Thomas S. Kuhn
Professor Emeritus Thomas S. Kuhn, the internationally known historian of science and philosopher, 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.
Kuhn was the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), a seminal work on the nature of scientific change and was widely celebrated as a central figure in contemporary thought about how the scientific process evolves. The New York Times credited Kuhn's book with popularizing the word "paradigm"because it appeared so frequently.
Vice President Al Gore, in his June 7 commencement address, used Kuhn's theories to frame his argument about the relationship beween science and technology. "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," he said. As new facts continue to accumulate, a new, more accurate paradigm must replace the old one.
More than one million copies of Kuhn's 1962 book have been printed. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages and is still a basic text in the study of the history of science and technology.
Jed Z. Buchwald, the director of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, said 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."
Kuhn joined MIT in 1979 from Princeton University. 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.
From 1982 to 1991 Kuhn held the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship in Philosophy. He was the chair's first holder. Kuhn retired in 1991 and took the rank of professor emeritus.
Focus moved to history of science
Born in Cincinnati in 1922, 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.
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... Kuhn was pondering this mystery, staring out of the window of his dormitory room... when suddenly Aristotle `made sense.'"
"Kuhn," the article said, "realized that Aristotle's views of such basic concepts as motion and matter were totally unlike Newton's... Understood on its own terms, Aristotle's physics `wasn't just bad Newton,' Kuhn says; it was just different."
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.
Kuhn is survived by his wife, Jehane R. Kuhn; two daughters, Sarah Kuhn of Framingham, Mass., and Elizabeth Kuhn of Los Angles: a son, Nathaniel S. Kuhn of Arlington, Mass.; a brother, Roger S. Kuhn of Bethesda, Md.; and four grandchildren, Emma Kuhn LaChance, Samuel Kuhn LaChance, Gabrielle Gui-Ying Kuhn, and Benjamin Simon Kuhn.
He previously was married to Kathryn Muhs of Princeton, N.J., who is the mother of his children.