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Primer: Joseph Banks July 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A young Joseph Banks, painted by Benjamin West, held at the Usher Art Gallery in Lincoln

Two decades ago Harold Carter, in his definitive biography of Joseph Banks (1988), and John Gascoigne, in Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment (1994), could both suppose that Banks (1743-1820) was a neglected figure in the historiography of science.  Following a surge of interest in natural history and the relationship between imperialism and the sciences, no such claim could now hold water — entire conferences are now dedicated to Banks and his milieu (.doc).  This post is intended mainly for my own benefit, to fill out my side interest in the culture of improvement circa 1800, but also just to help me get a personal handle on what now must be considered de rigeuer knowledge for any competent historian of science

The task of briefly summarizing Banks’ place in history is complicated by the reach of his interests, while it is simplified by the fact that he has very little place within the history of published science.  Banks was an institution builder, whose influence was derived from his ability to orchestrate the resources and interests of hereditary privilege and the state, as well as from his commitment to building and maintaining an intellectual community capable of supporting a new scale of work in natural history, estate improvement, and imperial development.

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Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).

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Primer: William Thomson January 26, 2010

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William Thomson, Age 28, Well-Established

William Thomson (1824-1907) was the son of James Thomson, an Irish professor of mathematics who moved from the University of Belfast to the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1832.  William was raised in a latitudinarian tradition of religious tolerance, and in a whig tradition of progressive social reform.  In Glasgow, he was exposed to a scholarly environment from early on, and it was assumed he would follow in his father’s academic footsteps.  In 1841 he departed to Cambridge, where he studied for the mathematical tripos, becoming a student of the coach William Hopkins his second year.  He finished second wrangler in the January 1845 examination.

Before Thomson had even arrived at Cambridge, his father had begun the process of maneuvering him into position to take over the chair in natural philosophy at Glasgow.  William duly obtained it in 1846 at the age of 22, and held it until his retirement in 1899.  By the 1840s, natural philosophy had already begun a long process of transformation, which Thomson himself did much to mold.  Traditionally, the basis of natural philosophy was the development of theories of the materials of the universe and their powers on each other, resulting in schemes for explaining various kinds of physical phenomena, as mediated by the power of experiment.  And indeed, to qualify for the Glasgow chair, Thomson had been encouraged to seek out what limited experimental work was done at Cambridge, and, after completing the tripos, he had traveled to Paris where he assisted in the laboratory of Victor Regnault (1810-1878) at the Collège de France.

At Cambridge, meanwhile, the mathematical tripos had classically been considered an appropriate foundation of a liberal education, instilling in students analytical habits of mind. (more…)

Primer: Imperial College July 29, 2009

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Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

Dean Thomas Henry Huxley

While much of the history of science necessarily focuses on centers of elite learning, a thorough understanding necessitates examination of the broader foundations of scientific culture.  In the 18th century, the French state established a new emphasis in technical education and augmented it following the Revolution, most notably with the École Polytechnique.  In the 19th century, various German-speaking states emulated the model by establishing the Technische Hochschule, soon followed by the Americans with the foundation of institutions such as the Case School of Applied Sciences, the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Technical Schools, as well as technically-oriented universities such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago.

The British also followed this trend, although perhaps not with the zeal of other nations.  The Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was established in London in 1845 out of the same national anxiety that had already produced the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as out of admiration for the German laboratory chemistry of Justus Liebig (1803-1873) of the University of Giessen—the College’s first hire was Liebig student August Wilhelm Hofmann.  The Royal School of Mines (RSM) opened in 1851, following urging for such an institution by, among others, noted geologist Henry De la Beche, the director of the new Geological Survey of Great Britain.  The two institutions were officially amalgamated in 1853, while retaining distinct identities.

In the latter half of the century, the development of the London technical schools became an important topic for those concerned with the development of science in Britain as a resource for the state and nation.  From 1881 until his death in 1895, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), best known now as an ardent proponent of Charles Darwin’s natural selection and for science in general, became dean of the RSM and the RCC.  In 1881, he tellingly renamed the latter the (more…)

Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently (more…)

Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Grant-writing has been preoccupying me lately, so I’m going to compress what I initially intended to be a straight plug for an excellent article in the latest SiC, and do a Hump-Day History post drawing on some of its contents: Stéphane Schmitt’s “From Physiology to Classification: Comparative Anatomy and Vicq d’Azyr’s Plan of Reform for Life Sciences and Medicine (1774-1794)” Science in Context 22 (2009): 145-193.

Félix Vicq-d'Azyr (1746-1794)

I admire the article because it demonstrates an exemplary sense of historiographical problematics, placing its subject matter within the literature as well as addressing it to a well-defined historiographical question: how did comparative anatomy become a dominant methodology within natural history circa 1800?  The shift has been identified most strongly with the work of Georges Cuvier at the Museum of Natural History in Paris beginning in 1795, but the prior work and advocacy of former Buffon assistant Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1799) and his protege Félix Vicq d’Azyr has clear importance that was widely recognized at the time, but became subsumed in later histories.

Vicq d’Azyr was born in Normandy and arrived in Paris in 1765 to study medicine.  Around 1770 he attended courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and perhaps met Daubenton at this time.  Daubenton soon became Vicq d’Azyr’s patron, and Vicq d’Azyr married Daubenton’s niece in 1773 (she died 18 months later and Vicq d’Azyr never remarried).  It was around this time that the young physician decided to make the unusual turn to comparative anatomy.  This led him to membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and he became a founding figure and permanent secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, which was founded in 1776.

