here they had. So I went to the basement of Stanford’s medical school library to see what those atlases looked like—I had no idea. But there they were, shelf after shelf, thousands of them. Atlases of skin, eyes, kidneys, surgeries, cell structure. Many spoke about their relentless hunt for what they called the objective image.

THE BELIEVER: This led to your exploration of no less than the history of objectivity itself, right?

PG: [Laughs] It’s a vast problem, I know.

BLVR: There’s a popular view that the technology determines the outcome; the machine itself and not the machine operator produces the ideal, objective image.

PG: With historian Lorraine Daston, I asked whether objectivity was the result of technology—and whether the photographic camera was at its root. But we pretty quickly came to realize that this couldn’t be so. When people first had photographic images (of microscopic samples, for instance), they often cut out pieces of different images and assembled the fragments into an idealized, “perfected” image. In other words, they used photographs to produce an idealized picture. So it is clearly not the case that photography by itself creates objectivity in a simple way. Many different mechanical modes of transferring an image to a page did not involve the photographic camera. There is great danger in ascribing total autonomy to the instrument alone.


THE BELIEVER: You’re producing visual knowledge about the topic of producing visual knowledge. That’s obvious in your films, but your primary work in the history of physics has likewise dealt with it, examining how diagrams, pictures, charts, and so on present evidence in different ways. What got you interested in this?

PETER GALISON: In How Experiments End, I was interested in how experimentalists decided that they were looking at a real effect, and not an artifact of the apparatus or the environment. When I entered the field, experiment and observation stood in the shadow of theory. In a sense, theory was science. But I was interested in asking a more material question: what satisfies somebody at the lab bench or in an accelerator control room that they are looking at something real? I looked at how devices, photographs, and diagrams function in the laboratory, often to formulate arguments quite different from those that theorists might draw from to confirm, suggest, or refute a theory. This got me interested in the epistemology of machines, asking: how do machines argue? Some machines in physics make pictures or images; other machines count. The contrast fascinated me. Take machines that make images—like the wispy tracks of clouds in bubble-chamber pictures that have become icons of physical knowledge.

But the competing tradition highlights, say, how often a whole group of Geiger counters click in unison. Digital assemblies of yes’s and no’s were better at making statistical inferences; the visual tradition, on the other hand, was better at capturing particular events in great detail. Understanding how these traditions eventually combined to produce digital, controllable images was the subject of Image and Logic. Think of radio-telescope images of distant galaxies, MRIs of your brain, seismological images of the Earth’s core. The combination of imagery and the digital may be the greatest, most lasting contribution of the last fifty years of science.


THE BELIEVER: What’s relevant to nonspecialists today about the issues you examine in your historical work?

PETER GALISON: I think the broader lesson is that over the last few centuries we have always been defining ourselves and nature against one another, and that is problematic. If you asked Leonardo da Vinci about his stunning images of turbulent water, “Are these art or science?”, I rather think he’d look at you like you were nuts. But at a certain point in history, in the nineteenth century, it became “obvious” that science and art were incompatible, even opposites. We can see this in the 1800s, where people like Baudelaire blasted photography. “That’s not art,” he insisted—and I’m paraphrasing—“photography is too scientific, there’s not enough intervention or invention in it— subjectivity—for this new form of representation to count as art.” And you see people on the science side say just the reverse: “That’s not science, it leaves too much freedom to the artist who draws it; to be scientific, an image has to take image-making out of the interpretive, intervening
hand of the artist.” These moments of separation are fascinating: here are the splitting points where it became self-evident that something is art just insofar as it is not science, and science just insofar as it is not art. It’s like two people looking at the Berlin Wall and one saying, This is East and not West, and the other says, This is West and not East. But there’s no definition of the
two without the division. Drawing that line between art and science, between what many cast as subjectivity and objectivity, simultaneously picks out both sides of this line of separation—which has great advantages and great costs.

More Reads

A Microinterview with Eyal Weizman

This issue features a microinterview with Eyal Weizman, conducted by Alex Carp. Weizman is the director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, ...


An Interview with Darren O’Donnell

Sheila Heti

A Conversation with Jenny Davidson

Cintra Wilson