Giant’s Shoulders #34: The Existentialist Edition

First off, my apologies in the delay in publishing this edition. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been ill and pretty much bedridden; and unlike the wonderful Sasha, my two dogs Lucy and Gizmo are too lazy and would rather curl up and sleep beside me than take upon my duties.

A few weeks ago, the Science and Culture Working Group at the University of Toronto hosted an informal discussion and dinner session with Steven Shapin. The Working Group meets once a month to read and discuss any relevant topics relating to the role of science and culture; for this particular meeting, we joined Professor Shapin in discussing the role of academia the ivory tower, branching out from his The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. What was expected to be a discussion about the book or Shapin’s latest works, or even the history of “the ivory tower,” became a conversation that partly grounded itself on expressing “woe-is-me” fears about the future of history of science studies, or even humanities itself. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the merits of the conversation, but merely expressing the fact that lately, it seems that there’s been a lot of concerns about the future of HPS studies in general.  Whether or not the decision to close the Wellcome Institute was a warning sign of things to come, or yet another symptom of a long-standing wasting disease, there’s no denying that many of us HPS folks are left pondering about the future and merits of our chosen discipline.

So this edition of Giant’s Shoulders somewhat focuses on what appears to be an existentialist crisis facing HPS. It comes in many forms and in varying degrees. But keep in mind that like many other scholarly discussions, this particular existentialist crisis doesn’t have to be a disheartening or discouraging one—but rather, with full bursts of optimism, such discussions can pave the way to solidify our fears and strengthen our ties as a discipline.

But I’ve never really been a “serious person” and therefore I need to pause here and redirect you all to this video, which, thanks to Michael Barton, made me chuckle for a while.

Now, back to Giant’s Shoulders…

To begin, we must ask, who cares about the history of science? Or more clearly, why should we care about caring about the history of science? Why do we need to emphasize to our universities, departments, students, the importance of studying the history of science? And how, if not why, do we concern ourselves with placing the history of science and science studies within wider social and pedagogical discussions about their place in society? And because I can’t resist—do we now have a new battleground for Science Wars II? Follow and read about the debate here—and hopefully, participate:

Thomas Soderqvist’s evaluation of the question: Which “social study of science” publication would convince scientists themselves?

Nathaniel Comfort’s posts on who cares about the history of science, history as a way of caring, and maybe we shouldn’t care

The Do’s and Don’ts of the History of Science, as outlined by Rebekah Higgitt, an expansion of her earlier posts on what constitutes as “good, popular science.”

“Science without history is just ignorance.”

Commentary vs Synthesis: Will Thomas’ two posts—here and here–on Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed in 2009 here), raises the question on how deeply we should evaluate historiography alongside the narrative’s historical significance. Michael Bycroft also remarks in the comments section, so be sure to give those a read.

We historians and our nosey noses! What historical value can we get from evaluating public vs. private letters? A post on some of Darwin’s correspondences and their requests to “burn after reading.”

History of science, we must remember, is always about the people and their places and roles in their cultures and societies. Biographies are always a great read because by providing a vantage point from a single individual or groups of individuals, we are transported to a different time and place, viewing that world through the lens of another. Here’s some posts about individuals in science and history:

A post about Philip Henry Gosse, the man who introduced us to the lovely creatures known as seahorses.

The Enigmatic Vostok 1: Unraveling the mystery of Yuri Gagarin’s April 12, 1961 flight in space

A busy man, indeed: Robert Boyle’s to-do list

Alan Turing and a completely different Turing Problem

Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus: physician, entrepreneur, poet.

A documentary on on Ernst Haeckel’s drawings of radiolarians

John Harrison’s Hands: a song about a clockmaker that combines 18th century discussions about science with folk art

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Francis Galton, the “Father of Eugenics” and Charles Darwin’s cousin. There are a number of exhibits–The Galton Collection, the Petrie Museum and UCL Special Collections—marking the centenary of Galton, an often controversial academic, including the unveiling of a recently discovered photograph of Galton on his deathbed.

Do you know who this is? A mystery astronomer and a mystery history.

The polymath Conrad Gesner: professor for Greek and physics, physician and medical author, zoologist, botanist, mineralogist, bibliographer and mountain climber

The Philosophical Breakfast Club, or some early men of science.

A physicists’ physicist, or, how James Clerk Maxwell changed the world

Captains and their voyages: uncovering the past through digitalized manuscripts

Peter the Wild Boy keeps popping up—what story does he have to tell us?

