- Refections on Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics
Picasso, speaking to an earnest philosopher.
Philosopher: “Mr. Picasso, the picture of your wife is striking but her face is quite distorted.”
Picasso politely asks, in return, to see the philosopher’s wife; the latter proudly removes the photograph from his wallet.
Picasso: “Indeed, your wife is extraordinarily beautiful, but I see she is very, very small.”
This quirky joke compactly deflates the gap between the realistic and distorted; suddenly both the photograph and the painting stand as different representations. In a certain way, Image and Logic is in pursuit of similar quarry; it is an extended exploration of low-level representational materials of experiment, where representation is not restricted to the vivid photographs of the bubble chamber, but include, on a quite equal footing, the evanescent, abstract tallies of the counter array.
The counts and pictures of the subatomic realm—along with the vast infrastructure of people, machines, institutions and interpretive strategies that accompany them—reside far from the formalized theories of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. And so, wrongly in my view, the material culture of the laboratory have all too often been discarded as unworthy of historical and philosophical inquiry. In Image and Logic, the machine culture of the laboratory is just what I am after. In the instruments—in their historical location, modes of use, and forms of data [End Page 255] representation—we can see the confluence of history, identity, and argumentation. Experiments, instruments, and experimenters enter together.
By the material culture of science I have in mind the study of instruments as accretion points, loci where new worlds emerge through the recombination of physics, engineering, warfare, industry, philosophy, chemistry, and mathematics. There is no fixed relation, no defining problematic, no single set of principles or techniques that permanently defines physics. The discipline exists in constant motion; so do its practitioners. Statistics, weapons design, mathematics, nuclear physics all realign during the Cold War to form a new subject, simulations—at the same time a new category of physicist emerges, not quite experimenter and not quite theorist. New techniques are not merely appendages to a time-invariant physicist; simulation and simulator enter together. When Stanford physicists began asking after their “personality in physics” as they struggled with the design of the linear accelerator, when postwar physicists identified a certain person-type as a “Los Alamos man,” they were describing both a category of work and a way of being. Structures of physics and structures of argumentation are bound and built together. This is the standpoint from which all three parts of this inquiry begin (How Experiments End, Image and Logic, and the final volume, a proposed study of theory). 1 Epigrammatically: to study the material culture of science do not assume a static personhood with shifting implements. We are rather faced with ever-shifting dyads: experiment/experimenter, theorist/theory or more generally practice/practitioner.
To examine these dense regions of exchange—these identities and instruments—I introduced a collection of concepts: trading zones, scientific subcultures, scientific interlanguages, intercalated periodizations. These serve to join conceptual-philosophical and socio-historical sides of the argument, and most importantly to open space in which certain kinds of questions could be posed about scientific work. Instead of ending analysis by reference to a “symbiosis” or “collaboration” between scientific (and extra-scientific) subcultures, I wanted to be able to ask: what are the dynamics of the interaction? Just how much is held in common and what held back? How are those common elements used? What parts of the coordination project come from which group? How do the relative power positions of the participants enter into the process? How do these various [End Page 256] verbal and material usages alter over time? When does a highly delimited joint usage (scientific jargon) widen to a more elaborated set of shared techniques and terms (scientific pidgin) or even into a full-fledged field in which one can grow up and live (scientific creole)? When do the border regions stabilize in very partial coordination and when are they resorbed into a “parent” field or die out altogether?