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Reviewed by:
  • Histories of Scientific Observation
  • Richard Hamerla (bio)
Histories of Scientific Observation. Edited by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. vi+460. $27.50.

In Histories of Scientific Observation, editors Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck and their contributors take on the daunting task of writing the history of observation and its relationship to science from the sixth to the late twentieth centuries. Among other things, they ask why observation lacks its own history, and they seek to explain how it has become formalized over time in ways that include collecting, correlating, and analyzing the things observed. The book is divided into five thematic parts, each dealing with a different aspect of observation at a different moment in (mostly) Western science and, indeed, in some practices or disciplines that are but loosely defined as science. The editors cleverly arrange the contributions in a broadly chronological narrative, as each section more or less brings us closer to today.

The chapters that make up part 1, “Framing the History of Scientific Observation, 500–1800,” trace the origins, emergence, and consolidation of “how, when, and why” observation took on the trappings of science (p. 6). The answer ties together a long history that ends with observation becoming part of the epistemological backbone of science itself. The essays in part 2, “Observing and Believing: Evidence,” show how observation became “conceptualized as a distinctive way of acquiring knowledge” (p. 116). Building on the material from part 1, the contributions to this section demonstrate that observation as an epistemic program left practitioners of science in the awkward position of determining what to do with all the stuff now recognized as credible evidence when searching for answers to questions deemed scientific. Part 3, “Observing in New Ways: Techniques,” aims to “underscore how historically precarious and contingent such [observational] practices have been” (p. 181) in several fields, including natural science, economics, stroboscopy, and psychoanalysis. The general message here is that the physically unobservable became the focus of observation by way of changing the process of observation itself. [End Page 206]

The role of technology in the grander theme of the book is somewhat downplayed—necessarily so in most cases—but it nonetheless plays an important role in some of the essays. In part 4, “Observing in New Things: Objects,” for example, Kelley Wilder shows how the photograph helped visualize radiation at the end of the nineteenth century. Even here, though, the basic question is not so much about technology as it is about how technology changed the relationship between the observer and the observed. The book’s final section, “Observing Together: Communities,” demonstrates how communities of observers developed and how they came to “recruit, discipline, motivate, and coordinate observers—with significant consequences for the kind of observations produced” (p. 369). In other words, it is the story of how a consensus concerning the rules and even the objects of observation was established over time, leaving the relationship between observation and science in the state we find it today.

This book is unusually coherent for an edited volume, thanks in large part to the introductory chapter and the editors’ comments that open each section. Similarly, individual authors frequently mention each other’s contributions, which is extremely useful in making connections among the very diverse subjects covered in the case studies. (There are seventeen chapters, with topics varying from Brownian motion to the Napoleonic Wars.) While most of the essays would work well in graduate courses that address questions of epistemology, relativism, and objectivity and subjectivity, some would also be appropriate as stand-alone reading for undergraduates, chapter 5, “Seeing Is Believing: Professor Vagner’s Wonderful World” by Michael D. Gordin, and chapter 7, “Frogs on the Mantelpiece: The Practice of Observation in Daily Life” by Mary Terrall being good examples.

For a project that spans the amount of time and covers the range of material that this volume does, the editors and authors have made a wonderful contribution to what little historiography there is regarding the history of one of the mainstays of modern science—observation.

Richard Hamerla

Richard Hamerla is an associate professor and associate dean in the Honors College at the...


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pp. 206-207
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