The history of the electric charge c. 1897–1906 through the lenses of perspectival realism – Michela Massimi (University of Edinburgh)

October 29, 2020 @ 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
Helen Curry

Scientists often disagree both _that_ something is and about _what_ it is. This kind of scientific disagreement is of great interest to historians of science, who might want to establish _who_ really discovered some entity – e.g. whether it was Joseph Priestley rather than Antoine Lavoisier who discovered what we now call ‘oxygen’; or, whether it was George J. Stoney or J.J. Thomson who really discovered the electron, given that in his Nobel Prize speech Thomson was still calling his entity a ‘corpuscle’. But, historiographical debates aside, disagreement that something is and about what it is also raises pressing questions for philosophers with realist leanings. How are we to spell out the realist commitment in cases where scientists disagree about the nature of the entity? What is it like to be a realist in the face of scientific disagreement? This paper takes some steps towards answering this question by looking at the case of the electric charge. As it happens, at the turn of the last century, there was a disagreement about the nature of the electron as the bearer of the electric charge. And there were also different views about the electric charge and the reasons why it is a ‘natural unit’. Digging (briefly for limits of space here) into the history of this scientific disagreement around 1897–1906 is instructive for two different reasons. First, it helps elucidate the nature of disagreement. This was rooted not in scientists accepting or denying pieces of evidence, but rather in the way in which pieces of evidence, or, better, data, were embedded in different _scientific perspectives_ and used for inferring a variety of phenomena, from which the electric charge could in turn be inferred. Second, a brief foray into the history of the electric charge can help us understand the exact nature of the realist commitment that is compatible with what I call ‘perspectival disagreement’.

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