Ernst Mach And The Historical Presentation Of Science


The history of the development of mechanics is quite indispensable to a full comprehension of the science,” Ernst Mach says in his late 19th century masterpiece of a physics education, The Science Of Mechanics.

I couldn’t agree more.  That’s precisely why I’ve been chasing ghosts the last six months– going back and studying the history of physics, seeking an understanding that is not filtered exclusively through the merely modern perspective, but one that includes the views, as they held them before and after their great discoveries and insights, of the great minds of physical science.

It is my suspicion (only more confirmed the more I delve into the subject) that the modern lens is a distorting glass– for, by knowing what path science has taken during the last century, we tend to discount, and sometimes even ignore completely, the paths NOT taken.

I wish to travel back in time and visit the forks in the road, the places where viewpoints were cemented and philosophies diverged into the living and the dead.  I want to study and to understand these moments of divergence, and to walk a ways down the paths not taken, to see what small treasures may have been left behind on the untrodden paths.

I feel, as does Karl Menger (who introduces Mach’s book), that the best way to study science is the through the “historical presentation,” which offers “the most penetrating approach to the subject-matter and leads to the deepest insight.”

And let me gush… Mach’s book, the most philosophical physics book I have yet to read, was an illuminating joy to read.  I felt I came away from Mach’s book with a deeper understanding of why some theories of mechanics were rejected and why others were accepted.  Mach takes us back in time so that we may experience not only the discoveries and brilliant insights of the great experimenters and theorists of physics, but also so that we may see their mistakes and erroneous opinions.  “The rejected and transient thoughts of the inquirers, nay even erroneous notions, may be very important and very instructive,” Mach contends, for it is all too easy to accept the dogma spoonfed to us by the authorities of life.  Mach warns us that if we do not question and re-examine the principles handed-down to us, these principles risk becoming “a system of half-understood prejudices.”  Or, to restate in my own words:  the baby bird who never learns to hunt his own worms will spend his life merely swallowing regurgitations.

“One would have to be a poor psychologist and have little knowledge of one’s self not to know how difficult it is to liberate one’s self from traditional views,” says Mach.  It requires effort and resolution to break such mental bonds.  And even if we are successful at getting outside the box where we can sometimes think for ourselves, “the remnants of the old ideas still hover in consciousness and are the cause of occasional backsliding.”  

Mach’s aim in writing the book, he tells us, was to portray “the rise and growth of the ideas of the great inquirers.”  He puts us shoulder-to-shoulder with the great scientists as they make and break the rules, for he feels, rightly, that when it comes to the exploration of scientific history that “there is no grander, no more intellectually elevating spectacle than that of the utterances of the fundamental investigators in their gigantic powers.”

Mach’s “historical presentation” of science also better prepares us, I believe, for evaluating current and future scientific issues and theories.  As Mach points out, those who are “limited in their views to the age in which their own lives have been spent” will overestimate the significance of “the momentary trend” of contemporary fashions of thought.

With such big scientific questions looming before our generation as cloning and genetic enhancement, this long view of science seems as important for the average citizen today as it has ever been.


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