12 Epilogue: Textbooks and the Emergence of a Conceptual Trajectory
Of what use are scientific textbooks? To scientists and their students, textbooks can inspire admiration and nostalgia, but also a sense of limits, of being far from the intellectual frontier. After all, research in the physical sciences long ago ceased to be a bookish affair. For at least a century and a half, the most important developments have been communicated in journal articles and cognate forms such as conference talks and preprints (Frasca-Spada and Jardine 2000; Gross et.al. 2002). The British scholar and statesman
At the same time that Snow offered his observation,
We might liken this historical use of textbooks to physicists’ uses of test-bodies when marking out an invisible field. Like pith balls charged with slight static electricity or tiny iron filings sprinkled near a bar magnet, early textbooks on quantum theory might help to delineate a clearer path, enabling historians to chart a conceptual trajectory during times of unusual variation. How did the physics community move from early hints about black-body radiation, specific heats, and the photoelectric effect to a full-blown armory of state vectors, Hilbert spaces, and Hermitian operators? Surely textbooks composed at intermediate steps along the journey are invaluable resources for reconstructing that path.
The pith-ball approach assumes that textbooks reflect underlying conceptual developments, but do not affect them: there existed a genuine conceptual trajectory, and textbooks help to reveal it. Yet many chapters in this collection suggest reasons to reconsider such an assumption. Consider the range of books produced in short order by physicists working at the same university, for example: quite a gulf separates
In place of the pith-ball analogy—which, after all, hearkens back to the era of classical physics—we might turn to
With hindsight, of course, physicists, historians, and philosophers have drawn and redrawn various candidate trajectories for the conceptual history of quantum theory. Indeed for a long time the history of modern physics seemed almost indistinguishable from the history of quantum theory, given the great mass of work published on the topic. Moreover, though significant challenges of interpretation remain open even to this day, the range of approaches and techniques to quantum theory has surely narrowed compared to the turmoil and tumult of the period from 1900 through 1930. Some shadow of a conceptual trajectory appears to have emerged from all the dust and smoke.
We might therefore pose some new questions, inverted from the type that animate pith-ball historiography. Among the wide range of possible (and competing) efforts at the time, through what means did a narrowing of approaches and interpretations occur? What work was required for something approximating a conceptual trajectory to emerge? These last questions suggest yet a third analogy, alongside the pith-ball and smoky dragon: decoherence and the emergence of classical behavior from quantum systems. An influential line of thought among contemporary physicists suggests that classical behavior—such as the possession of a sharp trajectory through space and time—might emerge from quantum objects’ interactions with the environment. Repeated scatterings between a quantum particle and the flotsam and jetsam of its surroundings can cause the strange superpositions endemic to quantum theory effectively to get washed out. Even inside the tyrannical box,
In addition to providing hints of competing approaches or supplying fodder for adjudicating priority claims, scientific textbooks like the ones examined throughout this volume can be used to chart just those interactions with the “environment”—pedagogical, institutional, intellectual—by means of which something approximating a conceptual trajectory emerged. Rather than assume that the textbooks and ancillary pedagogical efforts from the time reflect an underlying trajectory, we might train our attention on the means by which books like these helped to reduce the ever-multiplying possibilities, producing what would later appear to be a recognizable conceptual path. The detailed and revealing chapters in this volume provide an excellent resource with which to pursue just such an investigation. As quantum physicists learned not so long ago, sometimes a little decoherence can be a very useful thing.
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