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Histories of Scientific Observation

Observation is the most pervasive and fundamental practice of all the modern sciences, both natural and human. Its instruments include not only the naked senses but also tools such as the telescope and microscope, the questionnaire, the photographic plate, the notebook, the glassed-in beehive, and myriad other ingenious inventions designed to make the invisible visible, the evanescent permanent, the abstract concrete. Yet observation has almost never been considered as an object of historical inquiry in itself. This wide-ranging collection offers the first examination of the history of scientific observation in its own right, as both epistemic category and scientific practice.

Histories of Scientific Observation features engaging episodes drawn from across the spectrum of the natural and human sciences, ranging from meteorology, medicine, and natural history to economics, astronomy, and psychology. The contributions spotlight how observers have scrutinized everything—from seaweed to X-ray radiation, household budgets to the emotions—with ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance verging on obsession. This book makes a compelling case for the significance of the long, surprising, and epistemologically significant history of scientific observation, a history full of innovations that have enlarged the possibilities of perception, judgment, and reason.

480 pages | 5 color plates, 42 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Philosophy of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“Deeply thoughtful—and readable. . . . [The] elegant and often suspenseful articles by a mix of distinguished scholars in the history of science and talented new arrivals to the field . . . illustrate the many challenges that have faced scientific observers from the 17th century to the 20th. . . . I highly recommend Histories of Scientific Observation, not only to historians of science, who have an obvious stake in its groundbreaking contents, but also to scientists curious about the role that practices such as observation and experiment play in their own research.”

Alix Cooper | American Scientist

“This is not only a rich and fascinating collection of the histories the title announces, but a persuasive, substantiated proposal for the recognition of a new field in the philosophy and sociology of science—observation. . . . An interesting, significant, thought-provoking work. Highly recommended.”

M. Schiff | Choice

“A remarkable and ambitious volume which lays out observation as a distinctive approach to knowledge about the natural and human world. Weaving historical threads through the origins of the medical case study, to the natural historical study of the mating behavior of frogs, to the practices of twentieth-century biological and social sciences is no mean feat. This exciting collection is far more than the sum of its parts.”

Katharine Anderson, York University

“Observation deserves historical scrutiny like that devoted to such topics as experiment, evidence, measurement, and proof in recent years, and Histories of Scientific Observation offers an original and significant contribution to scholarship.”

Jan Golinski, University of New Hampshire

“[Histories of Scientific Observation] beautifully deconstructs the would-be monolith that is ‘observation.’ The editors and contributing authors . . . demystify a potentially overwhelming topic and show how the history of observation is not too long, too big, or too multifaceted to be unobservable. . . . The scrupulously structured plan of the book, so important to the success of any edited volume of this type, will no doubt make Observation a key text in the history of science.”

Katie Zimmerman | Endeavour

“It’s surprising this hasn’t been done before: three impressive overview essays and a series of brilliant case studies. Together, they probe the way that the notion that systematic, disciplined observation is a foundation for knowledge was elaborated as part of the culture of modern science. It bears on any number of debates about who knows what, and how.”

Jon Turney | Times Higher Education

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