Reconsidering Experiments

Experiments may not reveal their full import at the time that they are performed. The scientists who perform them usually are testing a specific hypothesis and quite often have specific expectations limiting the possible inferences that can be drawn from the experiment. Nonetheless, as Hacking has said, experiments have lives of their own. Those lives do not end with the initial report of the results and consequences of the experiment. Going back and rethinking the consequences of the experiment in a new context, theoretical or empirical, has great merit as a strategy for investigation and for scientific problem analysis. I apply this analysis to the interplay between Fizeau's classic optical experiments and the building of special relativity. Einstein's understanding of the problems facing classical electrodynamics and optics, in part, was informed by Fizeau's 1851 experiments. However, between 1851 and 1905, Fizeau's experiments were duplicated and reinterpreted by a succession of scientists, including Hertz, Lorentz, and Michelson. Einstein's analysis of the consequences of the experiments is tied closely to this theoretical and experimental tradition. However, Einstein's own inferences from the experiments differ greatly from the inferences drawn by others in that tradition.
Keywords experiment  einstein  fizeau  optics  electrodynamics
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DOI 10.1086/660167
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Gerald Holton (1969). Einstein, Michelson, and the "Crucial" Experiment. Isis: A Journal of the History of Science 60:132-197.

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Alisa Bokulich (2001). Rethinking Thought Experiments. Perspectives on Science 9 (3):285-307.
Ian Hacking (1992). Do Thought Experiments Have a Life of Their Own? Comments on James Brown, Nancy Nersessian and David Gooding. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1992:302 - 308.

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