Physics and the Environment in Historical Perspectives
Environmental issues are among the most relevant subjects of current scientific research. Addressing these concerns requires multidisciplinary approaches and the ability to integrate physics with other scientific disciplines, like biology, earth sciences or chemistry, and with approaches from the humanities such as transformation studies or economics. To understand the diversity of environmental structures and dynamics, a wide range of physical methods must be combined tailored to the specific objectives at hand.
Throughout history, we witness a variety of developments that sought to exclude or at least to control ‘the environment’ (which is not a timeless concept) from the production, communication, and adaptation of physical knowledge. The development and standardization of laboratories along with its related practices and instruments, but also approaches such as simulations (not necessarily only mathematical) and modelling can be seen as attempts to stabilize knowledge production against the disorder and unpredictability of the environment.
Many modern topics in environmental science can be seen as responses to the limits of human activity that are set by the environment, that these limits can no longer be ignored, and that we need to draw consequences from these boundaries and act within them. Additionally, for field scientists and particularly their instruments, dealing with unfamiliar environments has brought and still brings exposure to dangers and threats such as temperatures and temperature fluctuations, humidity or dryness, instabilities, etc. However, these environments provide not only challenges but also opportunities for new and different research. Gaining a better understanding of the world as a complex system required that large amounts of data needed to be taken and combined. At the same time, the interaction with representatives of different knowledge systems who, however, had a profound understanding of their own specific environment, led to conflicts that helped to charter the rules as well as the limits of scientific knowledge production.
We invite contributions of papers exploring the outlined topic from a wide range of approaches and subjects. These may include, but are not limited to, the following questions and topics from historical perspectives:
- Observing, measuring, modelling, and visualizing the environment: What instruments and methods are necessary to study the environment? How does the study of broader structural features require both collective efforts and dedicated methodologies to organize, record and compare observations? Quantitative measures alone are inadequate to characterize the features of the environment, and the development of graphical methods of description was an essential element in the emergence of environmental physics, from maps of winds and currents to Alexander von Humboldt's physiognomy of landscape, to geophysical subsurface maps. Today, computer-aided modeling and visualization are indispensable tools for describing, understanding, and communicating all aspects of the physics of the environment.
- The expansion of scientific disciplines: Developments from a more general natural philosophy towards distinct (at least distinct defined) scientific disciplines and physics in particular. Where did these divisions take place, which origins and initial approaches can be identified in dealing with what we now recognize as interdisciplinary research?
- Concepts of the environment: Can we describe the historical development of the concept of the environment with a particular emphasis on aspects accessible to physicists? Which role did physicists play in the development of our concept of the environment, and which role did the environment play historically in developing specific notions in physics? The interconnections joining pre- and early modern views on the environment with today's physical studies of the environment constitute one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of physics, and we invite contribution on all aspects of these historical constellations.
- Complexity and the environment: Throughout history, astronomical and environmental phenomena served as opposite templates for the fundamental dynamics of nature. On the one hand, a set of motions reducible to a few quantitative structures, on the other hand an ensemble of irreducible qualitative changes. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of the physics of complex systems, these two poles were shown to be not as radically opposed to one another as so far assumed, and the study of changes in rivers, oceans, and climate both contributed to and profited from this new field of studies.
- Technology, energy, and the environment: Interactions between humans and environment were driven by what we may a posteriori characterize as ‘energy production’. The physical sciences played a key role in this context, be it by helping harness the moving power of water and air, extract oil and uranium, or utilize solar radiation. At the same time, physical knowledge and methods are central components in technological interventions that temporarily or permanently reshape the environment. They also help to assess the impact of these changes, asking about long-term development of water flows or safe ways of storing nuclear waste. Yet, physical analysis of the environment at times also provided guidelines or inspiration for technological advancements, for example by studying the aero- and hydro-dynamical properties of fish and birds or the structural features of living organisms.
- Culture and the environment: The physical study of environmental phenomena is close to human life, both because understanding them is of paramount practical importance, and because views on where rain, wind or precious stones come from are often at the core of social and cultural structures. Conversely, knowledge about the environment is usually situated in time and space, and the history of fields like meteorology or geophysics is closely intertwined with that of popular traditions and colonial contexts.
We welcome contributions in English or German focusing on these or other aspects of Physics and the Environment in Historical Perspectives. We also encourage proposals for sessions consisting of four papers or three papers and a comment. Beside sections devoted to the theme laid out above, free sections offer the possibility to present current research in all areas of the history of physics. There will be no poster session.
Abstracts should be uploaded to the conference website by December 15, 2023. When submitting an abstract, please choose the History of Physics Division (Fachverband Geschichte der Physik (GP)).
The participation of young DPG members to the conference can be financially supported by the WE-Heraeus- Stiftung. Please see the website.