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Home » Shells&Pebbles » Embedded in History. An interview with Professor Norton M. Wise.

Embedded in History. An interview with Professor Norton M. Wise.

By Jorrit Smit

On the Sunday before Christmas, I bike to the UCLA campus in Westwood for the last time. Out of breath and full of sweat after climbing the hill in a boringly radiant sun, I find professor Norton Wise waiting for me outside Bunche Hall. With a special key he activates the elevator, which takes us to the sixth floor and his office. The quarter has already ended, the campus is deserted, but the climate control still runs full power. Under these circumstances, Wise and I speak about sources, philosophy and himself in the history of science. Norton Wise was previously director of the history of science program at Princeton University, and returned to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2000 to become Distinguished Professor in History and soon Co-Director of the Institute for Society and Genetics (until 2011).

Norton Wise

Norton Wise by the Wannsee, Berlin.

Before you turned towards a career in history of science, you completed a PhD in nuclear physics. From training to be a scientist, you started to study what scientists do. What motivated this uncommon transition?

I got my physics degree in ’68 from Washington State University, and then taught two years in the physics department at Auburn University, Alabama and two years at Oregon State University. While we were in graduate school my wife and I were missing the civil rights movement and went to Alabama to experience the transformation. It was illuminating but we found it difficult to live in the Deep South and left for Oregon. Around the same time, in 1969/70, the Atomic Energy Commission terminated the grants of a large number – maybe fifty – of low-energy nuclear physics facilities, including the cyclotron at Oregon State that I was working with. That meant there were few opportunities for me on the job market.

I had to do something else. I was interested in philosophy of science, especially conceptual foundations of physics. I read Tom Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and it seemed to me that the crisis he described was really just a description of what life was like in nuclear physics; it was crisis. In the low-energy facilities we were just cranking out data, data, data, everyday. We used maybe five different theoretical models to make sense of these huge volumes of data, but none of it worked over a very large range of energies or nuclei. This was extremely frustrating for me and for everybody in the field. Kuhn’s characterization of this sense of crisis in your field, which was so unnerving, not only intellectually, but also emotionally, convinced me to go to work with him at Princeton. I got a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and after half a year I realized, jeez, this is what I ought to do. But then, Nixon, who was president at the time, annihilated out of the NSF budget the portion that I was funded by! As a way to support myself and my family, I became a graduate student again, and did a second PhD with Tom Kuhn, in History of Physics.

Already early on in your career, you thus were unwillingly confronted with the entangled relation between science and the government. In what way did this shape your outlook on science and society?

People from outside physics or outside the sciences think about the science-society relationship from the society side and think of the ‘impact’ or ‘influence’ of society, politics and economics on science. I was looking at it from the other way around, how we, as physicists were participating in it. We were participating in Vietnam. And around 70%, I believe, of PhD’s in physics went to work in one way or another for the Defense department and its contractors. From the beginning I was politically engaged in trying to understand how we were participants and what it meant. So indeed from the start, from graduate school right on to the time I started doing History of Science, my perspective was political-social-economic.

Which scholars were important to you in History of Science?

Obviously, Tom Kuhn. I worked really closely with him and we were friends until he died. He was a very powerful figure, not only intellectually, but in every way. Kuhn’s work was incredibly internal; down into the details of how things work and mathematical physics especially. The other person was Carl Schorske, who is an intellectual-cultural historian. I precepted [teaching assistance, JS], for him in his famous Vienna course, which became the book Fin de Siècle Vienna. This was a very close and intellectually stimulating relationship. It’s important that I had both of those mentors. It enabled me to think about how you can interrelate the internal history of physics with intellectual and cultural history.

What are fascinating historical sources that you have worked with during your career?

Most of my sources have been in 19th and 20th centuries, but the classics of the seventeenth century have also been important. For a seminar I was doing with Charles Gillispie, I went through a couple of proofs in the Principia. It cost me enormous amount of intellectual energy to do that. The proofs could be done trivially with the calculus, but to do them geometrically like Newton was an enlightening experience. It was illuminating to take yourself out of one world, where you’re working with a certain set of familiar techniques, and stick yourself in another world where someone is working on basically that same problem but with a completely foreign technique. Reading historical sources is a wonderful experience when one tries to enter in to the way in which people were thinking and working, whether it was Galileo or Descartes.

