An Old Hand in a New System

  • H. Otto Sibum
Part of the Science, Technology and Medicine in Modern History book series (STMMH)


Over the last decades scientists, historians and sociologists of science have continuously addressed the question of the meaning of skill in scientific practice. In order to understand the process of innovation in experimental science, historians ask questions like, ‘Do certain experimental physicists possess powers of perception notably greater than the average person? Can students, by practice, improve their capacities to estimate short time intervals or thermometer readings?’1 From Ludwik Fleck’s point of view the concept of ‘Erfahrenheit’ should be explored here, i.e. ‘(1) the ability to make assumptions and (2) both manual and mental practice together with a research scientist’s entire experimental and nonexperimental fund of knowledge, including features clearly conceived, those that are uncertain, and those that are ‘instinctive’.’ However, ‘the summarized reports of a field of research always contain only a very small part of the worker’s relevant experience, and not even the most important’2 Michael Polanyi coined the term ‘tacit knowledge’ in order to give invisible or inarticulate practices a place in the academic discourse. But finally his remarkable reflections reaffirm that unarticulated competence remains intrinsically tacit.3 Writers who have discussed James Joule’s experiment for determining the mechanical equivalent of heat either disagree or finally give no answer as to what skills were needed in order to perform with such remarkable accuracy.


Tacit Knowledge Scientific Practice Mental Practice Natural Philosopher Mechanical Equivalent 
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© Macmillan Press Ltd 1998

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  • H. Otto Sibum

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