Aaron Sidney Wright

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Welcome to Aaron Sidney Wright's website! I am a historian and philosopher of science who focuses on the practice of modern physics and the changing, contradictory, pictures of the world that science offers us.


Self portrait, Cambridge, MA.
(Headshot to come.)

Currently, I am a Postdoctoral Scholar At the Suppes Center for History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. Previously, I was a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. I received my PhD from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, also with support from SSHRC. My undergraduate work was at McGill University.

In addition to academia, I am an avid skier and photographer.

On this website, you can learn about my research and teaching, below.

In academic year 2016-2017, I am looking forward to the European Society for History of Science meeting in Septmeber in Prague, CZ; and the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in Atlanta, GA in November (jointly with HSS). Say hello!

 


Research

My research is concerned with the practice of physics over time, and what this practice tells us about science and the natural world. I am particularly interested in "historical ontology"---the study of our changing pictures of the fundamental stuff we see manifest around us. In history, this has resulted in detailed studies of the work of theoreticial physicists who studied the vacuum, or empty space. The vacuum is a central object of the ontology and the practice of theoretical physics. The dramatic changes in scientists' views of nothingness are a platform for asking philosophical questions about change in science. Why should we believe today what scientists say about the fundamental constituents of the world, when tomorrow a new view may emerge? My philosophical research concerns properly posing this question, and finding an answer to it. I want a scientific realism that ackowledges the history of scientific change.

The History of Nothing

My book manuscipt in progress is titled More Than Nothing: Histories of the vacuum in theoretical physics, 1927–1980. It traces the history of empty space in both quantum theory and general relativity.

Several papers related to this work have been published. I argue that Paul Dirac's commitment to "mathematical beauty" stretched back to the beginnings of his career in Annals of Science (download). Rather than mathematical beauty, I argue that Roger Penrose's diagrams of universes and black holes are rooted in the history of art and psychology of perception in Endeavour (download); and that these diagrams transformed relativistic concepts of space and time, in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (download).

A Penrose diagram, from 1963 lectures at Les Houches.
A diagram of flat spacetime (Minkowski space), from Penrose's 1963 lectures at Les Houches.

In collaboration with co-editors Diana Coleman and David Kaiser (MIT), I am co-editing a collection of the letters of the late Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman. More Than Nothing includes a chapter on Coleman's "false vacuum."

Realism, Physics, and History

In the philosophy of science, I have two manuscripts in development.

The first, "Science Through Fresnel's Lens: Distortions and illuminations of structural realisms" critically examines historical claims made by contemporary scientific realists. It argues that in the exemplary case of Fresnel's optics, history has been misrepresented. From a corrected history, I argue that structural realists should accept laws with ceteris paribus clauses as candidates for real structure.

Rather than a historical motivation, the second paper analyzes the practice of particle physics. "Higgs as Houdini: Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking as sleight of hand" examines the chain of inferences that physicists use to connect abstract theoretical objects to experimental reality. It sets out the practice of building theories like the Standard Model of Particle Physics—and the "breaking" of those theories with the Higgs mechanism. I argue that the "highest" level of theory and symmetry groups are not good candidates for physical interpretation. As such, realists should be concerned with "lower" level relations that are closer to experiment. This ties into my concerns with ceteris paribus laws.

Memory and Forgetting in Thermodynamics

Currently on the back-burner, this research focuses on the conceptual development of modern thermodynamics, information theory, and computers. "The Physics of Forgetting: Thermodynamics of Information at IBM 1959–1982" is published in Perspectives on Science (download). It traces the origin and history of "Landauer's principle" through the development of the thermodynamics of computation at IBM, particularly in the work of Rolf Landauer. This development was characterized by multiple conceptual shifts: memory came to be seen not as information storage, but as delayed information transmission; information itself was seen not as a disembodied logical entity, but as participating in the physical world; and logical irreversibility was connected with physical, thermodynamic, irreversibility.


Teaching

In Winter 2017, I will be teaching a gradaute seminar on scientific realism at Stanford: "PHIL 363W: Get Real! Debating Scientific Realism in Contemporary Philosophy, History, and STS." It will be a multidisciplinary seminar on the current scene for deabtes over realism that younger scholars are confronted with.

At Harvard, I taught a seminar for undergraduates on the changing face of certainty and uncertainty in science, from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. The course included in-class scientific demonstrations, film screenings, and curated tours of the Harvard Art Museums. Here's the poster:

Course Poster

At the University of Toronto, I tought a lecture survey of the history of physics from Isaac Newton to the present. My theme was "History of Physics through the Lens of Einstein." I was the first instructor at the University to integrate the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection into undergraduate pedagogy.


Contact

You can contact me by email by clicking here. My mailing address is:

Aaron Sidney Wright
Philosophy Department
Stanford University
450 Serra Mall
Main Quad, Building 90
Stanford, CA
94305


Header photograph:
Église Saint-Enfant-Jésus du Mile End
Montreal, QC


All (c) 2016
Aaron Sidney Wright
Palo Alto, CA

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