History, Physics and Change over Time

 Q = \lim\limits_{\Delta t \rightarrow 0}\frac{\Delta V}{ \Delta t}= \frac{{\rm d}V}{{\rm d}t}

Yes, I know. It’s a math equation, to be precise, a physics equation. And Yes, I know it is strange to have a physics equation in a post on history. And Yes, I know, I better explain.

This week’s readings show the discipline of history as dynamic, as changing as being anything but static. Eley uses such phrases as “The road has been extremely rapidly traveled…” (167) and “Thus, the topics available for historians have grown with dizzying profusion…” (167) to explain the flux and change of methodologies and topics of historical research in the last half century.

History changes over time…and that is what this equation eludes to. It is an equation for air flow. The “triangle” (delta) stands for change and this is an equation for the change in the volume of air over time. Changes in volumes of air, time and pressure work together to keep an airplane afloat and it is change, change over time, historians willing to explore new methodologies, that will keep the history discipline afloat, relevant and germane in academic and public discourses.

Carolyn Steedman is a good example of a pioneering ‘force’ in history (allusions to physics are intended). Her autobiographical work Landscape for a Good Woman according to Eley, “As a formal structure, …disobeyed all the rules” (174). First her book was autobiographical. Secondly, it challenged the class consciousness of social theory when it leaves out the wants and needs of individuals (especially women’s) relegating them, and other working class individuals, to a “psychological simplicity.” (Eley, 170 & 175; Steedman, 7)

What is also amazing with Steedman is her ‘fluidity.’  On one hand she points out the flaws of Marxist theory, challenging his assertion that “mental life flows from material condition,” while at the same time she employs Marxist theory in her book. (Steedman 12) She also is on the cutting edge of her time in her use of psychoanalysis and feminism. She is indeed “edgy.” She is indeed a boundary pusher, but paradoxically, she is also a weaver – weaving supposedly dichotomous ideas of social and cultural history together (Eley 181).

This week Eley eloquently illuminates the ‘fluidity,’ the ‘flux’ of the history of history over the past fifty years through a personal lens. He is honest, forthright, and even admits when changes were taking place seemingly “behind his back” and out of the realm of “official” channels. Steedman also eloquently speaks of childhood, of weavers, of heritage, of mothers and their words.

Steedman’s first occupation was a primary-school teacher. Maybe she taught math and laid the groundwork for her students that would make it possible in future years for them to solve our initial equation. At one point in her book she talks of “walking between the tables on the hard floor, all the little looms working, but needing constant adjustment” (32).

As students of history, we, too, are little looms, all working, but in need of constant adjustment. Perhaps our equation would be ∆H over ∆t.



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2 Responses to History, Physics and Change over Time

  1. Laura


    Get that math out of here! Just kidding! (But really.) I was terrible at math growing up and that equation nearly scared the bejeebuz out of me when I saw it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the analogy you created and the fact that you came up with an equation that we historians can call our own. I agree that we, as historians, are always working and that we must make adjustments as needed, particularly when we work in a field that is constantly changing and shifting. And while this may be highly challenging at times, as we have discussed on multiple occasions in this class, it is both a blessing and a curse: we must always adjust to said changes but it also gives us an opportunity to grow and mature in our discipline while also learning even more at the same time. What a particularly wonderful position to be in!

  2. Steedman = Boundary pusher x Weaver (i’m going with x not + to emphasize the compounding force of integrating those operations.)

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