“We need to deconstruct the spontaneous philosophy of engineers”

After conducting postdoc research at EPFL for three and a half years, Simon Dumas Primbault is now heading to Marseille © Simon Dumas Primbault

After conducting postdoc research at EPFL for three and a half years, Simon Dumas Primbault is now heading to Marseille © Simon Dumas Primbault

After conducting postdoc research at EPFL for three and a half years, Simon Dumas Primbault is now heading to Marseille, France, to take up a position as a tenure track professor in open science for the humanities and social sciences. We spoke with Primbault, an engineer by training who later became a science historian, about how he’d like to see engineering students reflect on their education and their profession. 

How do you go from being an engineering graduate to a researcher in humanities?

Even before starting at École Polytechnique, the engineering school in Paris, I knew I wanted to conduct research, especially in theoretical physics. But three things made me change my mind. First, the unhealthy environment at École Polytechnique, which is also a military school: I found the atmosphere competitive, closed-minded, elitist and full of cliques. That led to the second thing, which was my enrolling in a Master’s program in philosophy at Sorbonne University. I completed this program in parallel with my engineering degree, and it provided an escape three or four days a week. The third thing was the Fukushima disaster, which took place shortly after I started engineering school. This may sound like a cliché, but the disaster made me realize that science isn’t always positive or even neutral, and doesn’t always lead to progress. This realization is what brought me to the field of epistemology. When you study theoretical physics on an advanced level, you work with very complicated, abstract equations, which I always found to be very elegant. But you eventually start wondering what the point is of what you’re doing – whether all the symbols you’re manipulating could in fact be meaningless.

Reflecting on your practice as a scientist introduced you to the work of Louis Althusser.

Yes, and especially his concept of the “spontaneous philosophy of the scientists.” Engineering students and physicists generally develop an orthodox, often reductive philosophy towards their work – as if the whole world boils down to nothing more than particle interactions. This results in a hierarchical view of scientific disciplines with theoretical physics as the base, then statistical physics, biology, psychology, sociology and so on. As a result, physicists frequently believe they can explain the fundamental structure of just about anything. What Althusser pointed out is that this philosophy doesn’t develop “spontaneously” but is rather a product of scientists’ education. As long as our educational system makes physicists believe they can describe the world in an exhaustive manner, or makes data scientists believe they can solve any problem by crunching the numbers, this attitude will persist.

Then you changed course again, from philosophy to science history.

I wasn’t entirely happy with my program at the Sorbonne because it focused mainly on analytical philosophy, which can be highly scientific. But there were two classes I really enjoyed – epistemology and historical anthropology – since they sought to ground scientific concepts in their historical roots. So I decided to enroll in a Master’s program in science history at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. I wanted to apply my philosophical reasoning to concrete social and epistemological issues related to science, rather than doing it in a vacuum like an armchair philosopher. After completing the EHESS program, I obtained a grant to pursue a PhD at the European University Institute in Florence. There I worked under Stéphane Van Damme and Antonella Romano. My thesis topic was the material nature of writing systems in the practice of physics and mathematics in the 17th century, with case studies on Leibniz and Viviani, who was a student of Galileo.

Can you explain the “material nature of knowledge” concept that you explore in your thesis?

A big trend in science history is to examine the historical significance of objects – how they circulated and were used. But I, along with others, wanted to go further and study how scientists’ hands-on, or “material,” research practices shaped the way they think. That informed the strategy I used during my thesis, in that I didn’t want to look at regular archives but tried to find the most subjective archives possible, like scientists’ notes and draft versions. It was an affront to the objective approach typically used in history studies. Then I found out about the work done by Jack Goody, Bruno Latour and Jean-François Bert, and I was fascinated to learn that for 17th century intellects like Leibniz and Viviani, writing was a genuine research tool, like a particle accelerator is for physicists today.

You applied your approach to Leibniz, a leading thinker.

