Policies and Compromises
In 1954 Philipp Frank published an article in the Scientific Monthly called “On the Variety of Reasons for the Acceptance of Scientific Theories.”50 He drew the striking conclusion that “the building of a scientific theory is not essentially different from the building of an airplane” (144). I will use Frank’s argument to comment on the theories developed in fluid dynamics and aerodynamics, but first I should say a little about Frank himself.51 From 1912 to 1938 he was the professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague. A pupil of Boltzmann, Klein, and Hilbert, Frank had taken over the chair from Einstein when Einstein received the call to Zurich and then to Berlin. He had attended Einstein’s seminars in Prague, and Einstein strongly supported his appointment.
In their student days, before World War I, Frank and von Mises talked philosophy in their favorite Viennese coffeehouse and together played a seminal role in the formation of the Vienna Circle.52 In the interwar years, as established academics, Frank and von Mises jointly edited a book on the differential and integral equations of mechanics and physics, Die Differential – und Integralgleichungen der Mechanik und Physik,53 which brought together a range of distinguished contributors. Von Mises edited the first volume on mathematical methods, while Frank handled the second, more physically oriented, volume which included chapters by Noether, Oseen, Sommerfeld, Trefftz, and von Karman, who wrote on ideal fluid theory.54 The Frank-Mises collection, which was an update of a famous textbook by Riemann and Weber, established itself as a standard work in German-speaking Europe.55 In 1938 Frank was forced to leave Prague because of the threatening political situation in Europe, and he went to the United States. During and after World War II, he taught physics, mathematics, and the philosophy of science at Harvard.
Like that of von Mises, Frank’s philosophical position was self-consciously “positivist” in the priority given to empirical data and the secondary, instrumental role given to theoretical constructs. Frank admired Ernst Mach as a representative of Enlightenment thinking, though his admiration was not uncritical, and he did not go along with Mach’s rejection of atomism.56 Much of Frank’s philosophical work was devoted to the analysis of relativity theory, quantum theory, and non-Euclidian geometry.57 He was a firm believer in the unity of science and rejected the idea that there was a fundamental divide between the natural and human sciences.58 He also insisted on the need to understand science as a sociological phenomenon. The sociology of science was part of “a general science of human behaviour” (140)—a theme central to the Scientific Monthly article.59
Frank asserted that most scientists, in their public statements, assume that two, and only two, considerations are relevant when assessing a scientific theory. These are (1) that the theory should explain the relevant facts generated by observation and (2) that it should possess the virtue of mathematical simplicity. Frank then noted that, historically, scientists (or those occupying the role we now identify as “ scientist”) have often used two further criteria. These are
(3) that the theory should be useful for technological purposes and (4) that it should have apparent implications for ethical and political questions. Does the theory encourage or undermine desirable patterns of behavior, either in society at large or in the community of scientists themselves? Such questions are often presented in a disguised form, for example, Is the theory consistent with common sense or received opinion or does it flout them? Common sense and received opinion, Frank argued, typically fuse together a picture of nature and a picture of society. The demand for consistency then becomes a form of social control that can be used for good or ill.
In Frank’s opinion it is naive to believe that theory assessment can be confined to the two, internal-seeming criteria. He offered three reasons. First, he noted that no theory has ever explained all of the observed facts that fall under its scope. Some selection always has to be made. Second, there is no unproblematic measure of simplicity. No theory has “perfect” simplicity. Simplicity will be judged differently from different, but equally rational, perspectives, depending on background knowledge, goals, and interests. Third, criteria (1) and (2) are frequently in competition with one another. The greater the number of facts that can be explained, or the greater the accuracy of the explanation, the more complicated the theory must be, while the simpler it is, the fewer are the facts that can be explained. Linear functions are simpler than functions of the second or higher degree, which is why physics is full of laws that express simple proportionality, for example, Hooke’s law or Ohm’s law. “In all these cases,” wrote Frank, “there is no doubt that a nonlinear relationship would describe the facts in a more accurate way, but one tries to get along with a linear law as much as possible” (139-40). What is it to be: convenience or truth? Nothing within the boundaries of science itself, narrowly conceived, will yield the answer. This is why scientists have always moved outside criteria (1) and (2), and, consciously or unconsciously, invoked criteria of types (3) and (4).
