Innovations as reconfigurations of knowledge in socio-epistemic networks: The case of general relativity

Roberto Lallia, Dirk Wintergrüna, Malte Vogla, Bernardo Buarquea

a Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

General relativity is a major pillar in our understanding of the physical universe. It is a widespread view that the theory radically changed humans’ views on basic notions such as space, time, matter and energy. But, while Einstein formulated the theory in 1915, the creation of a collectively shared scientific consensus on general relativity’s implications took many decades. Between the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, research on the theory stagnated with little to no agreement about its most unintuitive physical predictions. Only after the mid-1950s did the theory gradually return to the mainstream of physics, a process known as the ‘renaissance of general relativity.’ This momentous transformation of the theory’s status was not only a social transformation related to the increasing number of scientists working on the theory, but it had epistemic implications. In this period a community of scientists reconceptualized Einstein’s theory by constructing a shared consensus on the existence and meaning of its physical predictions, including gravitational waves and black holes. This novel understating of the theory can be interpreted as a set of conceptual innovations, even though many of the elements had already been formulated in the previous decades or contained in Einstein’s original theory. These features make general relativity an ideal case to uncover the role of social transformations in the dynamics of knowledge production that underlies the formation of consensus on conceptual innovations.

To uncover these entangled socio-conceptual dynamics, we employ the conceptual and methodological framework of socio-epistemic networks. This framework defines a three-layered taxonomy of knowledge networks: the social network (the collection of relations involving individuals and institutions), the semiotic network (the collection of the material representations of knowledge, e.g., citation networks), and the semantic network (the collection of knowledge elements and their relations, including concepts, topics, research agendas, or methods). Building on our previous results on the entangled dynamics of collaboration networks and co-citation patterns in general relativity, in this talk we focus on the transformation of the semantic level over time highlighting the dynamics of the emergence of a shared view on conceptual innovations related to the social interactions and the semiotic representations.