In your research you have used sources of very different types. For example, in your 2002 article you study gardens in Berlin, which is very far away from 17th century classics. How did this topic come about?

It’s a book-project by now, with my wife, that started when we were at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, just the year before the wall came down. On weekends we would go out to these gardens and we would walk for miles and miles. They’re huge, we could walk forever. It started just walking in the gardens. We were not even thinking of them as gardens, just as forests or parks. Then we noticed that in each one of them there would be what was called an ‘engine house’, which was never open to the public. I suppose just because it was closed, we began asking ‘what the hell is an engine house doing in this garden?’

Neue Garten engine house

Neue Garten engine house (now a Restaurant/Biergarten). Photo by Cornelia Bohnen.

The more we walked, the more we wanted to know where on earth these things come from. We discovered that they were all built after the Napoleonic wars and were part of an attempt to change cultural identity from the ‘absolutist’ style of Louis XIV in Versailles and its formalistic geometrical gardens to the naturalistic English style. This identification with the British style as opposed to the French style was very much a political decision of conscious forward-looking shifting identity. The engine houses were there to power irrigation and for all kinds of Wasserkunst – fountains, streams, lakes, etcetera. The actual engines initially came from England, so the identification with the English garden was also an identification with English industrialization. The gardens, as I would put it, provided a stage for presentation of steam technology in the Prussian landscape. That’s an entirely different source base than the typical historian of science would find. The engines, or technologies in general, are wonderful places to see the ways in which socio-political-economical development interacts intimately with the development of sciences.

Pfaueninsel fountain

Fountain on the Pfaueninsel originally powered by a steam engine. Photo by Cornelia Bohnen.

I believe that is what you have called the ‘mediating machine’. Is that for you the place where internal history of science and intellectual cultural history come together?

Exactly. That’s where they come together most fruitfully without getting into the ‘influence’ jargon, which I hate. In the paper on ‘Mediating Machines’ (Wise, 1988) the argument is that the engine had a function simultaneously both in political economy and physics. It functioned literally within the economy supplying work, but it also functioned within the theory of political economy replacing labor-value. Plus, the work it was producing became the measure of all energy in physics. The book I have there (pointing to a corner of his study crammed with books), Energy & Empire (with Crosbie Smith, 1989), takes that as a prime example, to show how energy physics formed. In that book it’s not only the steam engine, but also vortex turbines and electric telegraphs that play that kind of a role.

In The Values of Precision (1995) I read the same conceptual structure, where you characterize measurement techniques of precision as ‘travelling objects’ that mediate the relations between government, commerce and science. These ‘agents of unity and products of agreement’, you say there, are as much technical as social. How would you position these ideas in relation to Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) and/or Actor Network theory (ANT)?

It’s much closer to ANT. I used ‘mediation’ before I knew it was one of their key words. When I was a visiting professor in Paris at Ecole des Mines, with Bruno (Latour) and Michel Callon, that’s when I really got engaged. Latour’s ANT is useful and illuminating to me because it really activates technologies, makes them active agents. With SSK, and especially the Edinburgh school version, I was unhappy from the beginning. Their claim to act in the spirit of Kuhn’s work is quite a misnomer. It is ironic, to have lived with Tom [Kuhn], who just detested what they were doing with his work, and that he would be responsible for them was an anathema to him. (laughter) They [SSK] seek causal explanations for such things as how controversies end in the sciences and these causes are social causes. To me this was problematic from the moment you suppose that you are going to explain what happens in technical detail by social causation. I was instead trying to see how science is embedded in society and was looking for a model that treated physicists as participants in cultural processes, which went back to my own involvement in various liberation movements during my days as a physicist. Paul Forman’s ‘Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory’ was for me the first. great attempt to deal with the issues but I have argued that he too adopted the cultural influence model (Wise, 2011).

In two volumes you edited in the zero’s, Science without Laws(with Angela Creager and Liz Lunbeck, 2007) and Growing Explanations (2004) you perceive changes in concepts of explanation and a shift in prestige from physics to biology. How did this shift in your own interests from physics to life sciences take place?