These unavoidable choices and compromises tell us something about the status of any theory that is accepted by a group of scientists. “If we consider this point,” said Frank, “it is obvious that such a theory cannot be ‘the truth’” (144). But if the chosen theory is not “the truth,” what is it? Frank’s answer was that a theory must be understood to be “an instrument that serves toward some definite purpose” (144). It is an instrument that sometimes helps prediction and sometimes understanding. It can help us construct devices that save time and labor, and it sometimes helps to mediate a subtle form of social control. “A scientific theory is, in a sense, a tool that produces other tools according to a practical scheme” (144), he concluded. Like a tool, its connection to reality is not to be understood in terms of some static relation of depiction but in active and pragmatic terms. Its function is to give its users a grip on reality and to allow them to pursue their projects and satisfy their needs—but it does so in diverse ways. It was at this point that Frank produced his comparison between assessing a theory in science and assessing a piece of technology, such as an airplane. Writing, surely, with the performance graphs of von Mises’ Fluglehre before his mind, he argued:
In the same way that we enjoy the beauty and elegance of an airplane, we also enjoy the “elegance” of the theory that makes the construction of the plane possible. In speaking about any actual machine, it is meaningless to ask whether the machine is “true” in the sense of its being “perfect.” We can ask only whether it is “good” or sufficiently “perfect” for a certain purpose. If we require speed as our purpose, the “perfect” airplane will differ from one that is “perfect” for the purposes of endurance. The result will be different again if
we chose safety. . . . It is impossible to design an airplane that fulfils all these purposes in a maximal way. (144)
It is the trade-off of one human purpose against another that gave Frank his central theme. Only by confronting this fact can the methods of science be understood scientifically. It is necessary to ask in the case of every scientific theory, as one asks in the case of the airplane, what determined the policy according to which these inescapable compromises are made and how well does the end product embody the policy? We must understand what Frank called, in his scientistic terminology, “the social conditions that produce the conditioned reflexes of the policy-makers” (144).60
In Frank’s terms, Lanchester’s metaphor of playing chess with nature as well as my sociological analysis are ways of describing scientific “policies.” Just as there were policy choices made over the relative importance of stability and maneuverability, and policy choices about how to distribute research effort between the theory of stability and the theory of lift, so within the pursuit of a theory of lift there were policy decisions to be made. My analysis identifies one policy informing the Cambridge school and another policy guiding the Gottingen school. Again using Frank’s terms, the members of the respective schools constructed different technologies of understanding, that is, different theoretical “instruments.” Their policies, when constructing their theories, maximized different qualities and furthered different ends. The British wanted to construct a fundamental theory of lift, whereas the Germans aimed at engineering utility. Who were the “policy makers”? One might identify, say, Lord Rayleigh as the “policy maker” in Britain and Felix Klein as the “policy maker” in Germany, but there is no need to assume that policy is made by individuals. Such a restriction would not correspond to Frank’s intentions; nor is it part of my analysis. Policies can emerge collectively. They can be tacitly present in the cultural traditions and research strategies of a scientific group. One could then say that everyone is a policy maker by virtue of their participation in the group, or one could say that the policy maker is the group itself. In my example the “social conditions” that determine the “conditioned reflexes of the policy-makers” reside in the division of labor between physicist and engineer.
One implication of Frank’s “policy” metaphor is that a stated policy need not correspond to an actual policy. The devious history of aircraft construction in post-World War I Germany provides some obvious examples. Is this large aircraft really meant as an airliner or is it a bomber? Is this an aerobatic sports plane or a disguised fighter? Is all this enthusiasm for gliding just recreation or a way of training a future air force—and keeping the nation’s aerodynamic experts in a job?61 The difficulty of distinguishing a real from an apparent policy comes from the problematic relation between words and deeds. Sometimes the self-descriptions and methodological reflections of members of the Cambridge school could sound similar to those of German engineers. Both Lamb and Love occasionally invoked the ideas, and sometimes the name, of Ernst Mach, but that did not make Lamb into a positivist, nor turn Love’s work on the theory of elasticity into technische Mechanik. Their real policy lay elsewhere.
In an address to the British Association in 1904, Lamb acknowledged that the basic concepts of physics, geometry, and mechanics were “contrivances,” “abstractions,” and “conventions.”62 But Lamb soon left behind this uncharacteristic indulgence in philosophizing and turned the discussion back to the work of his old teacher, G. G. Stokes. He spoke warmly of “the simple and vigorous faith” that informed Stokes’ thinking.63 Lamb then raised the metaphysical question of what lay beyond science and justified faith in its methods. Why, as Lamb put it, does nature honor our checks? He gave no explicit answer, but the theological hint was obvious. Lamb also distanced himself and the Cambridge school from the “more recent tendencies” in applied mathematics. He deplored the fragmentation of the field and regretted the passing of the large-scale monograph, which was a work of art, in favor of detailed, specialized papers. What differentiated the Cambridge school, he went on, related “not so much to subject-matter and method as to the general mental attitude towards the problems of nature” (425). It is this “general mental attitude” that constitutes the real policy.
