The conclusion of my last post was that scientists who write history are like visitors to one city who live in a different city (as opposed to historians, who study cities while living in the countryside). The point of the analogy was to show that knowledge of present-day science need not get in the way of good history-writing. There is another analogy that gets at the same point from a different direction: scientists who write history are like authors of murder mysteries who reveal the identity of the killer in the first chapter. This may sound like a criticism, but there are successful authors who actually write like this, starting with the Swedish maestro Henning Mankell.
SPOILER ALERT - crucial details of detective novel revealed below, most of them from the first chapterConsider Mankell's Villospår (1995), also known under the much less chilling title Sidetracked. Four of the murders in the story are narrated from the point of the killer, which means that the reader is always several steps ahead of the detective, the stern but sensitive Kurt Wallander. Within the first 20 pages we know that the killer acts alone, rides a small motorcycle, attacks his victims with knives and axes, is engaged in a vendetta on behalf of his sister, and buries the scalps of each his victims under the window of the hospital ward in which his sister is confined. Wallander knows none of this. If he knew all of it, he would solve the mystery after the third murder, if not before. This would make the book shorter and much less interesting. It would mean that, as readers, we would not find ourselves in the edifying position of admiring Wallander’s deductions while knowing that his conclusions are wrong. We would not take nearly as much pleasure in the suspenseful meetings between Wallander and the person who (as we but not Wallander knows) committed the grisly murders. Nor would we know that Wallander placed his life in danger by speaking to this person. Most of all, our attention would not be drawn away from the facts of the murders (these facts are boring because Mankell hands them to us on a plate) and towards the process by which Wallander discovers those facts. This process, including the many dead-ends along the way, is the real mystery of the novel. Mankell’s approach in Sidetracked is not unlike Steven Weinberg’s in To Explain the World.* Weinberg makes no secret of the fact that the earth follows an elliptical path around the sun, that inertial motion is rectilinear rather than circular, that the speed of light is finite, and numerous other present-day orthodoxies that were out of reach of many of the past scientists he discusses. These disclosures do not ruin Weinberg’s narrative any more than they ruin Mankell’s. On the contrary. They teach us that skilled scientists can be wrong for the right reasons. They lead to dramatic scenes in which scientists come tantalisingly close to a discovery without quite getting there, where they unwittingly endanger their lives or careers by meddling with phenomena they do not understand, and where they become acquainted with a new entity without correctly identifying the entity (for an example of the latter, consider Joseph Priestly’s isolation of oxygen). Most importantly, a plain statement of the facts of nature has the paradoxical effect of drawing our attention away from those facts and towards the circuitous route that leads eventually to their discovery. This route, not the facts themselves, is the real story of the history of science. Granted, there are relevant disanalogies between histories of science and murder mysteries. One is to do with the contemporaneity of those who know the facts and those who inquire about them. In Sidetracked, as in most murder mysteries, the facts about the crime are known (by the criminal) even before the inquirer (the detective) knows that a crime has been commited. In most histories of science, the facts about nature are not known by anyone until they are discovered by one of the principal inquirers in the narrative. The second and related disanalogy is that, in a murder mystery, the discovery of the facts is almost always part of the story—the murderer, the means and the motive are correctly identified by someone in the book, usually near the end. By contrast, histories of science need not end with the identification of a true theory or the correct identification of a phenomenon. Often they do, but there is nothing in the rules of the genre that requires this. These disanalogies do not seriously undermine the point I am trying to make, which is that histories of science can benefit from knowledge that is unavailable to most or all of the scientists they deal with in any given narrative. The first disanalogy is harmless because in both cases—histories of science and murder mysteries—the reader has access to facts that are unavailable to the inquirer. It does not matter whether there is someone else, living at the same time as the inquirer, who knows those facts as well as the reader. The second disanalogy is harmless because there are enough histories of science that do end with a correct solution to a problem to make the comparison to murder mysteries worthwhile. I am not the first to compare histories of science to murder mysteries. Lorraine Daston has also done so, though not in the same way as I have just done. And Nick Tosh has some interesting remarks on the literary merits of historians who, like Weinberg, wear their present-day knowledge on their sleeves. I respond to Daston and Tosh in my next post. *As I imagine Weinberg’s book, which I have still not read. It matters little whether my hypothetical description of Weinberg’s book is accurate. The features I describe are endemic in the kind of histories of science that are called ‘Whiggish’ or ‘present-centred.’ Expand post.