The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Scientific Experimentation


Pamela Smith
Seth Low Professor of History


Experimental historian of science, Professor Pamela Smith will lead a team of international interdisciplinary experts and students in the reenactment of experiments that were conducted during the scientific revolution. In 2014-15, the focus will be metalworking and portrait medal casting; in 2015-16, on pigment making and painting; and in 2016-17, on varnish making. These laboratory seminars lay out a new model for collaboration between the humanities and sciences, demonstrating the reciprocal effects of bringing historical research to bear on laboratory activities and vice versa. It will have significant impact on students of chemistry, engineering, and history because the learning experiences are designed to illuminate the relationship between making and knowing. The historic laboratory manual from which these historical experimental reenactments will be drawn will be published in an open-access format open to the public and the results of the research will be made available in a multi-media interactive online environment. This resource will be invaluable to scholars and to science educators and students interested in STEM. The involvement of curators, conservation scientists, and educators will ensure that museums and other public institutions will be able to use the research generated by the project to develop public programming and installations that emphasize the common history of art, technology, and science and the value of history of science and hands-on learning in both historical and scientific training.

This project will illuminate the role of technical manuals in fostering the creative process and technical ability, qualities that are instrumental to industrial innovation. The focus will be the physicality of investigating nature, particularly the tactile relationship to materials that produced unprecedented accuracy and innovation in experimentation and on the role of tacit knowledge in methodological experimentation. A better understanding of the embodied techniques used in scientific experimentation may illuminate current concerns with experimental replication.