Curators' concepts : Peter Galison

Cells of Science

Quantum Cell

From the earliest days of the quantum in the 1910s, visualization has been on trial. Niels Bohr wanted to draw pictures of the atom back in 1913 and yet refused to picture how electrons jump from one orbit to another. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg clashed furiously over the role of pictorial intuition in physics–Schrödinger demanded pictures, Heisenberg resolutely blocked them. Eventually pieces of both views entered quantum mechanics of 196. Built into the fabric of physics itself, the complementarity of pictures and numbers echoes like a leitmotif throughout the whole ballad of twentieth-century physics. This background sets the stage here for a recent clash over quantum reality. Physicist Eric J. Heller has developed a remarkable technique for simulating the path of quantum motion of electrons–the results, both artistically and scientifically fascinating, suggest new relations of quantum physics to classical and chaotic physics, and have given rise to entirely new phenomena such as »scarring«. Pictures–produced not in the laboratory but on powerful computers–have begun to play a significant role in new discoveries within condensed matter physics.

Image and Logic Cell

At the heart of experimental physics lies a fundamental tension–on the one side pulls the desire to image the microworld, and on the other the equally powerful hope to find refuge from images through statistics. Decorating the cover of textbooks and imprinted on our cultural imagination are the wispy tracks of cloud chambers, nuclear emulsions, and bubble chambers. But against those images, less familiar no doubt, is a long tradition of devices that aim to avoid images altogether: counters, spark chambers, wire chambers. Perhaps the most significant development in the laboratory of the last fifty years has been the fusion of these two lineages into the production of digital images–controllable images built from statistics and computers into remarkable images of the subvisible world. Here the working cloud chamber, counter array, and spark chamber embody in demonstration form the impulses to count and see. Alongside them stand a mixture of art and discarded fragments of microphysics, all drawn from the evanescent material culture of science.

Mathematics Cell

For centuries, mathematicians have struggled over the role of the diagram. Aids to understanding? Necessary foundation of true mathematics? Or are these visual-sensual models and pictures threatening distractions from the discipline’s will to truth? This cell focuses on the conflict, born in the nineteenth century, between the production of mathematical models and a countervailing impulse to banish all such seductions of the eye. Here are displayed a remarkable Göttingen collection of wire, plaster, and wooden models of mathematical functions developed in the nineteenth century both to further research and to train the budding mathematician. Mathematician Felix Klein was the foremost advocate of models–as far as he was concerned, without visual intuition [Anschaulichkeit] there simply was no real understanding. Mathematician David Hilbert is supposed to have quipped that, to the contrary, the propositions of geometry would be just as true if one took every occurrence of »line«, »point«, »plane« in Euclid’s geometry and replace them with »table«, »chair«, and »mug«. In the end, he believed, mathematics was a combination of abstract rules and meaningless signs, for which the fascination with construction, intuition and models was irrelevant. Where are we now? In a sense here too we may be beginning to see a by-passing of the image wars as central areas in both mathematics and physics begin to share a language part mathematical, part visual, and part physical.

Structure of the Universe

For several decades, Margaret Geller and her colleagues have used visual techniques to map the deep-space distribution of galaxies. To widespread astonishment, she and her colleagues were able to show that galaxies were not evenly scattered through the universe, but instead clustered in relatively thin sheets as if on the surface of soap bubbles. But coming to and sustaining that conclusion has relied in fundamental ways on forming new ways to picture what was happening far out into the universe–a process that has demanded a constant back-and-forth between statistical-formal analysis and the pattern-grasping capability of the human eye. Visualization in astronomy has a long history of being celebrated and challenged–early in the century astronomers tried to by-pass the eye, so to speak, in sorting the spectra of stars. But the eye’s judgment never quite leaves. Images persist, though increasingly in early twenty-first century astrophysics, the images flow back and forth between data analysis and complex digital pictures. This cell represents some of the stages in the shuffle between images and data: the raw pictures of the Zwicky Plates, the spectra that showed how far the galaxies were from earth, the maps that visually presented the distributions. There were many steps on the long path from first tentative data plots to the computer-simulated »walk« through the galaxies. That video-loop left an enormous impression on all who saw it–and stands as a striking illustration not only of the soap-bubble distribution of matter in the universe, but of the increasing fusion between data crunching and image production.


+ Biography

Peter L. Galison

Mallinckrodt Professor for the History of Science and Physics at Harvard University

Peter Galison is interested in both the philosophical and historical questions that arise when examining the role of experiments in modern physics. In this context he has been primarily concerned with questions of scientific visualization. He lectures about the history of 20th century physics, experimenting, science and the realism of the Einsteinian revolution and theory of 20th century physics. In 1997 he became Fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and in 1999 he was awarded the Max Planck Prize by the Max Planck Gesellschaft and Humboldt Stiftung.

Among his most important publications are:
How Experiments End [Chicago 1987], Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics [Chicago 1997], Picturing Science, Producing Art [New York 1998], and The Architecture of Science [Cambridge, Mass 1999]. For Image & Logic he received the Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society in October 1998.



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Peter Galison
Dario Gamboni
Joseph Leo Koerner
Bruno Latour
Adam Lowe
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Peter Weibel

Hans Belting
Boris Groys
Denis Laborde
Marie-José Mondzain
Heather Stoddard

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Last update: Tuesday, April 23, 2002 at 3:25:43 PM.