Archive for July, 2017

QOTD: Working out scientific insights on paper, Lavoisier case study

July 12th, 2017

…language does do much of our thinking for us, even in the sciences, and rather than being an unfortunate contamination, its influence has been productive historically, helping individual thinkers generate concepts and theories that can then be put to the test. The case made here for the constitutive power of figures [of speech] per se supports the general point made by F.L. Holmes in a lecture addressed to the History of Science Society in 1987. A distinguished historian of medicine and chemistry, Holmes based his study of Antoine Lavoisier on the French chemist’s laboratory notebooks. He later examined drafts of Lavoisier’s published papers and discovered that Lavoisier wrote many versions of his papers and in the course of careful revisions gradually worked out the positions he eventually made public (Holmes, 221). Holmes, whose goal as a historian is to reconstruct the careful pathways and fine structure of scientific insights, concluded from his study of Lavoisier’s drafts

We cannot always tell whether a thought that led him to modify a passage, recast an argument, or develop an alternative interpretation occurred while he was still engaged in writing what he subsequently altered, or immediately afterward, or after some interval during which he occupied himself with something else; but the timing is, I believe, less significant than the fact that the new developments were consequences of the effort to express ideas and marshall supporting information on paper (225).

– page xi of Rhetorical Figures in Science by Jeanne Fahnestock, Oxford University Press, 1999.

She is quoting Frederich L. Holmes. 1987. Scientific writing and scientific discovery. Isis 78:220-235. DOI:10.1086/354391

As Moore summarizes,

Lavoisier wrote at least six drafts of the paper over a period of at least six months. However, his theory of respiration did not appear until the fifth draft. Clearly, Lavoisier’s writing helped him refine and understand his ideas.

Moore, Randy. Languageā€”A Force that Shapes Science. Journal of College Science Teaching 28.6 (1999): 366.
(which I quoted in
a review I wrote recently)

Fahnestock adds:
“…Holmes’s general point [is that] there are subtle interactions ‘between writing, thought, and operations in creative scientific activity’ (226).”

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