Ali Mehmet Celâl Şengör

Ali Mehmet Celâl Şengör
ITU Maden Fakultesi

2017 Mary C. Rabbitt History And Philosophy of Geology Award

Presented to Ali Mehmet Celâl Şengör

Citation by Alan Leviton

It is a distinct honor for my recently departed colleague, Michele Aldrich, who is assuredly with us in spirit, and me, to be this year’s citationists for the Mary Rabbitt Award to honor Ali Mehmet Celâl Şengör, more simply, Celâl to friends and foe alike.

Celâl, born in Istanbul in 1955, where he still resides, came to the University of Houston in 1974, but he then moved to SUNY, Albany, in 1976, where he came under the influence of John Dewey and from which institution he received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in 1978, 1979, and 1982, respectively. Celâl returned to Turkey and to the faculty of Istanbul Technical University to initiate an extraordinary career as both geologist and historian of science.

It is artificial to separate Celâl’s historical work from his geological projects. He is known for his research on orogeny and tectonics, especially of Eurasia, and this has informed his history in over a dozen of his publications on the history of tectonics and orogeny. Celâl’s stature in geology has been reaffirmed many times, including election as a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences as well as the American Philosophical Society, and we here affirm it in the history and philosophy of geology as well.

As an historian, Celâl is known for his study of Eduard Suess, and this is where we have interacted with him most frequently. To many of us, Suess seemed a master encyclopedist, but Celâl convincingly establishes him as a theorist in geophysics, one who at the close of the nineteenth century created a sweepingly dynamical picture of the earth. Thanks to Celâl, it is now possible to write accurately about Suess’s historical stature in the geological understanding of crustal changes in the pre-continental drift period of geological thought.

Along the way, Celâl’s historical and geological analyses led him to consider issues in the philosophy of geology. Of at least eight book-length publications that bear heavily on both history and philosophy, we call attention to four that exemplify this: Şengör, 2009, Globale Geologie und ihr Einfluss auf das Denken von Eduard Suess: Der Katastrophismus-Uniformitarianismus-Streit; Şengör, 2003, The repeated rediscovery of mélanges and its implications for the possibility and the role of objective evidence in the scientific enterprise; Şengör, 2003, The Large-Wavelength Deformations of the Lithosphere: Materials for a History of the Evolution of Thought from the Earliest Times to Plate Tectonics; and perhaps most notably, his GSA Special Paper 355, in 2001, Is the Present the Key to the Past or the Past the Key to the Present? James Hutton and Adam Smith versus Abraham Gottlob Werner and Karl Marx in Interpreting History. Indeed, we must also mention his most recent contribution, less than a year ago, “What is the Use of the History of Geology to a Practicing Geologist? The Propaedeutical Case of Stratigraphy,” which appeared in the Journal of Geology. And, noteworthy, Celâl’s recent papers also trace Suess’s interplay with other geological thinkers of his time.

At this point, we note that Celâl, during the year he served as our Division chair (2001–2002), called for expansion of the GSA History of Geology Division to include philosophy in its purview. His successor, Vic Baker, brought this to pass with Celâl’s enthusiastic backing.

Although we have here emphasized his scholarly work, Celâl has published many popular articles in Turkish magazines and newspapers to educate his country’s citizens in the history of geology. We must also note that across the years we came to think of Celâl as an historian of ideas (an “internalist” in the jargon of the history of science), but in reviewing his publications we discovered that he also published on the history of institutions (in Turkey and France), the cultural history of the Ottoman empire, and even sea power as a determinant in Turkish history, thus making him also an “externalist” historian.

It is an extraordinary honor for both Michele and me to serve as the Mary Rabbitt Award citationists for Celâl Şengör.

top2017 Mary C. Rabbitt History and Philosophy of Geology Award — Response by Ali Mehmet Celâl Şengör

Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:
It is with mixed feelings that I appear before you today as your awardee: with a feeling of elation, because you have thought me worthy of the highest distinction our Division confers on those who labour to illuminate the path our science has traversed; yet also with a feeling of profound sadness, because one of my two dear friends who brought my name before you for consideration for this honor, our own dear Michele Aldrich, is no longer with us to enjoy the fruit of her generosity. Alan Leviton has just spoken the laudatory remarks that probably surprised you and certainly embarrassed me not only in his own name, but also in Michele’s. My gratitude to both can hardly be cast into adequate words available to me in the languages I command. They somehow convinced themselves that the little that I have done in the history and philosophy of geology needed to be recognized by such a high award and they managed to convince you to confer it on me. I am most profoundly indebted to you all.