And how did I become a director of an institute for society and genetics? (laughter) I was trying to cope with what seemed to be a dramatic change in the way physicists went at their work. If explaining things by deduction from covering laws, the ideal of physics, didn’t work for a dripping faucet and for virtually everything else in the everyday world, what were people doing instead? The sciences of complexity thus became a focus for me and it got me interested in simulations, the way in which they provide explanations and the vocabulary of the people doing simulations. It is like a biological method in which you explain what happens in the world by growing it. The Nobel Prizes in chemistry of 2013 were precisely for developing ways of simulating complex chemical reactions. But how does a historian or a philosopher think about what is going on here? Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s work is crucial to me because it’s all about how the experimental system is a generator of the future. He has described the way of working in a laboratory, in which the process of an epistemic thing becoming a scientific object is embedded, with more nuance and subtlety than anyone else.

What future developments do you see in the field of History and Philosophy of Science?

Well, you cannot do HoS without an approach to the social history of science anymore, but a different kind of philosophy is required. And we don’t have it. Except to the degree that some people are in the process of developing one. I think in particular of the work on historical epistemology, through the, I guess you should call it, leadership of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin, who have made it their central concept. At the same time, there are quite a few philosophers who are interested in reviving a way of interrelating history and philosophy of science: Michael Friedman at Stanford, Martin Carrier at Bielefeld, Mary Morgan at LSE and John Beatty at UBC, Vancouver. Then of course also, my old friends, Ian Hacking and Nancy Cartwright. There is not yet an emerging movement that could be identified as such, but I think there is a great deal of potential. I am involved in it myself in various ways. In particular by thinking about the way in which historians and philosophers of science are becoming reengaged with narrative. I am part of a group about ‘narrative knowing’, so it is explicitly epistemological. That is the immediate future for me. I am going to retire in another year or so, and I don’t know what is going to happen after that.

How does this narrative knowing relate to your previous work?

I think simulations require an accompanying narrative that describes what is happening during the simulation. Because the simulation is a temporal process it has a beginning, middle and an end. That is exactly what narratives do; they take you from a beginning to an end. I have argued that physical scientists are increasingly adopting a historical vocabulary in explanations. A good example is a dynamical systems physicist from Caltech (Libbrecht, 2006) who employs a historical vocabulary for the physics of snowflakes, and similarly for two mathematicians who simulate snowflakes (Gravner and Griffeath, 2009).


Simulated snowflakes by Gravner and Griffeath (2009, p. 13) in Wise (2011).

If you have a complex object, Libbrecht says, then that object represents a complex history and can’t exist without it. That is a very strong role for a historical mode of thinking. The explanation consists of the narration of the development or growth in a simulation from an initial state, a scenario, to a complex object. I hope I can show that this is actually valid in more places than just snowflakes.

These latest developments in the sciences seem to be determined to a large extent by developments in computational power. In what way do you understand those computers as active agents in the developments of science?

What I find especially intriguing about large and complex models, programs and software is that they are not surveyable as a whole. Once their multiply interactive components are operational, all people can do now is patch them, add bits and pieces, and maybe they can start off an entire new program, but basically they don’t do that very much. If they want to improve Microsoft Word they do it by bits and pieces, but nobody, not a single person or a group of persons can actually oversee what the whole program is up to. In that case the program is increasingly active, obviously. We are only at the beginning of this.

What role do you ascribe to history of science outside of academia?

We, our culture at large, the media, all need a much more sophisticated grasp of the way in which science is embedded in society. You can’t really understand what is going on in the sciences without understanding that relationship nor can you understand what’s going on in society without understanding quite a lot about what is going on in the sciences. I struggled for a long time with the disappointing fact that History of Science has no prominent place in this. Very regularly I get asked by the media outreach people at UCLA to interact with news outlets and newspapers, but almost always it’s at a very trivial level that the interaction is sought: what do I know of Einstein’s brain? (laughter) People are so wrapped up with the idea of science and genius that you can’t deal with these sophisticated relationships. On my optimistic days I do think there is more hope than there used to be. I find it great that they are giving Nobel Prizes for things like simulating complex molecules, the hard disk or fiber optics transmission. The Nobel Prize committee is not shy about advertising that they are awarding these prizes not for esoteric concepts alone but for real-world accomplishments. When I as a historian look at people working on such things, I see that their work – sophisticated physics, and at the same time very sophisticated technology – is totally interconnected.

From your own experience you learned that such a nuanced view on science and society is not always well understood. I don’t want to reopen old sores, but when you applied for a position at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in 1997 you became a controversial participant in the so-called ‘Science Wars’. What is your view on that period now?

