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 ready-made 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 text-like 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 One can appreciate the subtlety of some seemingly outdated natural philosophical concepts: for example, early modern ideas of "spirits" and "subtle, active fluids" can be understood in the context of the development of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.