Duke University , USA
Spring Term 2010
History of the Concept of Similar Systems
Dr Sterrett will be looking into the history of the concept of similarity during her visit at the Center. She has been publishing on topics at the intersection of similarity, models, and analogical reasoning for a number of years.
She argued (in "Physical Models and Fundamental Laws: using one piece of the world to tell about another" and "Models of Machines and Models of Phenomena") that the method of physical similarity is a model-based form of reasoning that works in a qualitatively different way than the way that most philosophers of science had generally assumed models to work: Instead of constructing models whose behavior is predicted by laws, fundamental laws are employed in constructing one thing so that it models some other thing in certain respects.
Her most recent piece: "Similarity and Dimensional Analysis" (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, vol. 9, Elsevier, 2009), delved even more deeply into the source of the knowledge on which the use of physical similarity is based, and led to grappling with questions about the role of laws and convention in measurement and the identification of quantities. She has written about the use of analogical reasoning in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (" Darwin's Analogy Between Artificial and Natural Selection") and in Einstein's special theory of relativity ("Sounds Like Light"). She argued for an appreciation of a neglected aspect of Alan Turing's writings on machine intelligence ("Turing's Two Tests for Intelligence") based on an appreciation of the sophisticated nature of the analogy appealed to in his discussions.
Much of her book Wittgenstein Flies A Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World is devoted to a critical-historical account of the rise in the use of similarity-based reasoning in various scientific fields, and the generalization and formalization of the method of physically similar systems, which is widely applicable in the sciences and underlies the use of scale models. That study suggested that the use of similarity in the early twentieth century was a revival of the use of similarity by Renaissance scientists, especially Newton and Galileo. She was thrilled to find out that it had just been discovered that Wittgenstein had, as an engineering student, purchased a copy of Galileo's Two New Sciences. She considers it great luck that another philosopher with a past career as an engineer, our HPS department's own Paolo Palmieri, will be giving a seminar on that very work by Galileo during her visit to the Center.
She enjoys playing with her dogs, reading, and imagining what it was like to be a scientist or philosopher in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.