J. Z. Buchwald

J.Z. Buchwald

Tuesday, 12 October 2010, 16:00 Large Operon

J. Z. Buchwald, Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History at Caltech, USA

Knowledge in the Early Modern Era: The Origins of Experimental Error


In the mid-1750s the English mathematician Thomas Simpson tried to convince astronomers that it was a good idea to average multiple measurements. He had much work to do, because neither astronomers nor physicists were in the habit of combining multiple measurements to produce a best final value. The first one to do so had in fact been Isaac Newton himself, who however for the most part hid his techniques. How then did experimenters and observers work with discrepant data before statistical methods became common at the beginning of the 19th century? We will tour the worlds of Tycho Brahe, Robert Hooke, Johannes Hevelius, Isaac Newton, and others to see how they worked with measured data.

Short biography

Buchwald studied physics as well as science history at Princeton University, taking his PhD at Harvard in 1974. He taught thereafter at the University of Toronto, then at MIT, where he was Director of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science, and since 2001 at the California Institute of Technology as Dreyfuss Professor of History, where his wife, Diana Kormos Buchwald, is professor and General Editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. In 1995 Buchwald was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He has edited or co-edited seven books, has written three on the histories of optics and electrodynamics, and, recently, a fourth, co-authored with one of his former graduate students, on an Egyptian zodiac taken from Egypt following its discovery there during the Napoleonic expedition. A forthcoming book, co-authored with a Caltech colleague, concerns Isaac Newton’s attempt to redate ancient history using astronomy. Buchwald edits two book series for Springer Verlag (Archimedes, Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and the Physical Sciences) and one for MIT (Transformations), as well as the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences. The Archive recently expanded its purview to include the history of modern theoretical and experimental biology.