Scientific Mechanisms, Past and Present

Today's scientists, it could be said, frequently explain observed phenomena by finding chemical, biological, or physical mechanisms of some form, shape, or size. In a panel session at the recent History of Science Society meeting in Pittsburgh, presenters traced the roots of this perceived tendency and provided high-profile examples of scientists' apparent captivation with mechanisms--defined broadly as entities and activities that produce regular changes from start or setup to finish or termina

Eugene Russo
Dec 5, 1999

Today's scientists, it could be said, frequently explain observed phenomena by finding chemical, biological, or physical mechanisms of some form, shape, or size. In a panel session at the recent History of Science Society meeting in Pittsburgh, presenters traced the roots of this perceived tendency and provided high-profile examples of scientists' apparent captivation with mechanisms--defined broadly as entities and activities that produce regular changes from start or setup to finish or termination.1

The speakers suggested that studying legitimate scientific mechanisms is a fruitful way of tracking the evolution of scientific discovery. Presenter Peter Machamer, a historian and philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh, claimed that the drive for mechanisms, though somewhat evident in ancient Greece and medieval times, can essentially be traced to the 17th century. Subsequent presenters offered examples of 20th century research that has been colored by the need to find mechanisms.

"The reason...

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