March 10, 2008

Colloquium Review of Brian Woodcock's "Quantum State Collapse Along a Light Cone: History and Objections"

This past Friday Brian Woodcock, a visiting professor at Carleton College in Northfield, presented his latest work "Quantum State Collapse Along a Light Cone: History and Objections." Needless to say, if you are an avid philosopher of 20th Century Physics, you missed a good one. Now, as someone whose knowledge of quantum physics probably hurt his cause more than helped it, I found Dr. Woodcock's talk to be very engaging. First of all, there were many pretty, geometrical pictures to keep my mind stimulated. Secondly, Brian also did a very nice job of giving a "prep-talk" to the quantumly-challenged in the audience that went over - pictorially even - the general ideas presented in a space-time diagram; a diagram he used extensively in the rest of his talk. This pre-lecture was very informative and it certainly set the stage for the rest of his talk. I won't go into specifics because it would basically be just restating his abstract, but I do want to talk briefly about his conclusions, particularly the type of conclusions that he, and other philosophers make in general.

Overall, Woodcock's talk did include some good historical segments, though it was primarily philosophical. He discussed 3 main attempts to understand the quantum collapse over the years, dating back to the early 1960s. For the historians in the audience, these types of descriptions and analyses are familiar. However, like many of the philosophy of science talks that occur during colloquium (including last week's talk on philosophy of race and the use of it in statistical work), the speaker's conclusions tended to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. I think this is where philosophers and historians of science really differ. There are many approaches in the history of science that utilize conceptual and intellectual approaches that touch on many of the issues that philosophers attempt to deal with. Historians, however, do not make any conclusions about how science should work now. Though I have been spending a lot of time over in the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science lately, and have been thinking much more about the philosophical aspects of biology, I realize that this descriptive/prescriptive distinction is one that will always keep me registering for HSS rather than PSA when they are having their joint meeting.

March 5, 2008


Harvard just launched a database that might be useful or interesting for some of you. It's called "Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics" and "contains more than 500,000 pages of digitized books, serials, manuscripts, etc...designed to offer historical perspectives on epidemiology." (from

The database is located at