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Gerhard Wiesenfeldt Transcript - S2 E8

Hi all, from the team here at The HPS Podcast, we welcome you to another episode. I'm your host Indigo Keel. Today we welcome Gerhard Wiesenfeldt to the podcast. He discusses with us the advantages of studying the unknown scientist.

What can we learn when we turn away from the big names in science? What do we gain from studying those who haven't gained notoriety? And who is leading the charge on studying these unknown scientists?

Hi Gerhard. Welcome to The HPS podcast. I'm so I'll start by asking, as we always do, how did you come into HPS?

[00:00:34] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Okay, after a long stint between high school and university, I finally decided to do a physics degree, that was back in Germany.

By pure coincidence, I started at the one university where a physics degree, which was a six year degree leading straight to a master at that point, didn't require a mandatory minor in either chemistry or computer science. But allowed for a much broader range of possible minors, which included philosophy. So, I did philosophy as a minor for two years, which went well, but was rather overcrowded, quite a lot of students in there.

After two years, when there were these mid-study exams and I passed them, I had the chance to change. So, I looked around for what I'm going to do next and realized there's also history of science as a minor. I changed over to there and found that a very nice department, not as overcrowded as philosophy was, but also answering questions in ways that I found much easier to comprehend. So, my, say, key moment probably was a talk by the historian Herbert Mehrtens on modern mathematics.

Since I had just done a philosophy seminar on the philosophy of modern mathematics, which was mind bogglingly hard for all of us, and then hearing a historical take on that, I said, “Oh, historical epistemology explains things so much more straightforward than abstract reasoning. Maybe that's the thing I want to go to.”

[00:02:06] Indigo Keel: As always, not the most straightforward path into the discipline, but having a background in science is always a benefit. So, what do you see as the value of HPS, both for those who study it and for a broader audience?

[00:02:19] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Okay, for those who study it, or let's just say in general for people at university, I think HPS is an important corrective to the way that university is typically run in disciplinary structures, which mandates certain types of thinking, certain types of communications within disciplines.

It is quite important for a university that wants to keep at least some connection to what a university was supposed to be, to have a discipline that is actually not a discipline as such, but rather finds itself as something that you could consider a field where people with different interests come in and do different things and that gives some kinds of cohesion. I mean, HPS is not the only one in there. Geography is another one that comes to mind where I see people looking from outside of those kinds of fields ask, “What are you doing? You're so different than what we do.” But inside it, most of the time, it feels quite nice.

Towards the outside world or the world outside the ivory tower, of course, it's a very different affair. Talking to people about science in a different way that tries to avoid either glorifying science as the best thing ever that happened in the history of humanity, but also avoiding blind negation of science or demonization of science as something evil that is not to be trusted at all.

To have a voice that gives a bit of a nuanced account and says, “Okay, here are the boundaries of legitimate reasoning and everything that falls other sides is something that we discard for what we consider to be good reasons.”

[00:03:57] Indigo Keel: Absolutely. Do you have a topic that you'd like to share with us today that you believe would be of interest to a broader audience?

[00:04:04] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: I'll take a cue from Fallon's podcast, where she talked about biography in general. One of the topics that has always been dear to my heart is looking at people that were involved in science that were by no means in any way major figures, major achievers. Many of them you can actually ascribe as complete failures, but people who just worked in science without getting any serious kind of reward. All the rewards they were getting were quite different than what you would expect from say a Charles Darwin or an Isaac Newton to get.

[00:04:39] Indigo Keel: And why do you believe that this topic is important?

[00:04:43] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Let’s look at different parts of scientific development. If we look at, say, what is classically known as modern science – it is this kind of framework of scientific disciplines that feed the university degrees that has basically come in in the early 19th century. If you look to the careers of unknown people, of those who struggled to get through, you learn actually much more about the structures of those kind of systems, the reward system or the career patterns.

