Prof. Thomas S. Kuhn of MIT, Noted Historian of Science, Dead at 73


CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Professor Emeritus Thomas S. Kuhn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the internationally known historian and philosopher who made seminal contributions to understanding how scientific views are supported and discounted over time, died Monday, June 17, at his home in Cambridge. He had been ill for the last two years with cancer of the bronchial tubes and throat. He was 73.

Professor Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), an enormously influential work on the nature of scientific change, was widely celebrated as the central figure in contemporary thought about how the scientific process evolves.

Earlier this month, for example, Vice President Albert Gore, delivering the June 7 commencement address at MIT, spoke of the relationship "between science and technology on the one hand and humankind and society on the other," and referred to "the great historian of science, Thomas Kuhn."

Mr. Gore said Professor Kuhn "described the way in which our understanding of the world properly evolves when faced with a sudden increase in the amount of information. More precisely, he showed how well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete. As new facts continue to accumulate, a new threshold is reached at which a new pattern is suddenly perceptible and a new theory explaining this pattern emerges. It is an important process, not only at the societal level, but for each of us as individuals as we try to make sense of the growing mountain of information placed at our disposal."

More than one million copies of Professor Kuhn's famous 1962 book have been printed. It exists in more than a dozen languages and continues to be a basic text in the study of the history of science and technology.

From 1982 to 1991, when he became an emeritus professor, Dr. Kuhn held the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship in Philosophy. He was the chair's first holder.

Jed Z. Buchwald, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and director of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, said Professor Kuhn "was the most influential historian and philosopher of science or our time. He instructed and inspired his students and colleagues at Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton and MIT, as well as the tens of thousands of scholars and students in his own and other fields of social science and the humanities who read his works."

Professor Kuhn joined MIT in 1979 from Princeton University where he had been the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of the History of Science and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. At MIT, his work has centered on cognitive and linguistic processes that bear on the philosophy of science, including the influence of language on the development of science.

Born in Cincinnati in 1922, Professor Kuhn studied physics at Harvard University, where he received the SB (1943), AM (1946) and PhD (1949). His shift from an interest in solid state physics to the history of science, was traceable to a "single 'Eureka!' moment in 1947," according to a 1991 Scientific American article. Professor Kuhn, the article says, "was working toward his doctorate in physics at Harvard University when he was asked to teach some science to undergraduate humanities majors. Searching for a simple case history that could illuminate the roots of Newtonian mechanics, Kuhn opened Aristotle's Physics and was astonished at how 'wrong' it was. How could someone so brilliant on other topics be so misguided in physics? Kuhn was pondering this mystery, staring out of the window of his dormitory room . . .when suddenly Aristotle 'made sense.' Kuhn realized that Aristotle's views of such basic concepts as motion and matter were totally unlike Newton's. Aristotle used the word 'motion,' for example, to refer not just to change in position but to change in general. . . . Understood on its own terms, Aristole's physics 'wasn't just bad Newton,' Kuhn says; it was just different."

Professor Kuhn taught at Harvard and at the University of California, Berkeley, before joining Princeton in 1964. From 1978 to 1979 he was a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities.

His honors included the Howard T. Behrman Award for distinguished achievements in the humanities (1977), the History of Science Society's George Sarton Medal (1982) and the Society for Social Studies of Science's John Desmond Bernal Award (1983). He became a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1990 and was given honorary degrees by several universities throughout the world.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Philosophy of Science Association (president, 1988-90), and the History of Science Society (president, 1968-70). Professor Kuhn is survived by his wife, Jehane (Barton) Kuhn; two daughters, Sarah Kuhn-La Chance of Framingham, Mass., and Elizabeth Kuhn of Los Angles, and a son, Nathaniel Kuhn of Arlington, Mass.

The service is private. A memorial service will be held at MIT in the fall.

Contributions in his memory may be made to Hospice of Cambridge, 186 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, Mass. 02138


Topics: Obituaries

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