Article ID: CBB303872937

History as a Tool for Natural Science: How Ernst Mach Applied Historical Methods to Physics (2022)


Historical methods have long been put to use in the making of natural knowledge. In this article, I examine the use of historical methods by nineteenth-century physicists, focusing on the Austrian researcher Ernst Mach in particular. I argue that Mach applied methods characteristic of the then-dominant historical and philological disciplines to his own discipline of physics. He construed history as a tool for the physicist. On the basis of a study of his notebooks and correspondence with the chemist-turned-historian Emil    Wohlwill, I explain what he sought to achieve by means of this tool, and reconstruct the practices characterizing his historical research. These practices included the reading, ordering, and comparison of textual sources. Moreover, Mach appropriated the historical-philological method of source criticism. I show that prominent fellow physicists of Mach, including Johann Poggendorff and Hermann von Helmholtz, made use of similar historical methods, even though their aims were different. Together, the cases of these history-writing physicists illustrate how history and natural science continued to intertwine in a time of increasing disciplinary fragmentation.

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Authors & Contributors
Boi, Luciano
Heidelberger, Michael
Zanarini, Gianni
Pantalony, David Alexander
D'Agostino, Salvatore
Rowlinson, John S.
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
Bulletin for the History of Chemistry
History of Science
Pavia University Press
Sentinel Open Press
University of King's College
University of California, Los Angeles
Cambridge University Press
Natural philosophy
Correspondence and corresponding
Philosophy of science
Natural science
Mach, Ernst
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Fechner, Gustav Theodor
Newton, Isaac
Kant, Immanuel
Einstein, Albert
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
17th century
18th century
16th century
Great Britain
Central Europe: Germany, Austria, Switzerland
United States

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