At one point I did research on a German scientist, Carl Constantin Haberle, completely unknown, who basically tried to make a career in science or in education. He tried virtually everything that he could, first saying, “Oh, I'll just set up a private school myself.” That failed after two years. Then he tried to set up the discipline of meteorology, because he realized meteorology would really be useful, but we don't have a discipline of meteorology. Actually, it was quite successful. He had an academic publisher as a backer, set up a scientific journal, set up a scientific society, even something like a scientific community. Almost looked like somebody who's read a Wikipedia page asking “Hey, what makes a scientific discipline? Oh yes, I need all of this. How can I get that done?” That was of course early 19th century, so no way to do that.

That failed, and then he kept on struggling, trying to build a patronage network that was rather old fashioned, but ultimately got him into the Professorship of Botany at the University of Pest, modern day Budapest, where he then had a very ordinary scientific career, publishing a bit about the flora of Hungary, and those kinds of things. Just following this career pattern shows you a lot about how to get into that.

Something that is not at all my own research, but the work of the Australian historian, Greg Dening, who wrote a biography of William Gooch. If you have never heard about William Gooch, you would be well excused, because everybody who has heard about him has heard about him because of Greg Dening.

Gooch was an English astronomer, who in the late 18th century went on the first voyage with the British Navy on an expedition on the Pacific, and then was murdered by the native population at the age of 23. So, he never really achieved much in his life, but nonetheless following the pathway from him being basically a village kid through various kind of scholarships, perceiving the study at Cambridge University and then getting into astronomy. Astronomy is one of the sciences at that point that was open for people from the lower class because simply the colonial empire had such a great need for astronomers. And then try to make his life as a scientist on a ship of the navy. It's something that's quite interesting to see, “Okay, this is how science worked at that point.” Where you learn much more than if you study the career of successful astronomers, where you then basically just go, “Oh, he used to cover that and that kind of thing.”

[00:07:51] Indigo Keel: There's always just as much to learn from the ordinary as there is from the extraordinary, because the ordinary shows how it worked the majority of the time.

Do you have any other case studies that you believe would be of interest?

[00:08:04] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: This is not much more than a talk I heard a long time ago by a Swedish PhD student, now an established academic, Thomas Kaisersfeld, who gave a talk about Ragnar Holm [a Swedish physicist and researcher in electrical engineering]. He started the talk with words that stuck in the minds of everyone. He said, “Ragnar Holm is not just unknown because he's Swedish, he's also unknown in Sweden.”

It's a very similar case. He was a Swedish physics student who had done great things, went over to Germany in the early 20th century at the University of Göttingen, the most prestigious university for physics at that time, to do a PhD - and failed his PhD. His academic career was over, but he then went to industry research, and actually did quite a lot of things to the point that the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers], as the major body for engineering, still today has what they call a Ragnar Holm award. His major work was on electric contact theory, which he did all in industry research, because he couldn't get into academia on account of his early failure.

Kaiserfeld unfortunately abandoned that as a PhD topic, which tells us something of the problem that we have. Working on unknown people may be something of a career suicide for modern day historians of science. We want to talk about the major people. But one of the problems we get into is that we have what is effectively known as the Newton Industry or the Darwin Industry. Which is big enough to be more or less self-sufficient and ignore everything that happens outside that kind of industry. I don't want to say that with too big of a grudge against the people who are in those kinds of industries. Yes, we clearly need people working on Newton, Darwin, or Galileo. But we also need to correct it a bit. We also need to understand that science actually does not work by great men and great women, but rather a multitude of people that work with different ways, different pathways, who ultimately also make quite a lot of important decisions about who gets accepted.

A case study that I take here from my PhD supervisor is Anton Lampa, another very unknown physicist. He was an Austrian physicist who did quite interesting work, but none actually inside physics. He did quite a lot of things in popular education about science in Vienna, but beforehand was very instrumental in getting Albert Einstein his first professorship. So it doesn't mean that without Anton Lampa, Albert Einstein would have never become famous. But nonetheless you can see here is somebody who actually is quite interesting and also the way that Lampa got Einstein the professorship is basically by annoying the person. The University of Prague, where he was at that point, wanted to appoint somebody else and Lampa wrote to that other person and said, actually, we want Einstein. That other person was so annoyed that they decided not to take up that professorship and Einstein got in instead.

[00:11:00] Indigo Keel: It pays to be annoying sometimes. What can we learn from studying the unknown scientist that we miss out on if we only focus on the big names?

