The dynamics of socio-epistemic networks – case study: the history of General Relativity, 1925-1970

Roberto Lalli and Dirk Wintergrün

Time and Place: Thursday, 01.07., 14:45–15:05, Room 1
Session: Co-authorship and Citations

Keywords: Socio epistemic networks; History of general relativity; Historical epistemology; History of science

This talk will present a conceptual and methodological framework for analyzing the evolution of  scientific systems developed by the Department 1 of the Max Planck Institute for the History of  Science. Building on the advances in multi-layer network analysis, the proposed methodology aims  at uncovering the dynamical transformations of intra- and inter-connections within and between  different layers of the scientific enterprise, from its social dimension to the material condition of  knowledge production, up to conceptual transformations. In order to create a unified conceptual  framework we define knowledge networks as being composed of three different layers: the social  network, the semiotic network, and the semantic network. The first is defined as the collection of  relations involving individuals and institutions. The semiotic network is defined as the collection of  the material or formal representations of knowledge. The semantic layer is the collection of  knowledge elements and their relations. We call the interlinked set of these three levels socio epistemic networks.  

As an illustration of this methodology results drawn from our work on the history of general  relativity between 1925 and 1970 will be presented. Our computational approach is used to  uncover the mechanism of the passage between the low-water-mark of general relativity— roughly from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s—and the so-called renaissance of the theory after  the mid-1950s. To investigate this passage we first analyze the social layer using a definition of  collaboration networks broader than the co-authorship relations retrievable from online datasets.  In addiction to these kinds of datasets we used manually taken biographical data from a variety of  historical sources. Starting from these data we constructed a multilayer social network, in which  each layer represents a different kind of collaboration. After having analyzed the evolution over  time of specific parameters of the co-authorship network, we investigated the effects of adding  one type of collaboration edge at a time, in a cumulative fashion, on the values of these  parameters and on the topology of the collaboration network through time, including rapid shifts  in the dynamic evolution of the largest component. This analysis provides robust quantitative  evidence that a shift in the structure of the relativity collaboration network occurred between the  late 1950s and the early 1960s, when a giant component started forming. We interpret this shift  as the central social dynamic of the renaissance process and then identify its central actors. The  analysis of time series of the co-citation network, used as proxy of the semiotic layer, and the co occurring words in titles, abstracts and full-texts, used as a proxy of the semantic layer completes  our study. It shows how the transformation at the social level corresponded to the emergence of  new topics and research agendas.

Our analysis disproves common explanations of the renaissance process. It shows that this  phenomenon was not a consequence of astrophysical discoveries in the 1960s, nor was it a simple  by-product of socio-economic transformations in the physics landscape after World War II. We  argue instead that the renaissance has to be understood as a two-phase process both at the social and at the epistemic level. The first occurred between the second half of the 1950s and the early  1960s, when a growing community of physicists redirected their interest toward physical problems  in general relativity, while the previous period was characterized by a dispersion of research  agendas aimed substituting the they with a different and more general one. We call this first  phase the theoretical renaissance general relativity. The second phase, which we call the  astrophysical turn, was instead an experiment-driven process that started with the discovery of  quasars and was characterized by the emergence of relativistic astrophysics and physical  cosmology as well as the early phases of gravitational-wave astronomy. 


Lalli, Roberto, Riaz Howey, and Dirk Wintergrün. 2019. “The Dynamics of Collaboration Networks and the History of General Relativity, 1925–1970.” Scientometrics, December. doi:10.1007/s11192-019-03327-1

Renn, Jürgen, Dirk Wintergrün, Roberto Lalli, Manfred Laubichler, and Matteo Valleriani. 2016. “Netzwerke als Wissensspeicher.” In Die Zukunft der Wissensspeicher : Forschen, Sammeln und Vermitteln im 21. Jahrhundert, edited by Jürgen Mittelstraß and Ulrich Rüdiger, 7:35–79. Konstanzer Wissenschaftsforum. München: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft Konstanz. 

Wintergrün, Dirk. 2019. “Netzwerkanalysen und semantische Datenmodellierung als heuristische Instrumente für die historische Forschung.” Erlangen: Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.