What would HPS be without our glorious and wondrous books? If you’re looking for a great read to accompany you to the beach on warm(er) days—even if you’re in Toronto, where as of April 17, it’s still snowing—check out these reviews:

A review and yet another  review of Holly Tucker’s captivating book, Blood Work: A Tale of Murder and Medicine, tells the true story of the first animal-to-human blood transfusions performed seventeenth century Europe. (Wait—the book was swag for attendees at ScienceOnline? Lucky!)

A review of Vivien Grey’s The Chemist who lost his head: The Story of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

Another one of those anti-Darwin vehemence pamphlets (which is available for purchase on the blog bookstore), with no authorship signature

A review of  The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder, which tells the story of Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre’s efforts to survey the line of constant longitude (or meridian) between Dunkerque and Barcelona through Paris, starting amidst the French Revolution in 1792,

Will Thomas on Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which not only contains some agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests, particularly the post-Marxist historiographical tradition.

A review of Peter Burke’s A Social History of Knowledge , which provides new perspectives on the relevance of Karl Marx, Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and Robert Merton, as well as later contributors to the sociology of knowledge, such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann.

Let Newton Be! Comments and a semi-review on Craig Baxter/the Menagerie Theatre Company’s play on Newton. Which I was extremely excited about to see (even got my ticket and all) when it arrived in Toronto. Except this blasted illness prevented me from going. I’m so disappointed. Oh wait—here’s another review, this time, with photos!

Unraveling myths, or new interpretations? Working through the ambiguities, isn’t that what history of science is all about?

Test your history about the Urban Legends of Cytogenetics.

The monster of Ravenna: examining real and imagined bodies as transmogrified in popular images

Re-drawing the boundaries of science by using metaphors: Science as a “Hunt” for the secrets of nature

(Re-)reading a difficult chapter once again: The Galileo Myth and the Clayton Myth

The gorilla shuns you! An Uncomfortable Caricature: Darwin, the Descent, and the ASPCA (1871)

Is it a myth that Christianity gave birth to science?

How Michael Faraday debunked spiritualism

A fantastic post on the birth of electromagnetism.

How to properly apply Ockham’s Razor

An error in Leonardo da Vinci’s geometric drawing as revealed by Dutch mathematician and sculptor Rinus Roelofs

More than a Bunsen Burner: the other achievements of Robert Bunsen

And some other great stuff:

Well, good to know that all prayers are (not) answered equally: Francis Galton’s reasoning that there was no difference between the life spans of clergymen, doctors and lawyers.

Precision in technical drawings: Ramsden’s Dividing Engines

Aesthetic pleasure from plants as outlined by Ruskin’s aesthetic taxonomy

Ancient ancestors: Lemura as lost cradle of humankind, The Last Resting Place of Decuriasuchus, and is Eoanthropus dawsoni a valid species?

Enough with the humans—what roles do animals and animal bodies play in science?  And whether or not you’re an animal lover, here’s three ways you can help prevent animal cruelty.

Deep Sea 101: examining the history of deep-sea exploration to better understand how technological advances yield new insights and makes us better historians

Ten Special Commandments for a Would-Be Planet Hunter, according to Clyde Tombaugh. And what happens when you find a planet? A fantastic post with great photos on planetary landings (I LOVE the image with the side-by-side comparisons of planetary sizes). Also make sure not to forget your souveniours.

There’s now online access to the ‘Oral History of British Science’ interview with James Lovelock available. The interview (recorded over two days in April 2010) comprises 13 ‘parts’ or tracks, and can be accessed here.

For you Lord of the Rings fans: a podcast series examining the mythoecology of middle earth.

Collections in the archives: a portable laboratory kit for mineralogical analysis and a donated collection of slide rulers

The “thunderstone of Ensisheim,”  the oldest known recorded case of a meteorite in Europe.

A history of horses in varying degrees: transport, stage, and physics

For those of you always looking for excuses to procrastinate: Time as an anachronism, and who to blame for inventing Daylight Savings Time

Thanks to everyone who submitted posts! Next month’s edition will be hosted by Jost a Mon—nominations as usual, should be sent to the host blog or to the Giant’s Shoulders website.

Latest Comments

  1. Kevin Z says:

    Thanks for finding and linking to my post on deep-sea exploration history! Great job on this Edition of Giant’s Shoulders!


  2. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost
  3. Nathaniel Comfort says:

    This is great stuff–many thanks!


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