It was very sad in many respects. For me it was sad because everything I stand for was totally misrepresented as some kind of relativism. I was teaching a course on postmodern science and was curious about the relation between technological developments and scientific advancements on the one hand and the philosophical postmodern movement on the other. It turned out, of course, that they had very little relationship to the French gurus of postmodernism, but it had everything to do with the way in which a new breed of scientists was thinking about their own work. Then I wrote a paper with my graduate student David Brock, “The culture of quantum chaos”, about such a scientist, namely Professor Eric Heller who had published an article in Physics Today called ‘postmodern quantum mechanics’. Initially he was a bit put off by our paper, but soon came to appreciate it, partly after his wife had read it and said to him ‘this is interesting, this is what you’re doing!’ But you can imagine what physicists who had not read our paper nor the article in Physics Today thought this was about: postmodern relativism. A bit later physicists at Princeton organized a conversation between Sokal, the Sokal, and me. It was a well-advertised meeting in the physics department and the place was packed – people were standing at the walls, sitting in the isles, lining up at the back. It was a really intense, charged atmosphere. He gave his Spiel, and I gave my Spiel about him and the hoax, and, basically, I won, hands down. (laughter) One of the people who was actually not there but who got involved in the Institute affair, gave his interpretation of the conversation and argued that it was just verbal trickery, just rhetoric, on my side. That and the postmodern quantum mechanics thing led to me being categorized as a postmodern relativist and when the name-calling started, enough concern was raised at the Institute that my appointment did not go through, although I had supporters there as well.

To end on a positive note, who is your favorite historical actor or actant?

I have two: James Clerk Maxwell and Niels Bohr. Both nuanced, broad-minded and complex people. They seemed so much more sophisticated in new ways of thinking about very tricky problems. Maxwell developed a mathematical theory for electromagnetism, introducing entities for which no empirical foundation existed. Bohr was right at the core of the intellectual disruption that quantum mechanics was and figured out ways to deal with it. Both brought the world in to their dealing with technical details and drew on resources from all over the place. Historically I find that interesting. I admire them also as individuals, as I would like to be able to do in some small way what they, my heroes, have done.


Jorrit Smit is a research master student at Utrecht University in the History and Philosophy of Science program, specializing in philosophy of science and the history of chemistry. In 2013 he was a visiting graduate student at UCLA and is currently an intern at the Rathenau Institute.


Creager, E.L., Lunbeck, E. & Wise, M.N. eds. (2007). Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Narratives. Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Heller, E. & Tomsovic, S. (1993). Postmodern Quantum Mechanics. Physics Today, 46 (1), 38-46.

Forman, P. (1971). Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences , 3, 1-115.

Gravner, J., & Griffeath, D. (2009). Modeling snow-crystal growth: A three-dimensional mesoscopic approach. Physical Review E, 79, 1–18.

Libbrecht, K. (2006). Field Guide to Snowflakes. Voyageur Pr.: St. Paul, Minn. Many images online at

Smith, C. & Wise, M.N. (1989). Energy & Empire. A biographical study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Wise, M.N. (1988). Mediating Machines. Science in Context, 2 (1), 77 – 113.

Wise, M.N. ed. (1995). The Values of Precision. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. With “Introduction” and synthetic essay, “Precision: Agent of Unity, Product of Agreement”, pp. 3-12, 92-100, 222-235, 352-361.

Wise, M.N. & Brock, D. (1998). The Culture of Quantum Chaos. Studies in the History

and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 29, 369-389.

Wise, M. N. & Wise, E. M. (2002). Reform in the garden. Endeavour, 26 (4), 154-159.

Wise, M. N. & Wise, E. M. (2003). Staging an Empire. In: Lorraine Daston (ed.), Things

that Talk. Zone Books: New York, pp. 101-145, 391-399.

Wise, M.N. ed. (2004). Growing Explanations: Historical Perspectives on Recent Science. Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Wise, M.N. (2011). Science as (Historical) Narrative. Erkenntnis, 75, 349-376.

Wise, M.N. (2011). Forman Reformed, Again. In Cathryn Carson and Alexei Kojevnikov, Quantum Mechanics and Weimar Culture.World Scientific & Imperial College Press: London, pp. 415-431.

For more works of Norton Wise see


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