Berkman: Peter Galison and “trading zones”

Peter Galison is a pretty bright guy. He’s Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard, and a Macarthur Fellowship recipient, a scholar of the history of science. Not only has he done a great deal of work on the structure of scientific discovery – he’s got a forthcoming film about the NSA and secrecy which will show at Sundance this year.

His talk at the Berkman Center begins with an outline of a revolution in scientific thinking. In the 1920s and 30s, the picture of scientific information was shaped by Positivist thinking. The Positivists were anti-theorists, and hoped to bring scientific discovery out of the realm of big theories and into the realm of the accumulation of data in “atomistic bits” connected by logic. In this model, theory is an epiphenomenon of observation – theories evolve as observations come in. This model wasn’t just a way of doing science – it was a worldview, a way of living, a weapon against hypernationalism, and Nazism.

In the 1960s and 70s, a countervaling shift took place. Led by Thomas Kuhn and others, this was a shift back to theory, against the aggregative picture of scientific knowledge. This methodology suggested that theory underlay all observation and that science moved through revolutions in theory, where gestalt shifts in worldview changed the ways in which observations take place. Some of the proponents spoke of “conversion experiences” that moved scientists from one theoretical model to the other.

These models explain scientific history very differently. In explaining special relativity, the Positivists saw a series of careful experiments to demonstrate that there’s no such thing as ether, with Einstein’s work in the field serving as a capstone on a large set of existing research. The anti-Positivists saw a huge conceptual shift taking place. Space and time had been the God’s eye perspective on events – Einstein changed the view of space and time as absolutes into the province of rulers and clocks. These, the anti-positivists would suggest, are incommensurate worldviews – time is either the province of God or the province of rulers.

Galison’s research has demonstrated that there’s very little correlation between big theoretical breakthroughs in science and breakthroughts in innovation. The major breakthroughs in relativity and quantum theory don’t correlate to major breakthroughts in cloud chamber technology, for instance. This could either be because observation doesn’t drive theory (the anti-positivist view) or because it’s a poor idea to try to convince people of a new theory by creating new experimental practice and instruments – you’ll be more successful if you’re using accepted terms and techniques.

An interesting question arises: if it’s true that subcultures parse the world differently, does the Kuhnian disjunction (the revolution in theoretical perspective) make it impossible for scientific subcultures to interact with one another? Kuhn seems to suggest that it should be – if science moves in terms of revolutions, scientists on different sides of that revolution might literally be speaking different languages, Newtonian and Einsteinian, as different as French and German.

But algebraic geometers and field theorists manage to talk to each other baout string theory – they speak jargons, pidgins and creoles. Jargons are restricted terminologies that allow for interchange between fields. Pidgins are work languages, which are limited, but allow their users to trade and work across linguistic barries. And creoles are full-fledged, rich interlanguages that emerge at the border between places in the physical/linguistic world.

Where these worlds intersect are “trading zones”, coordinative zones where these terms build up. A field like biochemistry – which now has its own departments and professors – begin as a linguistic exchange zone between fields. As a scholar of these trading zones, Galison outlines three important concepts:

Diachronicity – we can describe the shift and growth of contact languages over time
Locality – languages can’t be treated as floating about persons and places
Contextuality – scientific-technical languages evolve in the wider world, at the intersection between types of work (science and the military, for instance.)

To explain how scientific languages can work through different fields, Galison takes a close look at the theory of time in special relativity. Einsten put forth the radical notion that time is the behavior of correctly synchronized clocks. This raises the problem of coordinating clocks over long distances. Einstein proposed that you synchronize clocks by sending a beam of light from one clock to one located far away, and having it reflect it back to you. Take the delay for the round trip, halve it, and offset the distant clock half the delay – your clocks are synchronized. Poincaré, who was responsible for the French government’s work on longitude, which required closely synchronized clocks, took Einstein’s language about simultenaity and applied it to debates about the philosophy of time. And this definition of simultenaity later becomes important to the electrodynamics of moving bodies. The reframing of the term ends up being a crossroads between these fields and disciplines.

The Manhattan Project required a language to allow physicists, chemists and engineers to communicate so that the project could move forward. These exchange languages often emerge in new fields – nanotechnology requires surface chemists, electrical engineers and atomic physicists to find a common usage for “nanotube”, a word that has different meanings in different fields. Calling these new fields “interdisciplinary” doesn’t tell yoy anything – the question Galison asks is how these coordinative zones actually work.

While these questions are pretty far from the usual territory of Berkman lunch talks, the idea of exchange languages is one that resonated around the table. Halley Suitt wondered whether the emergence of a huge jargon in a new field – digital media, for instance – is correlated to the importance and success of that field. Galison suggests that it might be a function of obfuscation. Wendy Seltzer wonders whether it makes more sense for lawyers to hire biologists to talk to biologists, or whether it’s better to cross theoretical worlds to improve communication. Galison points out that the goal is to explain, not to dumb down science, which suggests a case for crossing cultures well. I wondered whether we’ve seen contact languages emerge in the webgeek/venture capital community. Galison offers an answer from architecture – post WWII, labs learned from factories, and began to function on industrial scale, with huge labs like Brookhaven and Fermilab scaled like factories. But as innovation moves into the venture capital space, we’re seeing “labs built with wall to wall carpeting and laquered wood. The VC’s don’t want to go to PS 101 circa 1956 – it’s not who they are, not who they expect you to be.” The encounter between funders and engineers can change physical layout of innovative spaces, as well as the way that innovators present and speak.

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2 Responses to Berkman: Peter Galison and “trading zones”

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