Astronomers Mark Time: Discipline and the Personal Equation

Science in Context 2 (1):115-145 (1988)
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The ArgumentIt is often assumed that all sciences travel the path of increasing precision and quantification. It is also assumed that such processes transcend the boundaries of rival scientific disciplines. The history of the personal equation has been cited as an example: the “personal equation” was the name given by astronomers after Bessel to the differences in measured transit times recorded by observers in the same situation. Later in the nineteenth century Wilhelm Wundt used this phenomenon as a type for his experiments on reaction times. For historians of psychology, this has been taken to be an exemplary case where quantified laboratory science rescued astronomy by showing that this was really a psychological phenomenon measurable only in complication experiments. This paper challenges this story. Astronomers neither ignored, nor despaired of, the personality problem. Instead, the managers of the great observatories developed a new chronometric regime of vigilant surveillance of subordinate observers. The astronomers' solution was thus intimately connected with social and material changes in their way of life: a division of labor in the observatories, a network of observing sites, a mechanization of observation. The paper documents these changes and then presents a study of one case where managers, amateurs, and psychologists clashed for authority over the personality problem. Measurement is given its meaning when situated in specific contexts of styles of work and institutions. Disciplines give meanings to values, and often resist attempts by others to redefine these meanings or to gain authority over measurement. Quantification is not a self-evident nor inevitable process in science's history, but possesses a remarkable cultural history of its own.



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Simon Schaffer
Cambridge University

Citations of this work

Subjectivity and emotion in scientific research.Jeff Kochan - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):354-362.
Making Things Quantitative.Theodore M. Porter - 1994 - Science in Context 7 (3):389-407.

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Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice.Harry Collins - 1985 - Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.
Review of H ow Experiments End.Ian Hacking - 1990 - Journal of Philosophy 87 (2):103-106.
How Experiments End.Peter Galison - 1988 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 39 (3):411-414.

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