November 29 Colloquium

WHAT:  Instructor Robin Savidge Turpin (a.k.a. Robin), “The Bose Higgs-on and Other Stories; Why We Need a Philosophy of History and What It Should Do When It Is Working.”

WHEN: November 29, 7 pm to 9 pm

WHERE: PUC Campus, Anderson 148

SUMMARY: With the application of the ‘on’ suffix – electron, proton, boson – physics asserts the existence of something without prior commitment to that something’s nature.  This assertion opens the door to the question: What is a fact, and how can we tell when we encounter one?  In the modern world, the determination of facts has come to rely on more and more sophisticated measurement techniques coupled with increasingly counter-intuitive theoretical formulations.  We can spectrographically analyze the paint on the wall and precisely locate the wavelengths detected on the color spectrum.  If our equipment is properly calibrated and we apply our techniques correctly, we can bypass questions of individual color sense.  However, our claim to objective knowledge now rests squarely on the accumulated social knowledge of how to measure wavelengths.  Unfortunately for an extension of this method, our knowledge of history rests heavily on the accumulated subjective impressions of individuals who are dead.  We can no longer objectively test their documented impressions.

Furthermore, even when we can agree on them, facts alone will not save us.  We must pick the right set.  Bose was an Indian physicist under the Raj.  Higgs is professor emeritus at the University of Edinburg.  Should we be surprised that the particle compelling so much attention is called a Higgs boson and not the other way around?  We might be right for the wrong reasons.  Bose discovered an entire group of particles.  A Higgs boson is only one of the group: a key one that produces mass, but still only one.  The naming convention reflects the asserted reality rather than the established social history.  But does that mean either must be regarded as fiction?  History has traditionally occupied a special place in western universities.  Like the great museums, it grew with the nation-state and defended that state’s legitimacy.  One of the most intellectually potent of challenges to the state is to the objectivity of its historical narrative: That’s your story.  In order to create a viable, relevant – and in some sense objective – historical narrative, we need both facts and theory.  An adequate philosophy of history must honestly raise questions of ontology and epistemology and begin a discussion of robust solutions.