Cartwright, whose work questions the literal truth for real world situations of many fundamental laws of science because, she says, they describe only ideal conditions, such as in a laboratory, is a highly influential scholar in the philosophy of science. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In her five major books and more than one hundred articles, she has developed a provocative philosophy arguing for a realist metaphysics: science can give us accurate pictures of the world (or as accurate as we could expect), but the fundamental laws themselves are not accurate; it takes the cooperation of a great variety of branches of science, engineering and local technical knowledge to get a true picture.
Her work became widely known with the publication in 1983 of How the Laws of Physics Lie, in which Cartwright challenges the idea that the "laws" of science describe the nature of reality. She argues that they are simplifications--idealizations--that describe an ideal world different than the one with which physicists actually work. To create scientific laws that accurately describe real world situations, she suggests, one has to add various adjustments and approximations that do not follow from the fundamental laws. This gives an equal role in the production of literal truth about the world to the engineer and the applied scientist as to the fundamental scientist.
Her work covers both the most general issues in philosophy of science and quite specific issues in particular sciences - most extensively in physics and economics. Her 1999 book, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science, deepens the argument that most of the world does not behave the way it might seem in a laboratory. In her view, most of the world is irregular, disordered, and cannot be described by simple laws.
"When you pull together her world view you see that there is no simple way to reduce the complexities of sciences like economics or even biology to the laws of physics and chemistry, because the world we live in, as she says, is not controlled by continuity, but rather, is like a Seurat painting, 'dappled'," says Naomi Oreskes, UCSD historian of science and director of the Science Studies Program.
Oreskes adds, "Nancy has also written extensively on the history of positivism and logico-empiricist philosophy, on philosophy of economics, on evidence and causation in science, and more recently on the use of social scientific information in informing causal interpretations of real-life problems. She a very active scholar in the UCSD science studies program."
Cartwright received a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a thesis on "Philosophical Analysis of the Concept of Mixture in Quantum Mechanics." She has taught at the University of Maryland and Stanford University, and has had many visiting appointments. In addition to her professorship at UCSD Cartwright has been a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics since 1991 and director of the London School of Economics Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science since 1993.
Her other books include Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics (1995), Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement (1989) and Measuring Causes: Invariance, Modularity and the Causal Markov Condition (2002).
Membership in the APS reflects extraordinary accomplishments in all fields of intellectual endeavor. Members are nominated and elected by their peers in the Society. As of the current elections the APS has 912 members. There are 766 resident members (citizens or residents of the United States) and 146 foreign members representing more than two dozen countries.
Ten other members of the UCSD Faculty have previously been elected to membership in the APS: Robert McC. Adams, Theodore H. Bullock, E. Margaret Burbidge, Russell F. Doolittle, Edward A. Frieman, Marvin L. Goldberger, Charles F. Kennel, Walter H. Munk, John A. Orcutt and Larry R. Squire.