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Relativity, microphysics, and the senses of the sciences

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This lecture pursues the history of two very different experiments to explore the dialogue between the laboratory, the body of the experimenter, and the world outside the laboratory around 1900. The first is Einstein’s famous 1907 thought experiment on a man falling. Revisiting Mach’s earlier critiques of Newtonian absolutes of time, space and motion will show the extent to which Mach’s engagement with psychophysics guided Einstein’s imagination. The second is Wilson’s cloud chamber, invented in the Cavendish in 1895 and used to offer images of particle tracks from 1911. While commonly thought to move decisively from a mimetic attempt to recapture natural clouds to an analytic exploration of ions in 1895, I will show that Wilson actually understood his chamber to mimic the behaviour of air rising above cloud. Examining both experiments, our aim is to explore the porous boundaries between laboratory, natural phenomena and the scientist’s body – even in the period in which the rise of microphysics and relativity introduced newly abstract investigations of liminal phenomena, and abstract forms of symmetry.

This talk is part of the History & Philosophy of Science @ the Cavendish series.

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