How is an authentic “mental attitude” to be filtered out from misleading forms of self-description? The answer is: by looking at what is done and at the choices that are made. Words must be supported by actions. Bairstow, Cowley, Jeffreys, Lamb, Levy, Southwell, and Taylor not only gave their reasons for resisting the ideal fluid approach to lift, but they acted accordingly. This is why, in previous chapters, I have identified the mental attitude that informed the work of the Cambridge school and its associates as a confident, physics – based realism rather than a skeptical positivism. Stokes’ equations were not only said to be true, but they were treated as true. This was the attitude and policy that Love expressed by invoking the role of the “natural philosopher” rather than the engineer. And this was why Felix Klein, in his 1900 lecture on the special character of technical mechanics, could express admiration for Love’s treatise on elasticity and yet pass over it because it could not be taken as an example of technische Mechanik.64
Simplicity and the Kutta-Joukowsky Law
I now apply Frank’s ideas to the Kutta-Joukowsky law: L = p LT, where the lift (L) is equated to the product of the density (p), the speed (U), and the circulation (Г). The law is certainly simple, but what is the meaning of this simplicity? Is it a sign of the “deep” truth of the law and hence a quality that should command a special respect? The idea that nature is “governed” by simple mathematical laws is a familiar one—it goes back to the origins of modern science—but positivists have no time for this sort of talk.65 Frank could have pointed out that the simplicity, and apparent generality, of the Kutta-Joukowsky law derives not from its truth, but from its falsity and from everything that it leaves out of account. The law says nothing about the relation between the shape of the aerofoil and the amount of lift. It contributes nothing to the problem of specifying the amount of circulation and (when used in conjunction with the Kutta condition) gives predictions for the lift that are consistently too high. The law cannot, in any direct or literal way, represent something deep within reality because its individual terms do not refer to reality. They refer to a nonexistent, ideal fluid under simplified flow conditions.
Frank would predict that if an attempt were made to repair the law, and make allowance for some of the factors that have been ignored, then the result would no longer possess the impressive simplicity of the original. This was precisely what happened when, in 1921, Max Lagally of the technische Hochschule at Dresden, produced an extension of the Kutta-Joukowsky formula.66 Lagally exploited a result arrived at previously by Heinrich Blasius, one of Prandtl’s pupils, and this result needs to be explained first in order to make sense of Lagally’s formula. Blasius had developed a theorem, based on the theory of complex functions, that allowed the force components X and Y on a body to be written down as soon as the mathematical form of the flow of an ideal fluid over the body had been specified.67 In these terms, for a uniform, irrotational flow U along the x-axis, with a circulation Г, the Kutta – Joukowsky theorem takes the form
X – iY = ipU Г.
Here X, the force along the x-axis, represents the drag, while Y is the force along the y-axis and represents the lift. The letter i is a mathematical operator. The right-hand side of the equation economically conveys the information that the drag is zero (because X = 0) and also that the lift obeys the Kutta-Joukowsky relation (because Y = pU Г). Blasius’ derivation of this result depended on there being no complications in the flow. Lagally added some complications in order to see what effect they would have. In Lagally’s analysis the main flow has a horizontal component U and a vertical component V. More important, he assumed that there were an arbitrary number of sources and an arbitrary number of vortices in the fluid around the body. He specified that there were r sources located at the points ar where each source had a strength mr, and s vortices located at points cs where each vortex had vorticity Ks. When the formula was adjusted to allow for these conditions, it looked like this:
X — iY = —ipK(U — iV) + 2np^mr (u r — iv r + U — iV) — ip^Ks (us — ivs +U — iV),
where ur and vr are the components of velocity at ar (omitting the contribution of mr) and us and vs are the velocity components at cs (omitting the contribution of Ks). The original Kutta-Joukowsky formula can be seen embedded in Lagally’s formula on the immediate right of the equality sign.68
If the original Kutta-Joukowsky relation could be admired for its elegance, like the sleek lines of a modern aircraft, can this be said of Lagally’s formula? I doubt if it attracted much praise on this score. But if the long formula really is an improvement on the short one, why shouldn’t it be seen as more beautiful? If we do not find it beautiful is it because we can’t imagine such complicated mathematical machinery “governing” reality? Frank and his fellow positivists would not want the question to be pursued in these metaphysical terms. They would say: If there is something important about the simplicity of the original formula L = p UT, then look for the utility that goes with simplicity. What does it contribute to the economy of thought? This question will expose the real attraction of simplicity and explain what might have been lost, along with what has been gained, by Lagally’s generalization.
Frank called a theory a tool that produces other tools according to a practical scheme. He meant that the simple law provides a pattern, an exemplar, and a resource that is taken for granted in building up the more complex formula.69 This is how Lagally built his generalization, and if Frank is right, other scientists and engineers, interested in a different range of special conditions, will follow a similar path. This pattern fits what I have found. Recall the way Betz experimentally studied the deviations between the predictions of the circulatory theory and wind-tunnel observations. He sought to close the gap between theory and experiment by retaining the Kutta-Joukowsky law while relaxing the Kutta condition, that is, the understanding that the circulation is precisely the amount needed to position the rear stagnation point on the sharp trailing edge. Again, recall the later episode in which, prompted by the work of G. I. Taylor, the condition of contour independence was relaxed so that a “circulation” could be specified for a viscous flow. In both these examples the development exploited the same resource as Lagally, that is, the simple law was retained as a basic pattern. Simple laws are a shared resource and an accepted reference point. They are used when a group of scientists are striving to coordinate their behavior in order to construct a shared body of knowledge. They are salient solutions to coordination problems, which may explain the obscure “depth” attributed to them. The depth is a social, not a metaphysical, depth.70