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New Article in Climatic Change November 2, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track.
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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.


The Discordant Image: Metaphors, Mentality, and the Diagnosis of Human Failure February 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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Earlier this year, Alex Wellerstein posted at his terrific new blog, Restricted Data, about the use of liquid metaphors to describe how information spreads (it “flows”, “leaks”, etc.), and historians’ analysis of metaphors in general.  It got me thinking again about an image I’ve run across in my archival research that has long fascinated me, but that probably won’t make it into anything I publish:

My fascination with the image arises from the nature of the document in which I found it: “Analysis of Incendiary Phase of Operations, 9-19 March 1945,” a summary report prepared by Maj.-Gen. Curtis LeMay’s staff in the XXI Bomber Command (from Folder 3, Box 37, Papers of Curtis E. LeMay, Library of Congress, Washington, DC).


Minor Reform and Epochal Narrative: Wartime Coordination of Research with Practical Needs May 23, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research, Technocracy in the UK.
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I am currently working more-or-less full time again on my book, which is about what I am now calling the “sciences of policy” (operations research, management science, systems analysis, decision theory….). But, while I was doing the spade work for my new project on experts in and around the British state (focusing initially on agricultural and food expertise), I found some interesting parallels between my old and new projects. I thought one of these parallels might make for an interesting post, since I am unlikely to put it into print anywhere else in the near future.

Some of the early parts of my book deal with what, in my present draft, I characterize as “a series of important, but ultimately minor bureaucratic reforms proposed by a small group of scientists and engineers between 1939 and 1941.” These reforms were the establishment of scientific advisory posts and “operational research” (OR) teams in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft Command, the Air Ministry, and the Royal Air Force.


Housekeeping May 1, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174, Uncategorized.
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Only three lectures left to go! After History 174 comes to a close (today was “Science and the Computer: Computation, Automation, Simulation, Information”), I think it will be about time to rejigger the blog a little bit, maybe harp on some people again to sign on as contributors, so we can get a more diverse dialogue going here.

One thing I’d like to see happen is a wider community of commentary and speculation. I think people take the blogging thing altogether too seriously and get intimidated, like you have to have some profound insight to blog. But I think it’s more of a place for unserious thinking, since we have to do so much serious thinking for publications. The most interesting and vital thinking seems to go on behind the scenes, so it seems like a good idea to open those conversations up a little to the public.

Anyway, to try and create a sense of there being an active blog community (no slackers!), I’ve decided to weed out a few defunct sites on the blog roll to the left. Phil Mirowski seems to have come to the end of his book promo blog, so he’s gone; it’s too bad, because I think if he ever had a real blog it would be seriously, seriously entertaining. Paul Edwards has apparently bored of writing about Infrastructuration, too, with no immediate hopes of return. However, Robert Vienneau’s “Thoughts on Economics” is updated regularly, and is usually historical in character and is also really thought-provoking–I recommend looking at it even though (especially because?) it’s not within The Biz. Similarly, the Copenhagen Medical Museion blog, Biomedicine on Display, kept up primarily by Thomas Soderqvist, is also frequently updated, and often asks really good questions.

Advances in the History of Psychology (celebrating 340 days on the web) is a little bit more newsletter-like with only occasional scholarly commentary. It is very professionally done–a model for all who want to try and reach out in this direction. Similarly, Michael Barton’s “The Dispersal of Darwin” is also usually in the newsletter vein. He’s done a great job of keeping the blog up, and his ClustrMap shows he has a wide audience. I might try and figure out some criteria for figuring out which of the (many) other popular blogs should get links.

The institutional blogs (except the Medical Museion) seems to be growing in fits and starts. The Penn Logan Lounge seems to have become a semesterly-updated seminar list, so I’m going to axe it. The University of Minnesota department blog is not updated a lot, but looks like it could become a place for reviews and thoughts–plus it’s Minnesota, and Minnesota is awesome. I’m really interested to see what the University of Oklahoma gang does with their Hydra online grad student journal/website.

I’ll be on the lookout foor more sites to put up, and will see if any of the hibernating ones spring back to life. If any readers have suggestions, please leave a comment. We’re looking for blogs dealing with the history of science, or any particular science, in at least a somewhat probing way, but the audience doesn’t have to be academic.

What happens when historians stop being polite… January 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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…and start getting REAL! It’s a nice question, and a theoretical one, since historians of science, at least, tend to be a very polite lot who rarely question one another’s approach. Instead, we throw around words like “fascinating” and “suggestive”, and then go do our own thing. This is the great thing about the history of science, in that it’s a sort of meeting ground for a lot of different fields, and it’s very easy to choose what group you want to engage with. So it’s also sort of like a high school lunchroom (or MTV’s The Real World), I guess. Of course, the history of science isn’t a huge field to begin with, so further fracturing can make your intellectual circle very small indeed, and that bothers me.

The reason for this situation seems to be, go figure, deeply embedded in the history of the field (the quirks of which are well explored in John Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, which should really be required reading for science studies grad students). I was a history major as an undergrad, and so I basically expected the history of science to be similar. False presumption. The history of science is a field stemming from the philosophy and sociology of science, and has not typically reflected a traditional historical methodology. History, rather, has been a tool that has been used to get at the nature of science–which is a line of thought stemming from the work of the Vienna Circle and other positivists (see Zammito).

Now, motivations for getting at the nature of science have been varied. The British history of science school back in the ’60s was heavily influenced by Marxist thought filtered through the communist crystallographer J. D. Bernal, and his circle. They saw the progress of science as inevitably tied to social priorities, and wanted to reform scientific institutions to suit their Marxist agenda. Followers of this school were appalled by the rise of the Edinburgh School and SSK, which sought a more detached perspective on how science is done, without the political concerns of the Marxists. However, fresher generations of critical theorists saw tight links between the “social constructionism” preached by the SSK’ers and the critiques of French theorists like Foucault. They used the history of science to demonstrate how science as a font of legitimizing authority reinforced dominant social notions. (This clearly links to my earlier point about the Cold War historiography, and I would be remiss at least not to mention Paul Edwards’ The Closed World at some point–we can talk about that later, though).

Learning about this history has made it much easier for me to understand the books that I am reading, and reinforces why it is so important to go back to the originals to see what they have to say–because their point of view is usually a lot more nuanced than they are in the straw man form given to them by later critics. I always feel bad for Tom Kuhn, because the guy had some good insights on the development of ideas, but his original motivations have not been so important to the people who implicate him in some of these other agendas. (I link to Steve Fuller here, but one should also mention Al Gore, whose PR work on climate change is admirable–but the inspiration he draws from Kuhn is pretty bizarre).