Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

Synopsis

What is temperature, and how can we measure it correctly? These may seem like simple questions, but the most renowned scientists struggled with them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. InInventing Temperature, Chang examines how scientists first created thermometers; how they measured temperature beyond the reach of standard thermometers; and how they managed to assess the reliability and accuracy of these instruments without a circular reliance on the instruments themselves.

In a discussion that brings together the history of science with the philosophy of science, Chang presents the simple eet challenging epistemic and technical questions about these instruments, and the complex web of abstract philosophical issues surrounding them. Chang's book shows that many items of knowledge that we take for granted now are in fact spectacular achievements, obtained only after a great deal of innovative thinking, painstaking experiments, bold conjectures, and controversy. Lurking behind these achievements are some very important philosophical questions about how and when people accept the authority of science.

Excerpt

This book aspires to be a showcase of what I call “complementary science,” which contributes to scientific knowledge through historical and philosophical investigations. Complementary science asks scientific questions that are excluded from current specialist science. It begins by re-examining the obvious, by asking why we accept the basic truths of science that have become educated common sense. Because many things are protected from questioning and criticism in spe- cialist science, its demonstrated effectiveness is also unavoidably accompanied by a degree of dogmatism and a narrowness of focus that can actually result in a loss of knowledge. History and philosophy of science in its “complementary” mode can ameliorate this situation, as I hope the following chapters will illustrate in concrete detail.

Today even the most severe critics of science actually take a lot of scientific knowledge for granted. Many results of science that we readily believe are in fact quite extraordinary claims. Take a moment to reflect on how unbelievable the following propositions would have appeared to a keen and intelligent observer of nature from 500 years ago. the earth is very old, well over 4 billion years of age; it exists in a near-vacuum and revolves around the sun, which is about 150 million kilometers away; in the sun a great deal of energy is produced by nuclear fusion, the same kind of process as the explosion of a hydrogen bomb; all material objects are made up of invisible molecules and atoms, which are in turn made up of elementary particles, all far too small ever to be seen or felt directly; in each cell of a living creature there is a hypercomplex molecule called dna, which largely determines the shape and functioning of the organism; and so on. Most members of today’s educated public subscribing to the “Western” civilization would assent to most of these propositions without hesitation, teach them confidently to their children, and become indignant when some ignorant people question these truths. However, if they were asked to say why they believe these items of scientific common sense, most would be unable to produce any convincing arguments. It may even be that the more basic and firm the belief is, the more stumped we tend to feel in trying to . . .

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