When Leibniz said that his method lets scientists view an entire reasoning process at a glance, he wasn’t being metaphorical. I showed that Leibniz sketched out diagrams on paper using different schemas to produce geometric points extending out into infinity. But this kind of approach was met with criticism, as many believed that writing down the reasoning process somehow made it less noble. The Sorbonne will soon publish a book based on my thesis research – it focuses on Viviani, one of the very first engineers, and on how his use of ink and paper shaped his highly visual way of thinking.

And now these historical figures are no longer the subject of your research?

When I came to EPFL, I wanted to keep exploring the topics covered in my thesis but without remaining focused on these case studies. Becoming a Viviani specialist could’ve been a career choice, but I was more interested in applying my research to the modern day. And for that, EPFL’s digital humanities department offered great opportunities.

For example?

EPFL is involved in the Collaborative Research On Science and Society (CROSS) Program with the University of Lausanne. As part of this program, my research group studied how digital libraries are shaping the way scientists think about, handle and search for information. We looked specifically at the French National Library’s platform, called Gallica, based on user interviews and a quantitative analysis of server logs.

I found this research particularly interesting for two reasons. One, it involved people who are still alive! And two, it shed new light on our interpretation of historical sources of information. We’re sometimes mistaken in wanting to find a perfect line of reasoning in historical essays and documents, as if there’s no room for contradictions. What we found during our interviews is that when people speak, they’re often contradictory and describe things as how they perceive them to be rather than how they really are.

I plan to continue my research on open science platforms in Marseille by conducting an ethnographic study of platform users, a review of platform designers and funders, and a semiotic study of the platforms themselves, examining features like their interfaces, classification systems and corpuses.

You’ve also been involved in non-digital projects, like the reconstruction of a historical research expedition on Mont Buet.

Jérôme Baudry, the head of EPFL’s Laboratory for the History of Science and Technology (LHST), where I completed my postdoc, felt that an engineering school was the perfect place to study the history of experimental science. His idea was to reconstruct experiments under the same conditions as scientists at the time, in order to better understand the challenges they faced in terms of equipment, methods, etc. We used funding from a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Agora grant to carry out a research expedition on Mont Buet in precisely the same way that Swiss scientists did it in the 18th and 19th centuries. We chose Mont Buet for practical reasons, but also for the physical side of such research – as we had to climb a mountain. Our project brought together many of the scientific, political and environmental issues prevailing at the time – issues very different from the ones we’re dealing with today, like tourism. We were accompanied by photographers, draftsmen and sound and other artists, to help document the expedition. This experience not only gave us a better understanding of historical sources of information, but also led us to consider the mountain itself as a source. For instance, we found the names of early 19th-century tour guides etched into a rock.

The findings of your expedition were published in journal articles but also in more inventive ways.

That’s true, we created a multimedia archive with sounds, drawings and photographs that’s available online in open-access format. It documents the various research expeditions taken on Mont Buet. It can be sorted chronologically, geographically or conceptually so that users can build their own narrative by combing documents from different time periods in original ways. We also gave talks at museums, put on a radio broadcast and organized a hike open to the public. Our study of a historical research expedition propelled us into the realm of public history and scientific mediation.

You also taught a Master’s-level class at EPFL on the history of experimental science, as part of EPFL’s humanities and social sciences program.

The goal of the class was to show engineering students the lessons we can learn from studying the evolution of science experiments. The first semester consisted of lectures on science history combined with “lab sessions” where students got hands-on experience. For instance, we took students to the Vaud cantonal archives so they could see the historical documents kept by the Vaud Society of Natural Science. That worked really well – students are always happy to see this kind of heritage first-hand. Although some wondered what the point was of conserving those old papers when storage space is already hard to come by. In the class, students also had an opportunity to try out historical research instruments from the UNIL and EPFL collection that’s managed by LHST. In some cases we don’t know the purpose of some of these instruments. So we let students play around with them, try to figure out how they were built and used, and explore the contribution they made to scientific knowledge.

