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  • Writer's pictureLu Xu

What is "RRR": "Reconstruction" as a Method of Historical Research in Science

In November 2020, Amsterdam University Press published a significant new book titled "Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment in the Humanities and Social Sciences". This book compiles the work of leading scholars in the use of "Reconstruction, Replication, Re-enactment" (RRR) methodology. The editors and authors of each chapter come from a variety of disciplines, including the history of science, archaeology, art history, anthropology, and musicology, viewing "reconstruction, replication, and re-enactment" as vital methods in historical research.

This issue is dedicated to introducing "reconstruction" as a method in the history of science research. The topics covered include:

  • The definition of RRR

  • The four research themes of RRR

  • The relationship between RRR and the history of science

  • RRR practice example one: The M&K Project

  • RRR practice example two: Instrument Research

  • Recommendations for related resources

All the books and website links mentioned can be found in the library's newly updated section 1.7.8 Making and Knowing.

What is RRR

"Reconstruction" traces back to the 18th century restoration studies by artists or craftsmen. More recently, archaeology has often utilized digital technologies like 3D modeling, VR, AR to reconstruct and simulate material cultural heritage such as ancient buildings. John Coles published "Experimental Archaeology" in 1979, establishing the discipline with the same name.

"Replication" is closely related to the history of science. There was debate in the 1960s and 70s about whether Galileo actually conducted experiments. Tom Settle and James MacLachlan eventually demonstrated through reproducibility that Galileo's experiments were not just thought experiments. This opened up the "black box" of technical knowledge as a significant issue in the history of science. Inspired by experimental archaeology, H. Otto Sibum in the 1990s also created "History of Scientific Experimentation".

However, the history of science research has been increasingly moving away from the concept of "replication" in favor of "reconstruction". Reconstruction refers not just to laboratory experiments but also to the interpretation and distillation of historical texts, including how historical figures conceptualized materials and writings, representing a method of critically reading historical manuscripts. The importance of reconstruction lies in finding new historical information.

"Re-enactment" is a common method in musicology and anthropology for exploring the relationship between authenticity, skill, and representation. For example, Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's music promoted the development of classical music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Visual anthropology reuses cameras and other photographic equipment to revisit and rediscover ethnographers' fieldwork, using "re-enactment" to explore the relationships between materiality, memory, and imagery.

William Dray's interpretation of R.G. Collingwood's "re-enactment of past experiences" can shed light on the concept of "re-enactment": it is a process of "seeing through," or understanding, which can be articulated as Collingwood's "reenactment theory" in terms of explanation.

The Four Research Themes of RRR

  1. Authenticity and Accuracy: RRR practitioners believe that while it's impossible to fully replicate the past and restore time, one can approach accuracy as closely as possible, emphasizing process reconstruction.

  2. "Re-" Terminology: Process or Product: The "process" is a key concept in RRR practice, but reconstructing the process is not just about re-presenting the history of a craft. It is more about reconstructing material objects, such as considering sound in the re-enactment of musical instruments. Different disciplines might name process reconstruction differently, such as re-enactment, retracing, rebuilding, rewriting, etc.

  3. Communication and the Public: RRR is not only a research method in various disciplines but also a way for these disciplines to interact with the public in classrooms, museums, or other public spaces, as seen in recent digital reconstructions, database openings, and online exhibitions in museums.

  4. Recording the RRR Practice Process and the Challenges Faced: RRR advocates for recording the researchers' thought processes and geographical approaches using ethnographic methods, allowing scholars to find inspiration through exchanging knowledge and experiences across different disciplines.

The Relationship Between RRR and the History of Science

Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum emphasized the importance of reconstructing historical environments and replicating experiments for the history of science in their 2016 paper "From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for Historians of Science". They highlighted the ambiguity and challenges of the concept of "replication" and advocated for using "reconstruction" or "re-enactment" as core concepts. This perspective is influenced by the material turn in the late 20th century and the longstanding relationship between reconstruction and the history of science and technology, starting from early alchemy.

Lawrence M. Principe, an authority on the history of alchemy and science, has had his work "The Secrets of Alchemy" translated and introduced in China. In "The Secrets of Alchemy", Principe re-enacted many 17th-century alchemical processes described in historical documents in a modern laboratory, observing and operating like early alchemists. He validated that some experimental results, seemingly implausible at first glance, were indeed achievable. Through reconstruction, Principe refuted the then-common belief that alchemy was merely a product of imagination or a literary tradition, revealing the hidden knowledge of alchemy (for more on alchemy and secret knowledge, see the Science History Library's "2.1.5 Secrets").

However, "reconstruction" as a research method in the history of science was not immediately accepted and welcomed. According to the sociology of scientific knowledge (ssk), the seemingly objective claims of scientific experiments are backed by social, political, and other driving factors. If a scientist's experimental results are socially constructed, then so are those of historians. Nonetheless, Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum continue to emphasize reconstruction as an important method in the history of science. The reasons are threefold:

  1. Sensory Knowledge Acquisition: The process of reconstruction allows historians to gain sensory knowledge and experience, some of which can enhance, clarify, or provide new insights into traditional texts and their meanings. Visual, color, smell, sound, touch, and taste play significant roles in scientific fields like chemistry. These experiences, often difficult to convey in writing or unnoticed by original experimenters, become part of "tacit knowledge". In addition to "tacit knowledge", the "explicit knowledge" recorded in texts and images might differ significantly from scientists' life experiences, leading to disconnections. Reconstruction is a good method to address this issue.

