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::: center home >> people >> visiting fellows, 2009-10 >> sterrett

Susan Sterrett
Duke University , USA
Spring Term 2010
History of the Concept of Similar Systems

Dr Sterrett will be looking into the history of the concept of similarity during her visit at the Center. She has been publishing on topics at the intersection of similarity, models, and analogical reasoning for a number of years.

She argued (in "Physical Models and Fundamental Laws: using one piece of the world to tell about another" and "Models of Machines and Models of Phenomena") that the method of physical similarity is a model-based form of reasoning that works in a qualitatively different way than the way that most philosophers of science had generally assumed models to work: Instead of constructing models whose behavior is predicted by laws, fundamental laws are employed in constructing one thing so that it models some other thing in certain respects.

Her most recent piece: "Similarity and Dimensional Analysis" (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, vol. 9, Elsevier, 2009), delved even more deeply into the source of the knowledge on which the use of physical similarity is based, and led to grappling with questions about the role of laws and convention in measurement and the identification of quantities. She has written about the use of analogical reasoning in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (" Darwin's Analogy Between Artificial and Natural Selection") and in Einstein's special theory of relativity ("Sounds Like Light"). She argued for an appreciation of a neglected aspect of Alan Turing's writings on machine intelligence ("Turing's Two Tests for Intelligence") based on an appreciation of the sophisticated nature of the analogy appealed to in his discussions.

Much of her book Wittgenstein Flies A Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World is devoted to a critical-historical account of the rise in the use of similarity-based reasoning in various scientific fields, and the generalization and formalization of the method of physically similar systems, which is widely applicable in the sciences and underlies the use of scale models. That study suggested that the use of similarity in the early twentieth century was a revival of the use of similarity by Renaissance scientists, especially Newton and Galileo. She was thrilled to find out that it had just been discovered that Wittgenstein had, as an engineering student, purchased a copy of Galileo's Two New Sciences. She considers it great luck that another philosopher with a past career as an engineer, our HPS department's own Paolo Palmieri, will be giving a seminar on that very work by Galileo during her visit to the Center.

She enjoys playing with her dogs, reading, and imagining what it was like to be a scientist or philosopher in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.


In 2013, I completed a book, Three Views of Logic: Mathematics, Philosophy and Computer Science, co-authored with D. W. Loveland and R. E. Hodel, which was published by Princeton University Press; and a paper "The Morals of Model Making" forthcoming in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. I worked on "Turing on the Integration of Human and Machine Intelligence", since completed and forthcoming in Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing - Turing 100, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science (Springer Verlag), edited by Alisa Bokulich and Juliet Floyd.

I also accepted an appointment as the Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science in the Department of Philosophy at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.


In September 2014, I gave the Inaugural Lecture (a public lecture) for my appointment at Wichita State, entitled "The use of analogy in the work of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Alan Turing"; the text and slides are here.

In October 2014, I gave a talk "Logic that fits your 'If's " in the Mathematics Colloquium at Wichita State.  It is related to the co-authored book published last year (Three Views of Logic); I plan to turn it into a paper.

I began 2015 focusing on (finally!) completing a major paper on the project I was working on during the term I spent at the Center in 2010:  "Physically Similar Systems:  a history of the concept"; forthcoming in Springer's Model-Based Science.  A preprint is at http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/11352/    

In April 2015, I participated in an invited symposium "Wittgenstein's 'Picture Theory' " at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in Vancouver, BC.   A paper is in the works.


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