A Democracy of Particles
I was reading around on the net various stuff regarding the historical ‘discovery’ of quarks and the development of QCD (on a Saturday afternoon? Get a life Fabio…), and I bumped into a great paper by David Kaiser (Isis 2002, 93, pp. 229-268) about Geoffrey Chew‘s research project between the 50s and the early 70s, dubbed as Nuclear Democracy, one which ultimately failed and was replaced by the more successful QCD. As any good work of history of science should, it canvasses a story of complex interactions: here particles, McCarthyism, scientists, academic politics and pedagogy all play a part in a story that might be of interest for any Latourian/OO philosopher. Here is the abstract:
The influential Berkeley theoretical physicist Geoffrey Chew renounced the reigning approach to the study of subatomic particles in the early 1960s. The standard approach relied on a rigid division between elementary and composite particles. Partly on the basis of his new interpretation of Feynman diagrams, Chew called instead for a “nuclear democracy” that would erase this division, treating all nuclear particles on an equal footing. In developing his rival approach, which came to dominate studies of the strong nuclear force throughout the 1960s, Chew drew on intellectual resources culled from his own political activities and his attempts to reform how graduate students in physics would be trained.
Doesn’t it sound uncannily familiar?
Let me quote some bits from the paper itself. Chew intended to reform nuclear physics through a full-fledged paradigm shift: give up a vertical, ‘aristocratic’ organization of the numerous newly discovered particles (thanks to new, more powerful, particle accelerators) in favour of a horiziontal, ‘democratic’ system where no particle was given special status (a ‘flat physics’?):
The ﬁeld theorists sought to explain the phenomena of particle physics with reference to a small set of basic or unit interactions taking place between a core set of “fundamental” or “elementary” particles. Chew mocked this approach of the “fundamentalists,” arguing that such an “aristocratic” arrangement of fundamental particles could not provide an adequate framework for describing the strong interactions. As in his 1950 article describing the loyalty oath controversy at the University of California, Chew reserved the term “fundamentalist” for colleagues who espoused a position at odds with his own “democratic” ideals. (258)
Chew’s program was therefore built on the assumption, he wrote in 1974, “that there will gradually develop a more and more dense coverage of the nuclear world by interlocking models no single model having preeminent status. Such a pattern might be characterized as a ‘democracy of models.’ ” (259)
These “stars” of physics, now nearly all within the “fundamentalist” camp, routinely embraced only models based on Lagrangian ﬁeld theories, Chew noted. They accorded these models “special status,” failing to “consider on an equal footing” models not derived from such a ﬁeld-theoretical basis. The task of the collective-minded S-matrix theorist, on the other hand, remained “to view any number of different partially successful models without favoritism.”(259)
Moreover, this ‘egalitarian’ approach was not only reserved for particles, but for his own students and the larger community of physicists as well:
Chew tried to produce within physics a community of peers, neither singled out for special treatment nor splintered between idea-producing theorists and fact-checking experimentalists. Each contributor to the “vast mosaic” of S-matrix theory was to be an equal partner under the law. (260)
[how miserably this interdisciplinary 'gap-filling' project failed: one of the guys that teaches in my part-time astronomy course is an X-Ray astronomer (in other words, someone who works in close collaboration with engineers in the construction phase of new instruments to be sent in orbit and that analyzes the data sent back to Earth by them) and he doesn't lose a single occasion to make the odd sarcastic joke about 'theorists' (cosmologists, theoretical physicists) and their ideas, often described as 'frankly, barking mad']
So his project acquired a number of followers among the grad students community, and in fact
Akbar Ahmadzadeh [one of Chew’s PhD students] reminded readers of his dissertation that insisting with the ﬁeld theorists on a strict division between “elementary” and “composite” particles often leads to “absurd conclusions” when studying the strong interactions; instead, all particles should be treated as bound states, “on an equal footing.” (261)
Concluding the paper, Kaiser presents a series of questions and upholds the impossibility of answering them by reducing the story to only one plane of analysis:
Were Geoffrey Chew’s ideas about particle physics determined by these particular cultural and political ideas, dug up and exposed by the loyalty oath and McCarthyism? The unidirectional, causal story falls short here….But the failure of such crude equations is just the beginning of our work as historians, not the disappointing end. Just as the straw-man story of sociopolitical determinism fails, so too does the contention that there was simply no connection between Chew’s political engagement, pedagogical reforms, and particle physics….[T]he same language recurs again and again (“fundamentalists,” “special status,” “without favoritism,” “equal partners”); models, particles, and collaborators were all “democratized.” This was a vocabulary Chew had honed over a decade ﬁlled with angst and activism, in front of regents and senators, years before he began to apply it to Feynman diagrams and q mesons. Rather than asking “How much did politics affect Chew’s physics?” or “What complicated admixture of politics and culture and society interacted in which complicated ways to produce Chew’s ideas in physics?” we can thus build on Chew’s curious continuity of language to turn the question around: Why did Chew’s work emerge in the form that it did, at the time and in the place that it did? What were the conditions, in other words, that made “nuclear democracy” an intellectual possibility—and indeed not just a “possibility” but the dominant set of techniques for strong-interaction particle physics throughout the 1960s? Why, moreover, was the work subject to so many different, competing interpretations by physicists further and further removed from Chew’s immediate group in Berkeley? (266-267)
Now, why do I find any of this interesting? For several reasons:
1) The idea of a ‘democracy of particles’ coming out of particle physics is interesting for object-oriented philosophy and its democracy of objects. Of course, OOP’s main thrust is to flatten the plane so that humans have no exemplary position, but it is still an interesting if we consider the recent ‘tensions’ in the SRsts circles between reductionists (and eliminativists) and OOOgists. There are several ways to reduce nature to fundamental parts/particles. And I guess that there are different ways for philosophy to react in the face of scientific reductionism.
2) The example of a great piece of historical work in STS which exemplifies Latour’s principle of irreductions and takes seriously the fact that the networks of actors that compose an historical event are ‘simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse and collective, like society’ (WHNBM: 6).
3) Given the sharing of a ‘democratic’ spirit between Chew’s research project and the current philosophical research project that is OOO (also ‘pedagogically’ speaking: isn’t one of the objectively good sides of OOP the ongoing debate and collaboration between grad students and more ‘accomplished’ academics?) could we not turn Kaiser’s final questions (simply changing names and dates) back to OOO? Paul Ennis raised this question some months ago, and yet I feel that we don’t have a clear answer to them yet. Does OOO need a historian of philosophy? Or it is too early? How do we define ‘early’? How long should we reasonably wait for some historian to write a Latourian analysis on the development of OOP, the philosophical movement that made a philosopher out of Latour himself? [Some have tried to answer these questions, and accused the movement as a whole (and specific individuals in it) of careerism, capitalism and orientalism amongst others. However, I would not qualify them as particularly keen under the historical point of view]. For some reason, I feel quite obsessed by these questions.