Ceremony of the Koyré Medal 2023

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Ceremnony of the Koyré Medal 2023, awarded to prof. Jed Buchwald
18 March, Paris, Campus Condorcet
Laudatio of the Presoident of the Acadermy, Sonja Brendjes
Dear Jed,
Dear colleagues,
As the president of the International Academy for the History of Science, it is my great
pleasure to honor today Jed Buchwald for his lifelong achievements in our field.
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For the past 35 years, Jed Buchwald has been one of the leading historians of physics
from the seventeenth to the late-nineteenth century as is manifest in his innovative
and extensive scholarship. His contributions combine fist-rate technical expertise with
epistemological reflection on the nature of theory and its relation to experiment. He
has profoundly shaped the intellectual development of the field. Few scholars have
had a greater wide-ranging and comprehensive impact on the history of the physical
sciences over the past 3 and a half decades. Buchwald has tirelessly—and with great
success—cultivated the conversation with historians, philosophers, and scientists,
therewith contributing decisively to the goals of the International Academy for the
History of Science according to the perspectives promoted by its founding fathers.
Lately, he extended his reach to colleagues in several humanistic disciplines, including
philology, history, Egyptology, linguistics, theology, and semiotics. To each he has
brought insights from the history of physics contributing therewith equally decisively to
the broadening of our fields and the inauguration of new avenues for research,
teaching, and understanding the histories of the sciences in their multifaceted
contexts.
Between 1985 and 1994, Buchwald published three groundbreaking books on the
history of the physical sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They
immediately became the foundation of the field for students and scholars
alike. Today they are regarded as classics. By focusing on key physical issues—the
tensions between microscopic and macroscopic approaches to electromagnetism
in From Maxwell to Microphysics (1985), particle vs. wave theories of light in The Rise
of the Wave Theory of Light (1989), and the epistemological status of electromagnetic
radiation produced by a technical artefact, in The Creation of Scientific Effects (1994),
Buchwald substantially reconfigured how historians view key developments in the
history of physics. He overturned how we as historians “see” the past by showing us
how “they”—the historical actors—actually understood the physical world.
These volumes testify moreover to Buchwald’s evolution as a historian of science.
Focused at first on theory and its ontological foundations, Buchwald evolved in these
three volumes into a scholar more deeply concerned with the dialectic between theory
and experiment and the artificial production of physical effects. He deepened his
contribution to the previously existing scholarship in science and technology studies
by bringing into mutual dialogue the physics community, social scientists, historians of
science and philosophers of science in his 1995 edited volume, Scientific Practice:
Theories and Stories of Physics.
This volume marks an intellectual turning point for Buchwald. It critically
examined history—the relationship between theory and experiment—and
historiography—how we as historians tell stories about their interaction. Buchwald
emerged here as a scholar who was not merely interested in the past, but, as his
conclusion to the Scientific Practice volume testifies, also one who thought deeply
about how historians of science exercised their craft—what categories of analysis they
used, how they treated historical actors and why, and how they constructed
narratives.
Buchwald’s three most recent books, also pathbreaking, took unlikely but not entirely
unexpected turns. The Zodiac of Paris(2010), co-authored with his former doctoral
student, Diane Greco Josefowicz, begins with a trip to a Parisian bookshop that turns
into a mystery story about what, exactly, was the date of the zodiac of Dendera, taken
to Paris after Napoleon’s military campaign against Ottoman Egypt in 1798. The matter
pitted physicists and astronomers, with their tools of precision in measurement and
projective geometry, against humanists adept at interpreting and translating
texts. Since chronology was also a biblical issue, the controversy over the dating of
the zodiac was also one of science vs. religion, a conflict stoked especially by
conservatives who were on the rise in the political turmoil of Restoration France after
the fall of Napoleon and who regarded the natural sciences with suspicion.
But Buchwald’s and Josefowicz’s study accomplishes more than embedding physics
in culture by revealing what physicists did in their spare time. It also exposes the
intrigue and distrust surrounding the role of expertise in the state, a role which grew
over the eighteenth century but only became widely accepted in the early nineteenth
century (a contentious matter even today). Physicists and astronomers, who treated
the zodiac as an image, got it wrong; while a linguist and philologist, who regarded the
zodiac as a text, cracked the enigma of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and got the
chronology of the zodiac right. Ironically it was the empty cartouche in the zodiac,
devoid of words or images, that provided the key to its dating.
Buchwald and Josefowicz delve into the politics of how significance and meaning were
attributed to an artefact. Their analyses—especially concerning the controversy over
image vs. text—prefigured what has become by now a thriving research field in the
history of science, particularly in Europe: the relationship between the methods of the
sciences and those of the humanities.
Chronological interpretation and its relationship to the physical sciences are also the
main themes of Newton and the Origin of Civilization (2013), which Buchwald coauthored
with Mordechai Feingold. This volume joins a growing literature that has
fleshed out Newton’s religiosity but it does so in a new and radically different way: by
linking Newton’s assessment of historical evidence to how he evaluated evidence
about the natural world.
Once again Buchwald takes the relationship between the natural sciences and the
humanities as the focus of his investigation. The pivot on which the book turns is
Newton’s posthumous The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms (1728), a major piece
in his oeuvre of religious writings, but one that sought to get the historical record
straight by dating the flood and the repopulation of the earth thereafter with reliability
and certainty.
And therein lies the problem: How can one construct reliable and certain historical
statements? What is trustworthy historical knowledge?
Aided by his critical examination of the new instruments of the 17th century, primarily
the telescope, Newton drew analogies between sensory and instrumental data: both
are to be regarded with skepticism due to the imperfections in their construction and
operation.
In a brilliant chapter on “Evidence and History,” Buchwald and Feingold explain how
Newton turned conflicting words into evidence. While the reform of Aristotelianism was
one of the key features of the seventeenth century, Newton regarded the reform of
chronology as equally pressing. Here astronomical data became the key to
demolishing the reliability of humanistic methods.
Buchwald’s excursions into the interface of the physical sciences and the humanities
in Newton and the Origin of Civilization thus is not merely a study of how and why
Newton handled ancient chronology: it is also a penetrating study of how knowledge
and the evidence upon which it is built were regarded as reliable and with what degree
of certainty in an era that did not yet have probabilistic methods.
His latest book, The Riddle of the Rosetta (2020), which Buchwald again wrote
together with Diane Greco Josefowicz, is returning to controversies about an artefact
from ancient Egypt – the Rosetta Stone.
This book underscores once more that the history of any intellectual activitiy can only
be done fruitfully and convincingly, if its contemporary student engages in a
multifaceted exploration of the past actors’ intellectual working practices and explores
them as densely embedded in their personal biographies and the biographies of the
circles in which they moved and the societies and times in which they lived.
Two more books are in the making with which Buchwald picks up previously explored
themes, but I will not unveil their titles to you today, because as far as I know they are
not fully settled yet and because time is running out.
\Needless to say, Jed Buchwald did not only write those pathbreaking, highly influential
books but was also a wonderful teacher and a tireless and inspiring editor of journals
and book series such as Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Archimedes, or
Mathematics in Art and Culture.
Dear Jed, my warmest congratulations to you today for the Alexandre Koyre medal
presented to you by Chantal Grell on behalf of the International Academy for the
History of Science!
Response of Jed Buchwaldß
I thank the Académie for this singular award. It is an honor to join the distinguished
roster of those who have received the Koyré medal. It is especially gratifying to be
granted an award in the name of a scholar, Alexandre Koyré, who dedicated his
distinguished career to uncovering the conceptual origins of modern science.