  2. Acquisition of Gestural Knowledge: As a practice and participation, reconstruction builds gestural knowledge (as translated in a Chinese publication on H. Otto Sibum's 2005 paper on the scientific reforms of early 19th-century Victorian culture). This concept encompasses tacit or personal knowledge – knowledge that is crucial to forming experiential knowledge but cannot be recorded or expressed in language. Sibum argued that epistemology should not be separated from practice, and knowledge should be embodied, demonstrating the cognitive role of scientists' bodies in scientific activities. This knowledge enriches historians' a priori cognition – their observation and contemplation of texts – allowing historians to "see" in a manner more aligned with original experimenters, uncovering textual sources more deeply and accurately, and sensitively grasping connections between texts.

  3. Engagement and Public Interest: The historic re-enactment of experiments can enhance the image of the history of science among a broader audience. Bruno Latour, for instance, conducted a series of lectures called "Theatre of Proof" in 1999 for an exhibition organized by Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Laboratorium". "Theatre of Proof" combined the theatricality of the stage with the verificatory nature of the laboratory: many historians of science and scientists were invited to reconstruct scientific experiments in classrooms prepared for scientific demonstrations, facing the public. The aim was not to popularize science or allow speakers to promote their latest findings but to present the difficulties faced in classic experiments of different disciplines across various periods and their impact on results. This approach, later utilized by Latour in his "Making Things Public" exhibition, shifted public engagement from passively receiving experimental results to a closer understanding of the experiment itself, the internal functions of laboratories, and the process of obtaining experimental results. The goal of reconstructing experiments was not just dissemination but to showcase the challenges and influences on outcomes in different disciplines and historical periods. "Theatre of Proof" and its ideas are further explored in the Science History Library's section "2.4.1 Laboratories", which includes materials related to this concept.

Of course, many historians of science believe that reconstructing past experiences and uncovering the tacit knowledge of past practitioners is an unattainable archaeological ambition. Even if one could return to the past and reconstruct historical experiments, the nuanced context of those moments is lost forever. In response to this objection, H. Otto Sibum argues that this is a nihilistic approach to research; historians are neither capable nor obligated to replicate an historical experiment in its entirety.

As emphasized by Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum, the focus is on "reconstruction" or "re-enactment", not "replication". The prefix "re-" is crucial, signifying the process rather than the result. Therefore, in addition to re-enactment and reconstruction, one could consider "rebuilding", "refitting", and "retracing" as research methods. However, as methods in the history of science, their commonality lies in retracing the processes that led to the creation of specific materials or the pursuit of specific knowledge. Ideally, reconstruction allows researchers to better understand the blanks in laboratory records, intentional concealments or unintentional omissions by original experimenters, hidden knowledge, and lost archival texts or objects.

RRR Practice Example One: The M&K Project

A notable and recommended example is the Making and Knowing Project, led by renowned historian of science Pamela Smith from Columbia University. The M&K Project bridges the gap between science and the humanities through experimental reconstruction and critical editing of archival manuscripts, exploring the relationship between contemporary scientific laboratories and past artisanal workshops. Art-making and scientific knowledge, once intersecting fields, are often viewed as separate today. In the past, "making" was synonymous with "understanding".

In February 2020, the M&K Project released its first digital scholarly edition, centered around Ms. Fr. 640, a unique manuscript from the French Renaissance circa 1580. It provides firsthand information about the creative processes of artists and scientists, including drawing instructions, paint making, production of counterfeit gems, metal casting, preparation of animal and plant specimens, plaster, and pulp. The public can access facsimile images of the original manuscript, French transcriptions, and English translations through the project's website.

RRR Practice Example Two: Instrument Research

Whether it's reconstruction, replication, re-enactment, or reconstruction, all these methods require human operation. However, another main thread of RRR is the collection and replication of machines or instruments, including their collection history.

P. Heering's paper "Analysing unsuccessful experiments and instruments with replication" discusses experiments and instruments that were neither mass-produced nor accepted in their historical context, focusing on two science history-related, but not widely recognized or successful, experimental cases. Notably, the Science History Library's "2.1.2 Failures" section includes research on the themes of failure and innovation in the history of science narrative.

Heering proposes a specific research methodology consisting of three steps: rebuilding the instrument, redoing the experiment, and rethinking how the experiences of the first two stages are contextualized against broader social, cultural, political,or technological backgrounds. He emphasizes that the first two stages aim to describe and distinguish from traditional conclusions more accurately, while the third stage involves viewing the original material from different perspectives. This approach exemplifies the advantages and significance of using reconstruction methods in the history of science research.

Recommended Resources

In addition to the previously mentioned library update 1.7.8, other relevant sections include 2.4.1 Laboratories and 2.4.2 Sites of Collection.


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