Richard Anthony William Staley

Richard Anthony William Staley


I am a faculty member both in Copenhagen and at the University of Cambridge. I complement research on the relations between physics and anthropology, the cultural history of mechanics, and climate change with work in the history of science education and at the Niels Bohr Archive. In Cambridge I have recently been engaged in two collaborative projects with colleagues in HPS, English and Geography. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust from 2019–2024, Making Climate History develops a fundamental new perspective on the histories and geographies of climate change by linking making and knowing in the emergence of the climate sciences over the past two centuries. We examine the entwined social, physical, and economic timescales of climate change over the entire period it took to remake climate, and to recognise that we are changing it. From May 2020 to December 2021 the Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power hosted a programme of summer and winter schools, a reading group, community research seminars, and public lectures in Cambridge and elsewhere. We built an interpretive community able to bring historical, structural perspectives to understandings of AI, and are now developing a special issue on the topic for BJHS: Themes. Our website has many useful resources.

After an undergraduate degree in HPS at Melbourne, I wrote my PhD in Cambridge on the early work of Max Born, examining the relations between education and research and developing an approach to scientific change based on the community (1992). Working with Simon Schaffer, Jim Bennett, Otto Sibum and Bob Brain in a postdoc brought material culture and worlds of production and display into this mix, curating two Whipple Museum exhibitions 'Empires of Physics' and '1900: The New Age' (1992–95). I then held a range of postdoctoral and visiting positions in Melbourne, Berlin, Chicago and Berlin before teaching in the History of Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2000 to 2013. My book Einstein's Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008) brought these diverse strands together, offering new perspectives on ether drift and interferometry, electron theory and experiment, and Einstein and his colleagues in the co-creation of classical and modern physics. Since then I have developed a long term research project on physicist anthropologies that has involved work on psychophysics in the 1860s, the cultural history of mechanics in the interwar period and the multifaceted relations between the work of the physicist Ernst Mach and the anthropologists Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski.

My students have undertaken research on topics as diverse as the cultural history of radiation; cosmology in the twentieth century; making intelligence in the development of AI; ecology and environment in early twentieth century South Africa; the 'science of science' from the 1930s; the sciences of colour perception and colour vision; the Aurora Borealis and atmospheric physics; radio astronomy and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence; the 2019 first direct observation of a black hole. I'm a historian of science because I'm interested in the full range of human knowledge – and historians need accept no intellectual or disciplinary boundaries in our pursuit of what it means to know the world, ourselves, and others. As Ernst Mach wrote in 1871, 'do not let go of the guiding hand of history: history has made all, and history can change all'.


Selected publications

(Editor). The Physics of Empire: Public Lectures (Cambridge: Whipple Museum, 1994)

Einstein's Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

'Mother’s Milk, and More: On the Role of Ernst Mach’s Relational Physics in the Development of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity', in John Preston, ed. Interpreting Mach: Critical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), pp. 28-47

'Sensory Studies, or When Physics was Psychophysics: Ernst Mach and Physics between Physiology and Psychology, 1860–71', History of Science 59:1 (2021): 93-118

'Partisans and the Use of Knowledge Versus Science', Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 42, no. 2–3 (2019): 220–34

'Revisiting Einstein's Happiest Thought. From the Physiology of Perception to Experimental Propositions and Principles in the History of Relativity', in Friedrich Stadler, ed. Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence (Dordrecht: Springer, 2019), pp. 349–66

'Ether and Aesthetics in the Dialogue between Relativists and their Critics', in Jaume Navarro, ed. Ether and Modernity: The Recalcitrance of an Epistemic Object in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 179-199

'The Interwar Period as a Machine Age: Mechanics, The Machine, Mechanisms and The Market in Discourse', Science in Context 31:3 (2018): 263–292

'Understanding Climate Change Historically', in Alexander Elliott, James Cullis and Vinita Damodaran, eds. Climate Change and the Humanities: Historical, Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Contemporary Environmental Crisis (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2017), pp. 43–68

'Ernst Mach on Bodies and Buckets', Physics Today 66.12 (2013): 42–47

'Trajectories in the History and Historiography of Physics in the Twentieth Century', History of Science 51 (2013): 151–177

'Conversions, Dreams, Defining Aims? Following Boas and Malinowski, Physics and Anthropology, through Laboratory and Field', History of Anthropology Newsletter 39.2 (December 2012): 3–10

'Culture and Mechanics in Germany, 1869–1918: A Sketch', Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics: Selected Papers by Paul Forman and Contemporary Perspectives on the Forman Thesis, edited by Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov and Helmuth Trischler (London/Singapore: Imperial College Press/World Scientific, 2011): 277–292

'Michelson and the Observatory: Physics and the Astronomical Community in Late Nineteenth Century America', The Heavens on Earth: Observatory Techniques in Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg and H. Otto Sibum (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2010): 225–252

'The Fin de Siècle Thesis', Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 31 (2008): 311–330

'Fog, Dust and Rising Air: Understanding Cloud Formation, Cloud Chambers, and the Role of Meteorology in Cambridge Physics in the Late 19th Century', Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate, edited by James R. Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic and Deborah Coen (New York: Science History Publications, 2006): 93–113

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