[asa] Failed instruments

From: wjp <wjp@swcp.com>
Date: Sat Mar 07 2009 - 10:51:49 EST

This may seem to be a whacky question, but I nonetheless mean it to be taken seriously.

I've been doing some thinking about the philosophy of instruments and their role in the development and even the meaning of science. So I have this question, one whose answer is, for good reasons, likely buried.

Does anyone know of any failed instruments?

I don't mean by failed, something like broken. As if it was intended to measure some property, but somehow it broke because of a stray cosmic particle or misuse. I don't mean an instrument that was designed to measure a certain property, but was subsequently found to fail in doing so because it was unreliable or unstable.

What I mean is an instrument that was intended to measure a what we'll call a property of a physical system. It might have worked in the context in which it was developed. But the measurement "died" or was forever confined to that context.

Speaking retrospectively we might say that the instrument attempted to measure something that was not a property, or it was measuring a mixture of properties.

To provide a hint as to where I'm going with this it has to do with what we mean by property in practice. I'm suggesting that properties are things that are generalizable and extendable beyond the context in which they are originally developed. Ultimately, the "best" properties are theorizable, which permits their extension to vastly different phenomena, one might say metaphorically, e.g., pressure or temperature.

The best I can come up with is something like Stonehendge. Suppose it measures the winter solstice. It is a property of what? Perhaps of the cosmos. Today we might say it is a property of the solar system. But they wouldn't have said that. That we might say that today may be evidence that the property has been extended, or is it that we really speak of a wholly different property. So is the winter solstice a "failed" property? If not, how has it been extended? Surely the observation of the winter solstice led to fruitful research, but that's not what I'm getting at. It's the property and its relationship to the instrument that I'm interested in. Has the instrument Stonehendge evolved? Has it been applied to new situations and contexts. I am suggesting that if this has occured it is necessary that a theory of the instrument, of Stonehendge, must be developed in order to permit its generalization and extension.

If we suppose that the "winter soltice" is a "failed" property, my suggestion that the reason we say so is because it has not been found to be a fruitful, extendable, and generalizable property to novel and varying contexts.

Well, like I said it's off topic to pretty much anything we discuss here.


bill powers

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Received on Sat Mar 7 10:52:09 2009

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