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New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

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B_SPR390_CLIM_00009.inddI am pleased to say that my article, “Research Agendas in Climate Studies: The Case of West Antarctic Ice Sheet Research,” has appeared in its Online First edition in the journal Climatic Change. It is behind a paywall, but Springer’s rules do allow me to post a prior submitted version* of the article, accompanied by the statement: “The final publication is available at http://link.springer.com.”  Click here to access the prior version.

This was a secondary project for me that I have long wanted to turn into a more sustained research program.  The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has a special interest for climate scientists because it rests on bedrock that is below sea level, and may well therefore be unstable.  It could disintegrate even though the ambient temperature is—and will continue to be—continually below freezing.  (Thus, WAIS is a rather different beast from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on bedrock that is above sea level, but is prone to melting.)  If WAIS were to disintegrate it would raise sea levels by at least 3 meters.  The trouble is that the long-term glaciological behavior of such “marine” ice sheets is not especially well understood.  So nobody knows for certain how stable WAIS really is, or how long it would take to disintegrate. It could be only a few centuries, or it could be millenia.


It was important to me that I try to reach scientific audiences with this paper. However, I was not really interested in conveying a particular “humanities” approach—I wanted to try and develop a historical picture that would have a more natural appeal to scientific audiences by engaging with the intellectual substance of their work.  Thus, I used history here to illuminate some of the contours, or “agendas,” of research that have shaped scientists’ understanding of WAIS.  Scientists are generally aware of the existence of such contours.  But those contours seem to inhabit an intellectual space above the level of the individual scientific paper, and yet they are not typically captured in review articles.  Thus they are ill-articulated, and play an ill-defined role in scientific work.  This then seemed to me an ideal place for the history of science to play a role.


HSS Highlights November 24, 2009

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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: Plate Tectonics April 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A map showing differing magnetic polarizations in rock on the Juan de Fuca plate with colors indicating age; from the United States Geological Survey.

During the 18th century, broad theories of the earth (such as that proposed by Jean-André de Luc, which I discussed a few weeks ago), attempted to account for a wide array of phenomenona, such as the origins of mountains, the origins of different rock strata, the presence of marine fossils on land, and so forth.  By the end of that century such wide-ranging and speculative theoretical “systems” had fallen into a degree of disrepute as a useful learned activity, and a more disciplined and less narratively ambitious geology slowly gained precedence.  Nevertheless, the questions asked by 18th-century savants remained valid, and varying theories of the earth’s history remained in circulation, with answers to many key questions remaining in flux until well into the 20th century.

Following World War II, the theory of the German meteorologist and paleoclimatologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), that continents drifted over the face of the globe, had fallen largely by the wayside.  Wegener had proposed his theory early in the 20th century to account for climatic changes in the earth’s distant past, for fossil similarities across continents, and for mountainous features of the earth’s crust, which required a new explanation after the decline of the cooling earth theory circa 1900.  Wegener’s theory—the most prominent of several proposed drift theories—had its sympathizers, some very well-respected, but the theory was not widely accepted, and geologists in North America were outright hostile to it, many assuming by mid-century that it had disappeared into the realm of crank science.

In fact, continental drift was never fully given up to the cranks, and in the 1950s and 1960s, new evidence and mechanisms for it were developed, which made a convincing enough case that it not only revived the fortunes of continental drift, but swiftly overcame all competition.  “Plate tectonics” arose at the confluence of a number of different (more…)

History in Perspective (Isis Pt. 6) August 2, 2008

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What I enjoyed most about Zuoyue Wang and Naomi Oreskes’ “History of Science and American Science Policy” is its sense of perspective and frankness about the place of history in science policy-making.  They begin with a well-chosen 1986 quote from Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May from a study on the “uses of history”: “…despite themselves Washington decision-makers actually used history in their decisions … whether they knew it or not.”  I think this is true: action is based on tradition and our understanding of decisions made in the past.  Therefore, a proper understanding of past events is helpful in making decisions.  So, the historian should be actively involved, yes?  Wang and Oreskes go on to quote John Heilbron, also from 1986: absolutely, we should “build the channels through which relevant and relevantly packaged research results of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science and technology may flow to policy makers. …  Let us come to the aid of our perplexed bretheren in the sciences.”

Not so fast.  While Wang and Oreskes remain upbeat, they urge caution: “opportunities for direct involvement in science policy have remained scarce.  Experience further suggests that historians who have taken up the demand have struggled to balance subtlety with clarity, nuanced appraisal with straight talk.  Authentic policy-relevant history is not an oxymoron, but it is a challenge.”  While it is true that historical lessons are frequently mis-interpreted (Wang presents evidence from his research on scientists who advised the President), the idea of historians of science themselves intervening is not so straight-forward as providing more informed interpretations.

Typically, Wang shows us, whenever historians have intervened in the political process, they have tried to strike an independent stance from both scientists and policymakers, but their testimony is usually called upon to take a side on pre-determined but clashing points of view.  For example, (more…)