Abstract
Arianna Borrelli
http://hdl.handle.net/10002/454
(FULL PAPER)
The media perspective in the study of scientific abstraction
The media perspective in the study of scientific abstraction
Processes of scientific abstraction result both in new concepts and in
new forms capable of expressing them. The two components can only be distinguished
in a first approximation, and some aspects of their dynamical relationship
can be well appreciated by regarding the whole as a process of development
of and creative experimenting with new media, whose material context has
to be constantly kept into account. Methods of media archeology and reflections
on media art thus become valuable tools for historians and philosophers
of science and natural philosophy, helping them appreciate the variety
of some scenarios.
One of the most fruitful fields of application of the method is that of
numerical and mathematical abstraction, where the danger of flattening
different concepts into the same readymade form is most present. Variety
can be recovered by appreciating the divergences between modes of abstraction
linked to different mathematical practices, such as the performance of
geometrical constructions as opposed to the use of textlike symbolic
formalism, or the employment of computer algorithms based on random number
generators as opposed to the use of analytical expressions. Probably the
most famous example of such variety is the early history of "Newton's
laws of motion" in their transformation from verbal statements in
Latin into symbolic formulas of analysis. However, the importance of such
dynamics increases with the complexity of the mathematical and numerical
apparatus, as in the case of modern physics.
From a media perspective, it is possible to perceive the specific individuality
of standardized measurement tools, procedures and units which are used
to operationally define physical quantities, as in the case of temperature
and thermometer. One can better understand the role of abstract machinery
like the (impossible) "perpetuum mobile" or Carnot's engine.
One can appreciate the subtlety of some seemingly outdated natural philosophical
concepts: for example, early modern ideas of "spirits" and "subtle,
active fluids" can be understood in the context of the development
of pneumatics and alchemy, particularly of processes similar to alcohol
distillation.
