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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). (more…)

Primer: Darwin October 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today we present a guest post by Michael Robinson of the University of Hartford, manager of the science-and-exploration blog Time to Eat the Dogs (where this is cross-posted), and author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

Non-famous Darwin

Darwin, talented naturalist.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), expert in barnacle taxonomy, lived his life as an omnivorous reader, letter-writer, and pack-rat. He attended college and traveled abroad, married his cousin Emma, and settled at Down House. There he wrote books, doted on his many children, and suffered bouts of chronic dyspepsia.

We don’t remember Darwin much for these details, eclipsed as they are by the blinding attention given to his work on evolution. But they are worth noticing if only to make a simple point. Darwin did not live life in anticipation of becoming the father of modern evolutionary biology, a status that seems almost inevitable when we read about Darwin’s life. Despite the distance of time and culture which separates us from Darwin, he lived his life much as we do: working too much, getting sick and getting better, fretting about others’ opinions, and seeking solace among his friends and family.

In spite of the scrutiny paid to evolution, or perhaps because of it, we continue to see Darwin through a glass darkly, distorted by a body of literature that, despite sophisticated analysis and a Homeric attention to details, reduces his life to the prelude and post-script of the modern era’s most important scientific theory. This is not to beat up on the “Darwin Industry” which has produced a number of superbly researched, balanced portraits of Darwin. But the nuance of such works cannot overcome the weight of Darwin as a (more…)