Then in the second semester, students worked in groups to carry out their own historical science experiments. What did that teach them?

Many times, it was the simplest experiments that proved to be most interesting and to provide the best learning opportunities. For instance, one group wanted to measure the Earth’s radius using antique methods, like Eratosthenes did. They thought it would be pretty easy since it was just a matter of trigonometry. Which is true – but things get more complicated when you have to take trigonometric measurements out in the field. You need to be able to see the Earth’s horizon, which is impossible in Switzerland. So the students had to find another approach. They devised a method using really basic equipment like a wooden board, nails and a plumb bob. It was a great lesson in the material aspects of science.

Another group tried to replicate Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with Leyden jars – the early model for capacitors. Once they saw how hard the jars were to build, they realized Franklin probably went through a lot of trial and error and had developed a good feel for the materials he was using and their proprieties. The group also found out that Franklin had sent some of his experimental procedures to Europe. Since a few group members were in another country at the time due to the pandemic, the Swiss-based students decided to do the same thing. They wrote out their experimental procedure down to the last detail, so that the overseas students could carry out the same experiment. But the group quickly saw that the written description wasn’t enough – the overseas students also needed examples of the equipment that was used, like the jars and aluminum paper. In other words, in order to reproduce the experiment, it was essential to have access to its material components. This project raised issues related not just to the reproducibility of research, but also to social interaction and the need to work in networks. For a teacher, reading a student report that touches on these kinds of issues, after starting from something relatively basic, is extremely rewarding.

What role can science history, or even the history of experimental science, play in an engineering school?

Studying the past always helps you better understand the present. But you have to be able to establish a link between the two. Going back to the issue of research reproducibility, my colleague Ion Mihailescu gave students a lecture on Newton’s experimentum crucis in optics, explaining that it relied on a kind of prism produced by only one craftsman in England. But the students didn’t immediately grasp the parallel with the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider today. The best way for students to learn the lessons of science history is through hands-on, material practice with reproducing experiments.

Studying history can also help deconstruct the ideological norms now prevalent in science and engineering – like the notion of progress. One tenet of the spontaneous philosophy of engineers is that scientific and technological advances are always a driver of progress, whether for our society, culture or public policy. But you only need to look back at history to see that there’s always been a dark side to scientific discovery, just like there have always been critics of new technology. The 19th century is particularly instructive for seeing how the notion of progress took shape and was deployed in science and engineering education and in public policy. This also raises the question of whether the modern-day concept of economic growth, for example, is indeed as neutral as it’s presented to be.

This gets to the broader issue of how the humanities and social sciences fit into an engineering school.

This is an issue I’ve been addressing since the very start of my career, and it underpins my belief that we need to deconstruct the spontaneous philosophy of engineers. When I teach, I don’t stay on an ideological level; I aim to give students concrete tools they can use to reflect on their own practice and deconstruct their perceived notions – which they can then rebuild in exactly the same way if they so wish. This is where the humanities and social sciences can play a crucial role in the education of engineers but also natural scientists. The idea isn’t for the humanities classes to serve as a cultural varnish – something students attend on Wednesday afternoons in order to sound more sophisticated at dinner parties – but rather to provide a framework for evaluating the work they’ll do in their careers and for becoming responsible engineers.

Under the dominant narrative in science and engineering education today, students remain blind to a number of key issues related to the environment, society, public policy and technology. Students have adopted a value system based largely on progress, economic growth and a free market without even questioning where those values came from. In today’s neo-liberal approach to science, which is increasingly discussed by humanities experts, matters related to the environment – to take just one example – have been embraced, assimilated and adulterated through greenwashing and movements like the “green economy.” A responsible engineer is one who can challenge and deconstruct this discourse and the associated value system – and perhaps go on to reconstruct them if they deem that appropriate. By giving engineering students a background in sociology, history and anthropology, we can equip them to take a contrarian view and ask probing questions, without undermining the very foundation of science.