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HSS Highlights November 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Only a few cacti were seen in downtown Phoenix, and I am jealous of those who got a chance to get out of the city.

In the narrow space between my HSS trip, and an upcoming Thanksgiving trip, I wanted to quickly fit in a quick recap of some of the highlights of HSS.

Indiana University’s Bill Newman introduced the winner of this year’s lifetime-achievement Sarton Medal, John Murdoch.  Murdoch works on medieval and ancient science in a history of philosophy vein.  He came to Harvard in 1957, and when I was there (2002-07) his courses were of a rather different mode of pedagogy than the rest of the department.  As a 20th-century historian, I didn’t know him very well personally, but it was good to see HSS sustaining its effort to recognize and promote intellectual and philosophical history, and to bring it back into the mainstream of what we do.

[Edit, October 2011: John Murdoch died in September 2010.  An eloge written by Newman (paywall) appears in the September 2011 Isis.]

One of the big difficulties of keeping specialized intellectual history in the mainstream of a profession that has—rightly—branched out into cultural history, is how to make that work understandable and usable to those who aren’t intensively engaged with it.  On this note, I was enthused to learn about Newman’s web project,  “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” (aka chymistry.org). A few months ago, reader Tawrin alerted us to Newman’s work, which gave us the opportunity to note the thriving and super-wonky alchemy/chymistry corner of the historiography.  The web project was mainly discussed as an effort in public outreach and in secondary and post-secondary scientific education.  But what strikes me as awesome about the project is the way Newman is using it to make his specialist interests more comprehensible to historians who don’t work in the area.  This includes bringing chymistry to life by systematically telling us what the hell stuff like “oil of vitriol” is, and actually replicating alchemical experiments in video.  The prospect of there being vital matter in minerals makes a lot more sense when you watch this (.mov format).

Norton Wise, image from UCLA's Marketing and Communications site

Also very good and unusually intense was Norton Wise‘s distinguished lecture, “On Science as Historical Narrative,” which went through a variety of epistemic strategies, including the more technical argumentative methods of using partial differential equations and constructing simulations of quantum chaos, characterizing them as offering variations on the act of building narratives.  Personally, I enjoyed this take on epistemology, because it jibed rather nicely with some points I’ve been working on concerning the relationship between epistemic strategy and the organization of scientific work.  (See especially an article I wrote for BJHS back in 2007, available free here, as well as the pieces I published with Lambert Williams this past summer).  Wise cited the analytical work of historian and philosopher of economics Mary Morgan, who introduced him, and whose work I also find important.  I think there’s a lot of opportunity in epistemic characterization that stresses links between scientific practice and deeper philosophical analysis.

As for my own session, I thought the papers went together very nicely; apologies to all those whose plans were thrown off by the last-minute rejumbling of the order of presentation.  There’s one stray point I’d like to make note of.  In discussing West Antarctica, I note an early interest in the possibility of Antarctic deglaciation as a possible explanation for swings in ice age glacial cycles, which I link to Martin Rudwick’s discussion of 18th-century “geotheory” (essentially, terrestrial cosmologies) in Bursting the Limits of Time.

Naomi Oreskes (session commentator, with whom I consult on this project) is not a fan of the term “geotheory”, because she feels it makes geological theories into something not really scientific, and particular to the earth sciences (like an embarrassing cousin?).  Rudwick does present geotheory as something that fades out for lack of productivity in the early 1800s.   As I understand Naomi’s objection, it relates to her work in showing how Alfred Wegener’s 20th-century continental drift theory was never so outré as the mythology made it out to be.  But I don’t think the concept of the geotheory is opposed to the notion that grand theorization remains common, and can return from the margins in certain circumstances (as it did with plate tectonics).  The prefix “geo” here is not meant to single out the earth sciences as having some kind of uncomfortable theoretical baggage; it only prevents you from having to say “theory of the earth” to compare it to, but also to distinguish it from, a “theory of the cosmos” or some other product of a system-building methodology.

On system-building methodology (segue!), I really enjoyed Sharon Kingsland‘s paper, “From Ecosystem to Complex Adaptive System: Shifting Strategies in Modern Ecology”.  Kingsland has been working on ecology for a long time, and this paper, rather than focusing on a single topic, assembled a series of approaches to “systems”, which aim to use their own conceptual innovations (such as the concept of “stress”) in the treatment of complex systems as a way of trying to make room for new kinds of experts, or to shift policy (for good or ill).  Her treatment struck me as shaving off a thin slice of what is sure to be a much larger topic when historians start investigating it systematically.

The relationship between conceptualization and polemics also came out nicely in a pair of papers on applied science: Robert Bud‘s “Born in Translation: The Origins of the Phrase ‘Applied Science’,” which was quite good on the links between the philosophy and classification of knowledge and cognition (with good material on the reception of Kant and Comte in Britain); and Graeme Gooday‘s “‘Vague and Artificial’: The Historically Elusive Disjunction between Pure and Applied Science”.  This is a topic where it’s easy to look at some dispute over the pure/applied boundary and note the conceptual murkiness; both papers (like Kingsland’s) instead develop long-term histories of the polemical uses of the distinction to advance various professional programs, which are identified and distinguished from each other.

Many other good papers, too.  I spent a lot of time in sessions on physics and astronomy, which are areas that have experienced historiographical change rather than revolution.  Thus many papers remain unapologetically wonky, while new perspectives (for example, Alex Csiszar‘s work on Henri Poincaré’s intellectual relationship with bibliography, or Milena Wazeck’s work on the striking sociological consistency in fringe resistance to Einstein’s relativity) integrate into the old historiography rather smoothly.

Finally, the conference was good for catching people wandering around, including Michael Barton of the Dispersal of Darwin, whom I had not met before.  Michael gave a good presentation of various perspectives on history of science blogging, including my own.  He glossed a point I made about the “recovery” function of blogs pretty quickly, so I’ll just repeat here how valuable I think blogs can be in revisiting past scholarship—to resuscitate the complexity of past argument, and maybe to engage with it, without having to add original research, as publication or presentation would require.

“Recovery” has only increased in importance on this blog, and it was also good to hear from readers, especially those whom I hadn’t met before.  There were a few different compliments on the Schaffer series (not least because his works are hard to track down—I use this bibliography from ’05, FYI).  Another reader was glad to see me turn back to my own area of specialty with the “20th-century problem” series.  We have new posts coming up in both series (next up, respectively: Schaffer’s well-known review of Latour’s Pasteurization, and Peter Westwick’s National Labs).  It also so happens that I’m working on integrating Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s Energy and Empire into the historiographical conversation.  As Mary Morgan accurately noted in introducing Wise, the book is a cinder-block, but I have a couple more airplane rides ahead of me, so I’ll hopefully get to that soon.

Thanks to everyone who made this an enjoyable conference.



1. darwinsbulldog - November 25, 2009

Nice meeting you in Phoenix. Thanks for the nice words, and too bad I missed your talk…

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