Title: Associate Professor, History of Science.
Interests: I have broad-ranging interests in the history of physics in Europe and
America during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular research
focus on the physics community circa 1900, the development of special
relativity, and the interrelations between instruments and experiment.
Office:Room 226, Bradley Memorial Building
At the moment I am working through the papers of Ernst Mach at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where I am fortunate enough to be a scholar in residence. Mach is a central figure in the project I am developing on the relations between physics and anthropology, and the cultural history of mechanics.
My interest in anthropology actually dates back to an undergraduate paper on the pioneering Australian anthropologists, Spencer and Gillen. Now I'm exploring the various ways that anthropologists have drawn on physics. Boas and Malinowski present particularly important cases of people trained in physics who later became anthropologists. The question is how much of their physics did they have to abandon - did it require a conversion to become anthropologists, or were there important continuities in their work? Mach comes into that story because Malinowski wrote his dissertation on Mach's philosophy of science, but Mach also comments on the science of other cultures in outlining his own thought - so in that case we can begin to see how physicists use anthropology, as well.
My work on the cultural history of mechanics began after realizing that the "descriptionism" that John Heilbron described as characteristic of the turn of the century might help us explain both sides of the account that Paul Forman famously gave of the acceptance of an acausal quantum mechanics in Weimar Germany. That is, both Spengler and the physicists of the 20s might have been drawing on the stances that people like Mach, Ostwald and Poincaré expressed in the 1890s. This reflects a still broader and long-standing set of discussions. In one way or another, at times as a metaphor, at times as means of thinking about the relations between mind and matter, or life and death, mechanics has been of interest to socialists and sociologists, philosophers and physicists, and I want to explore the connections between different sides of these debates across different fields over quite a long period, from the 1860s to the 1930s. I'll be talking about one aspect of that in a session at the 2012 HSS in San Diego.
Fancy thinking about a whole discipline and the way its been approached historiographically, over a whole century? The one other thing I want to mention from my recent work is a paper on "Trajectories in the History and Historiography of Physics in the Twentieth Century," which is forthcoming in History of Science. Contact me if you'd like a copy - I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
Ph.D., University of Cambridge, History and Philosophy of Science, 1992
B.A., University of Melbourne, History and Philosophy of Science, 1986
"Culture and Mechanics in Germany, 1869-1918: A Sketch" section in Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov, Helmuth Trischler, eds., Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics: Selected Papers by Paul Forman and Contemporary Perspectives on the Forman Thesis (Imperial College Press / World Scientific, 2011).
"Michelson and the Observatory: Physics and the Astronomical Community in late Nineteenth Century America" section in David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg, H. Otto Sibum, eds., The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture (Duke University Press, 2010).
Richard Staley, "Discontinuous Memory in the Making of Quantum Mechanics," Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41:4 (2011), 447-456.
Richard Staley, "'Revisiting the History of Relativity,' book symposium on Einstein's Generation with reviews from Lewis Pyenson, Sean Johnston and Alberto Martìnez, and author’s response," Metascience 20:1 (2011), 53-73.
Richard Staley, "The Fin de Siècle Thesis," Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 31 (2008), 311-330.
Richard Staley, "Conspiracies of Proof and Diversity of Judgment in Astronomy and Physics: On Physicists' Attempts to Time Light's Wings and Solve Astronomy's Noblest Problem," Cahiers François Viète 11-12 (2006), 83-97.
Richard Staley, "On the Co-Creation of Classical and Modern Physics," Isis 96:4 (2005), 530-558.
Richard Staley, "On the Histories of Relativity: The Propagation and Elaboration of Relativity Theory in Participant Histories in Germany, 1905-1911," Isis 89:2 (1998), 263-299.