[00:11:12] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: There are a few things we can learn. I mean, we, of course, learn a lot more of what I would call the fun stuff, a lot more about the things that were really possible. What was happening and what was unclear. What people are doing in that kind of work if they do not see science as a vocation, but rather science as something that was somewhere on their mind, which they tried. They might work in it; they might not work in it. We learn much more about the options that people had. Because yes, if you get famous early on, you probably get pushed into this. But other people might just do it as a bit of a pastime and then take it a bit more serious.

But also, we find much more about the discussions - say, if we go back to Lampa and the case with Einstein – about what ordinary physicists thought about Einstein at that point.

Because one of the assumptions is that, yes, in retrospect, heroes were always heralded as these big names. But what were the normal physics professors of the day thinking? People who didn't really care much for the theory of electrons, and therefore were not really that interested in the theory of special relativity, but rather were doing experimental work. Or in the case, that goes back to my research on 17th and 18th century Holland, what people thought of Isaac Newton in the 1680s and 1690s. By no means were people thinking, “Oh, Newton is so, so great.” The first mention of Newton at Leiden University was actually in the student disputation. And I should also mention for the general audience, Leiden University in the 1710s became instrumental in disseminating Newton's views around Europe. But in the 1690s, the first mention was, “Oh, Newton has written a work in which he has actually proved Catalyst's laws.” That is Newton's achievement by 1690s in Holland.

We may then think, “Okay, that is quite different from, here's the new herald of modern science or modern physics coming in.” So, we find much more about what is going on, not on the margins, but in this kind of ordinary lifeworld of physicists that are not dealing with, “hey, here is this kind of a new great theory coming in.”

In similar ways, we can go to Antoine Lavoisier's chemistry and ask, “So are actually ordinary people going for this?” And most of the time, they were just ignoring it.

[00:13:36] Indigo Keel: What led you into doing this kind of work as opposed to focusing on those big names?

[00:13:41] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Okay, two things. One is actually my PhD supervisor; this is a bit of academic legacy because he had a severe falling out with his PhD supervisor. His PhD supervisor thought that it was worthless to do research on anybody who didn't get a Nobel Prize in the 20th century or something equivalent for earlier centuries. So, the case of Anton Lampa is the biography that my PhD supervisor, Andreas Kleinert, has then written at one point. He led me very early on that studying minor figures has its use.

But also, what I find is it's much more fascinating because you discover so much more about those kinds of people because nobody has ever looked closely. Suddenly you think, “what is going on there?”

There is a really odd thing that I noticed when I was doing research on my PhD at Leiden University in the university archives. There was this manuscript by a guy called Jan Keysers van Breda, who claimed to be in Batavia, so modern day Jakarta, and wrote this book on natural philosophy that he wanted Leiden University to publish. There were two copies, one that was supposed to be given to William of Orange as the Supreme Curator of the University, and the University obviously didn't quite know what to do with this. Then I started looking, “what is this all about?” and found this long correspondence between Keysers and the university, which was rather hard because the correspondence between the island of Java and Holland in the 17th century, as you can imagine, is not easy, and many of the letters had gone astray. There was quite a lot of things going on and then later he published something on alchemy, which had nothing to do with that kind of book. It's just a fascinating story in itself.

What you can also see is one of the serious problems with staying on this kind of focus line. Material in archives is always a tricky issue, but academic archives are even worse, because academics knew about their own importance, or they thought very highly of their own importance, so they curated the kind of archives very specifically. So, you need to make sure that you read the archive against the grain. Therefore, you look at these things that are somewhere in the margin, that were almost forgotten to be left out of the archive, that somehow were made in by mistake, and trying to find out that is, again, an important corrective to a kind of standardized view of history of science.

[00:16:12] Indigo Keel: Absolutely. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Gerhard.

[00:16:16] Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Thanks for having me.

[00:16:17] Indigo Keel: Thank you for listening to the HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. We want to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their support.

To learn more, check out our website at There, you can also find links to our blog, Twitter, Facebook, Insta, as well as show notes for today's topic. I'm Indigo Keel, and my co-producer is Samara Greenwood. We look forward to having you back again next time.


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