Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 100-101
[Access article in PDF]
The Making of a Revolution
Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution. By Mara Beller (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999) 365 pp. $35.00
Historians do not generally bestow much hard criticism on recent, widely accepted scientific theories; their job is not to justify or condemn them but to account for them. By the same token, philosophers of science all too often simply justify rather than explain what scientists accept. Beller, however, joins her efforts, as both historian and philosopher of science, to those of Cushing and others in examining and undermining one of the most remarkable developments in the physical science of the past century, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. 1
Beller's book is a fascinating account of the intense activity of quantum mechanics' early years, from 1925 to 1927, and the construction of Niels Bohr's physical interpretation of the mathematical theory from that period into the 1930s. She also uses material from later decades by some of quantum mechanics' pioneers to illustrate how Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation was promulgated through frequent misrepresentation of the theory's historical development. The result is a powerful [End Page 100] argument for the conceptual incoherence of the Copenhagen interpretation, together with a historical explanation of how and why it came to be accepted by many physicists (and philosophers) who, perhaps, should have known better.
The chief methodological claims of this book are indicated in its title. Beller describes her historiographical approach as "dialogism," by which she means to indicate an approach to the intellectual history of science that understands the development of ideas by individuals as shaped by the dialogues, both real and imaginary, in which those individuals are engaged with their professional colleagues. Reading a scientific paper, such as Heisenberg's famous "uncertainty" paper of 1927, thus involves, claims Beller, awareness of the controversies that were current at the time and in which Heisenberg was actively involved. 2 Particular parts of Heisenberg's argument should be understood as responses to public and private criticisms by others (Beller makes ample use of surviving correspondence), and as preemptive responses to potential criticisms that might be expected from particular interlocutors. The resultant reading is thus liable to uncover formal contradictions or inconsistencies in such a paper, all nonetheless explicable in the terms of a dialogical understanding of the conditions of its composition and publication.
A similar approach reveals that Beller's own chief intended readership is that of philosophers rather than historians of science, despite the enormous interest of her historical reconstructions. The "dialogical" approach does not seem to differ much from routine practice in intellectual history (Beller herself mentions Skinner's "contextualist" handling of political thought), and, at a more theoretical level, Latour's work has employed similar techniques in analyzing scientific papers as one side of an ongoing argument. 3
The second part of the book, except the final chapter, largely discards the stress on dialogism in order to show the incoherence of Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation and its support by others, and to account for such a curious state of affairs by reference to a mixture of social and psychosocial issues that are never deeply investigated. There is also an interesting discussion of the sources of Kuhn's "incommensurability" thesis as being related to the popularizing writings of Heisenberg in the 1950s on quantum mechanics. 4 As a study in intellectual history, however, Beller's book is an important work, which shows how the cultural authority of physicists was, in one major instance, employed with little opposition from philosophers.
1. James T. Cushing, Quantum Mechanics, Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony (Chicago, 1994).
2. Werner Heisenberg, "Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik," Zeitschrift für Physik, XLIII (1927), 172-198.
3. Quentin R. D. Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," viii History and Theory, VIII (1969), 3-53; Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge, Mass., 1987)
4. Thomas S. Kuhn, The...