In the 1770s, French natural history still revolved around the figure of the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788, named comte in 1772), the intendant of the (more…)

Primer: Chien-Shiung Wu July 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Chien-Shiung Wu with Ernest Ambler, from the LIFE photo archive.  Photograph by James Burke.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was born in Shanghai, China and raised nearby in Jiangsu Province.  Her father had been trained as an engineer and was the director of the Ming De School for Girls at the time of her birth.  Wu finished her education at her father’s school in 1922 and went on to the Soochow School for Girls in Nanjing, where she studied physics and mathematics on her own while undertaking a more classical formal education.  In 1930 she registered at the National Central University in Nanjing, and received a degree in physics in 1934.  She was also active in the student protests there that followed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

Wu did x-ray crystallography research for two years at the Chinese National Academy of Sciences in Shanghai.  In 1936 she sailed to America with financial support from an uncle in order to undertake graduate education at the University of Michigan.  On her way, she stopped and visited the University of California at Berkeley, where she met Ernest Lawrence (and her future husband Luke Yuan).  On learning that Michigan did not allow women in its student union, she opted to pursue her PhD at Berkeley instead, receiving it in 1940 for work on nuclear decay (more…)

Primer: The Rise of the Austrian School of Economics July 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973)

The “Austrian School” in economics traces its tradition to the work of Carl Menger (1840-1921).  Menger’s theoretical development of the origins of price has grouped him with the contemporary “Lausanne School” (identified with the axiomatic mathematical economics of Leon Walras) and the work of British economist William Stanley Jevons, all as part of the “marginalist revolution” in economics, which grounded the mechanism of price-setting in the value attributed to various quantities of goods by their buyers and sellers—a keystone of neoclassical economic theory and a critical element in the argument against the control of the economy by the state.

Menger developed his theories in opposition to the “German Historical School” headed by Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917), which gave Menger and his followers the label “Austrian”, intending the label as derogatory.  Schmoller insisted that theoretical economics disregarded essential differences in national traditions, and that only detailed historical investigations could arrive at a firm understanding of political and economic activity. The opening of the conflict between Menger and Schmoller occurred following the publication of Menger’s Principles of Economics (1871), a mere four years after Menger had received his law degree.  An anonymous review signed “G. Sch.” in a literary journal criticized the text’s scientific pretensions.  When Schmoller dismissed Menger’s Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics (1883) in (more…)

Primer: Michael Faraday June 17, 2009

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Michael Faraday (1791-1867) came from a London artisan family and as a youth became an apprentice at a bookbinding shop.  There he took the opportunity to read the books passing through, including such scientific titles as Conversations on Chemistry (1805) by Jane Marcet and Antoine Lavoisier’s landmark Elements of Chemistry (translated into English in 1790).  Supported in his explorations by his master and others, he attended popular scientific lectures, including some given by the celebrated chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) at the new Royal Institution (est. 1799).  In 1813 Faraday finagled a job as Davy’s assistant, and would remain at the Royal Institution for the rest of his life.

Faraday undertook his work throughout a period when the sciences were changing rapidly, as they were yoked into distinct specialties, and as his own area, the  experimental physical sciences, became dramatically more sophisticated.  Under Davy’s and other Royal Institution figures’ supervision, he learned the techniques of chemistry, and undertook all his early work in that field (and is credited with the discovery of benzene).  When Faraday initiated his interest in electricity and magnetism early in the 19th century, the harnessing of galvanic currents by means of voltaic piles was a recent innovation that had sparked extensive investigation into electrochemical effects (an alternative explanation is here).  Davy was a leader in this new field of study, and Faraday would likewise become an expert.  Faraday would eventually fall out with Davy—who would oppose his election to the Royal Society—and he came into his own at the Royal (more…)

Primer: Leo Szilard June 11, 2009

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Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Photo Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

I had another post planned for today, but got waylaid when, working on my physicist web project, I had to piece together the career of Leo Szilard.  The idea behind the project is to gather skeletal information on physicists to help trace career paths, but this doesn’t work very well for Szilard, who was a sort of a physicist vagabond who seems to have cobbled his career together out of temporary and part-time positions, meager patent revenues, and a penchant for a modest existence.  So, I’ve been spending my day immersed in journalist and policy analyst William Lanouette’s Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard (1992), trying to sift out what I can.  Since I’m learning more than enough for a post, I thought I’d just write something up on him while I was at it.

Szilard, the son of an engineer, was born Leo Spitz in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898.  (His family changed their name in 1900.)  Out of a sense of practicality, Szilard aimed to become an engineer himself, enrolling in the Technical Institute of Budapest, but was drafted into the army during World War I.  After the war, political conditions became difficult for Szilard, on account of his Jewish heritage, and he moved from Hungary to Berlin to continue his education there, first at the Technical Institute and then the University.  In Berlin, Szilard decided to indulge his intellect and study physics in an environment rich in the some of the greatest talent of his day, notably Max von Laue and Albert Einstein.  Submitting a manuscript detailing a new conceptualization of thermodynamics that impressed both these men (and was decades later recognized as a contribution to the integration of thermodynamics and information theory), he was granted his doctorate in 1922.

The key characteristic of Szilard’s work and career was his restless and penetrating intellect, which accepted no boundaries and precious little institutional restraint, and drove him to travel constantly.  He devoted his thinking to (more…)