There is no need for me to remind you that I am a geologist with no training in social history. I read social history simply out of curiosity and for leisure. Yet I am intensely interested in the history of geology in particular and in the history of science in general simply because I wish to know the intellectual foundations of what I am doing. Consequently, the kind of history that I practice is of the kind that Herbert Butterfield had dubbed, somewhat belittlingly, “whiggish” in 1931 (he described it as “the whig interpretation of history”). This description meant for him the view of history that is inevitably progressive. Butterfield knew that human history had not been so regular, that times of rapid progress alternated with those of stagnation and even regression. As a historian of science he knew that episodes of the progress of knowledge and understanding had been interrupted by dark times of ignorance and superstition. However, what seems to have escaped him is that such interruptions were not interruptions of scientific development but rejection of science by human populations. The glory of the pre-Socratics was eclipsed not by Socrates’ bad science but his abandonment of science, the pursuit of which he even considered sinful as he told Xenophon. Plato inherited this view from Socrates and derailed the Greek society, not the Greek science. We know that because Aristotle’s science was more advanced than anything the pre-Socratics ever had. The Hellenistic science was, in turn, infinitely more advanced than Aristotle’s. The Middle Ages are often presented as a counter-example to continuous progress of science in history. People point out that scientific knowledge in Middle Ages had fallen even below that of the pre-Socratics. Nothing can be further from the truth: the Muslims, intent on pursuing science, not only adopted but also developed the Greek science and they bequeathed their achievements to the Europeans, eventually leading up to the great unfolding of the sciences in the 17th century. That even the western European science in the Middle Ages never really fell below the level of the science of Alexandria and Pergamon is amply documented by Pierre Duhem.

The great cosmologist Edward Harrison wrote a commentary in Nature in 1987 entitled “Whigs, prigs and historians of science” in which he pointed out that writing history of science without a retrospect from today would make it impossible to appreciate the significance of past science. I entirely agree with him. I do history of science to understand better where I stand now but looking at history of science from my present vantage point also enables me to understand the problems and the struggles of my predecessors much better than somebody without a grasp of present science. The march of science through time is itself whiggish; its progress can only be interrupted by abandoning it entirely. That scientific progress includes many dead alleys is no argument against the continuity of its development. Dead alleys are a part of hypothesis testing and therefore of scientific method. Doing history of science without a sound scientific knowledge is a recipe for ship wreckage. Some historians of science such as Steve Woolgar even advocated the view that it is better for the historians of science not to know any science at all. Such a view I can only describe as complete nonsense. Neither is it true that hypothesis selection is dependent on the whim of the individual scientist as the late Thomas Khun wanted us to believe. His claim that in science the highest court of appeal is the consent of the majority of the concerned parties is also untrue. If it were true, neither Copernicus, nor Galileo, nor Eduard Suess, nor Einstein, nor Émile Argand would have caused the progress they did. That is why “sociology of science” is not a helpful pursuit to understand the development of science. As Goethe once said “the history of science is the science itself” and therefore those unwilling to learn science have no business doing its history.

Such are the thoughts of a whiggish historian of science in a Division devoted to the history and philosophy of science of a scientific society. I don’t think we have anything to gain by turning into prigs. Let our motto be nulla historia scientiae sine scientia.

Before I sign off, some further acknowledgements are in order: My interest in the history of science was sparked by my reading of von Zittel’s Geschichte, which in my estimation still remains the best history of geology. My mentors M. Bahaeddin Gürfırat, İhsan Ketin, Sırrı Erinç, John Dewey, and Kevin Burke have all encouraged my pursuit of the history of ideas. My parents and my wife Oya allowed me to spend a large fortune in amassing my personal library the contents of which embrace four centuries of originals. But, Oya deserves praise beyond all others for making my life in science and scholarship possible. Without her none of my accomplishments could have been possible.