The Form and Function of Scientific Discoveries

Kenneth L. Caneva

Dibner Library Lecture, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, November 16, 2000


The Dibner Library Lectures contribute immeasurably to the Smithsonian Libraries' efforts to acquaint the larger public with the valuable materials in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, and how they are used by scholars. The creative research done by these lecturers and all users of the Dibner Library speak clearly and unmistakably to the continuing usefulness of the volumes Bern Dibner collected and donated to the nation in his 1976 gift to the Smithsonian. This is the tenth lecture in the Dibner Library Lecture Series, supported by The Dibner Fund, and the second to be published.

Kenneth L. Caneva delivered this lecture on "The Form and Function of Scientific Discoveries" in November 2000 and prepared it for the present publication with notes and bibliography. We first met Professor Caneva in 1995 when he was selected to be a Smithsonian Libraries Dibner Library Resident Scholar in the early years of that program. Caneva is one of twenty-five scholars who have benefited from this program also generously supported by The Dibner Fund since 1992.

The cover image is a well known illustration of science represented as a ship, boldly sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the emblematic limits of the old world. Appearing on the title page of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum (1620), the image epitomizes the spirit of scientific inquiry that forms the basis of Professor Caneva's observations about the experiments and discoveries of Hans Christian Ørsted, Johann Wilhelm Ritter, and Thomas Johann Seebeck, the subjects of his lecture. Bacon's eminence as a philosopher of science was recognized by Bern Dibner, the creator of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, who included Bacon in his galaxy of 200 pioneers in the history of science and technology, now celebrated as the "Heralds of Science."

We thank The Dibner Fund for supporting the lecture series, its publications, and the successful resident scholar program.

Nancy E. Gwinn
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
May 2001

I believe that our observations so far have shown clearly that this incongruence between an idea as experienced retrospectively and the description given by the "originator" himself … can be explained simply by the fact that the true creator of a new idea is not an individual but the thought collective. As has been repeatedly stressed, the collective remodeling of an idea has the effect that, after the change in thought style, the earlier problem is no longer completely comprehensible.

-Ludwik Fleck1

[D]iscovering a new sort of phenomenon is necessarily a complex event, one which involves recognizing both that something is and what it is. Note, for example, that if oxygen were dephlogisticated air for us, we should insist without hesitation that Priestley had discovered it, though we would still not know quite when. But if both observation and conceptualization, fact and assimilation to theory, are inseparably linked in discovery, then discovery is a process and must take time.

-Thomas S. Kuhn2

1 Fleck 1979, 123.
2 Kuhn 1962b, 55; cf. 1962a, 762 = 1977, 171. It is worth pointing out that Kuhn's notion of extended discovery is still essentially an individualistic process, and does not pay regard to the kind of extended collective restatement that is the subject of this paper. I defer a more extended discussion of this issue to another occasion.

Dramatis Personae


Fleck, Ludwik (1896-1961)
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1922-1996)

Main Characters

Ørsted, Hans Christian (1777-1851)
Ritter, Johann Wilhelm (1776-1810)
Seebeck, Thomas Johann (1770-1831)

Minor Players

Ampère, André-Marie (1775-1836)
Becquerel, Antoine-César (1788-1878)
Becquerel, Edmond (1820-1891); son of the foregoing
Brücke, Ernst (1819-1892)
Daguerre, Louis-Jacques-Mandé (1789-1851)
Eisenlohr, Wilhelm Friedrich (1799-1872)
Esselbach, Ernst (1832-1864)
Fraunhofer, Joseph (1787-1826)
Helmholtz, Hermann (1821-1894)
Herschel, John Frederick William (1792-1871)
Herschel, William (1738-1822); father of the foregoing
Keferstein, Christian (1784-1866)
Mascart, Éleuthère-Élie-Nicolas (1837-1908)
Melloni, Macedonio (1798-1854)
Moser, Ludwig Ferdinand (1805-1880)
Mousson, Albert (1805-1903)
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph (1775-1854)
Stokes, George Gabriel (1819-1903)
Thomson, Thomas (1773-1852)
Tilloch, Alexander (1759-1825)
Tyndall, John (1820-1893)
Whewell, William (1794-1866)
Wollaston, William Hyde (1766-1828)
Yelin, Julius Conrad von (1771-1826)

illustration NOVUM ORGANUM, by Francis Bacon

The Novum Organum by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was selected by Bern Dibner as one of his 200 Heralds of Science. The caption for this illustration in Dibner's book, Heralds of Science (1955, 1980), reads:

"[Herald] No. 80. The great scientific societies of
Italy, England, and France were founded within
a few years of each other. Francis Bacon, sensing
the bold spirit of the age, pictured science as
a ship venturing beyond the Pillars of Hercules,
the limits of the old world."

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