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Stefano Furlan joins the Vossius Center for three months in May 2023 as a Research Fellow with the project 'The Smile of Mnemosyne: John Wheeler, the Uses of the Past, and Transdisciplinarity'.

About the project

In the early 1950s the eminent US-physicist J.A. Wheeler (1911-2008) underwent an important “conversion” that, from nuclear physicist, made him a leader of the so-called “General Relativity Renaissance”. Much less known is the fact that, in parallel with his physics research, he began to promote the history of science and make peculiar uses of it. Thus, while his work in general relativity was conceived by him as a dusting-off of Einstein’s legacy, Wheeler, not least because of the feeling of vanitas following the death of E.Fermi (1954) and Einstein himself (1955), decided to set in motion the organization of one of the last century’s largest historical projects, “Sources for History of Quantum Physics” (then led by T.Kuhn and others). If this active involvement of a prominent scientist is noteworthy in itself, what is truly interesting is Wheeler’s relationship to the past as it emerges from the unpublished notebooks in his archives, that I have been examining for my Ph.D. dissertation. Wheeler did not resort to history just for pathos or grand prolusions (a “monumental” use of the past), but also considered it a source of ideas still waiting to have their full potential untapped (as was the case with general relativity), or to be re-enhanced through creative analogies. That does not hold only for the history of physics: applied to Wheeler’s re-functionalization of pictures from past centuries (e.g., the arbor scientiarum), this attitude resulted in a quasi-Warbugian conception of the survival of images getting charged with new meanings.

About the researcher

Stefano Furlan is currently completing his doctoral research, carried out at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. After humanistic studies, always cultivated, and a specialisation in theoretical physics and astrophysics, he has devoted himself to frontier issues in physics and to putting them into a historical-critical perspective. At the centre of the majority of his works is the figure of John A. Wheeler, not only an illustrious pioneer in those fields, but also a thinker of exceptional originality, whose unpublished papers make it possible, among other things, to investigate unexplored and fascinating interactions between the sciences and many other disciplines, from philosophy to art.