Fall Semester 2013
(September 13: Jessica Wang)
"The Telling of the Case: Rabies Narratives, Autopsy, and Medical Community in Nineteenth-Century New York City"
ABSTRACT: Physicians' identities and the formation of medical community constitute key concerns in the history of nineteenth-century American medicine. This presentation uses hydrophobia case histories and debates over post-mortem analysis as means for examining historical conceptions of rabies as a disease, the significance of the case narrative as a means of identity formation and knowledge circulation, and the interplay between autopsy and medical community among New York physicians during the second half of the nineteenth century. Literary genres ranging from the Bildungsroman to the war story, as well as heated debates and offended gentlemanly sensibilities, were all part of how discourses about rabies shaped physicians’ professional lives and the social world of New York medicine.
(September 20: Thomas Reydon)
"Biological Kinds as Moving Targets: Indifference and Interactivity in Biological Classification"
ABSTRACT: In this talk I both question and develop the dichotomy between "interactive kinds" and "indifferent kinds" that was proposed by Ian Hacking. Hacking argued that classifications in the human sciences differ from classifications in the natural sciences because of feedback effects that may occur in the human sciences between classificatory practices on the one hand and the entities being classified (i.e., people) on the other hand. Such feedback, which allegedly doesn’t occur in the natural sciences, can affect the properties of the classified entities, rendering the products of classificatory practices in the human sciences (kinds of people as "interactive kinds") epistemically less stable than kinds in the natural sciences ("indifferent kinds"). While I think Hacking pointed to an important aspect of how classification works, I want to suggest that instead of adopting a dichotomy between two kinds of kinds or two kinds of classificatory practices, classificatory practices in the sciences are better understood in terms of a continuum involving different degrees of interactivity and indifference. In particular the biological sciences seem to constitute a domain in which partly indifferent and partly interactive kinds can be found. I explore some reasons to think of biological kinds as partly indifferent / partly interactive kinds, as well as some consequences for the epistemic and practical uses of biological kinds.
(September 27: Rick Keller)
"Chasing Ghosts: Risk and Marginalization in the 2003 Heat Wave Disaster"
ABSTRACT: Place matters. While climatologists, geophysicists, and other scientists have framed climate change as global, its effects depend overwhelmingly on highly specific local conditions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the murderous heat wave that struck Western and Central Europe in August 2003. The product of a high-pressure front that stalled over much of the continent for over two weeks, the heat wave produced dramatically different effects throughout Europe. Even in France, which bore one of the most significant mortality burdens during the crisis, outcomes depended largely upon place. Paris, with some three percent of France's population, was the nation's most affected city, with nearly eight percent of the country's mortality linked to the heat wave. More important, specific neighborhoods and even particular buildings proved far more vulnerable than others. This paper draws upon epidemiological records as well as intensive fieldwork in Paris to detail patterns of vulnerability and resilience linked to place during the heat wave. Among other themes, the paper explores the social ecology of vulnerability and place; the links among architecture, social inequality, and health risk; and the relationship between global change and local disasters.
(October 4: James Skibo)
"From the Mountains of the Philippines to the Shores of Lake Superior: An Archaeologist’s Quest to Understand the Relationship between People and Things"
ABSTRACT: The core of archaeology is understanding the relationship between people and the artifacts that are part of our everyday life. For nearly a quarter century Dr. Skibo has focused on understanding this relationship between people and things with a special focus on pottery.He has researched pottery experimentally, done ethoarchaeology among contemporary potters in the Philippines, and has studied pottery from a variety of locals in North America, focusing specifically on trying to infer actual vessel function by exploring use-alteration traces. He discusses some of this research and concludes with a discussion about his most recent work on Grand Island, Michigan.
(October 11: William Harper)
"Isaac Newton's Scientific Method"
ABSTRACT: Newton employs theory-mediated measurements to turn data into far more informative evidence than can be achieved by hypothetico-deductive confirmation alone. This is exemplified in the classical response to Mercury’s perihelion problem. Contrary to Kuhn, Newton’s method endorses the radical transition from his theory to Einstein’s. Newton’s method is strikingly realized in the response to a challenge to general relativity from a later problem posed by Mercury’s perihelion. We can also see Newton’s method at work in cosmology today in the support afforded to the (dark energy) cosmic expansion from agreeing measurements from supernovae and cosmic microwave background radiation.
(October 18: Wijnand Mijnhardt)
"The History of Science and Its Problems"
ABSTRACT: In my presentation, "The History of Science and Its Problems", I will focus on three issues. First of all I will discuss the growing fragmentation in the field. It is an issue aggravated by the fact that most historians and most programs have a much too narrow conception of what history of science actually should be. Secondly, budget cuts everywhere seriously threaten the future of our field. There are no perfect solutions in this matter but I would like to advocate a more active stance. Lastly, I want to address the issue of the applications of the history of science. To most of us the subject may not need any further justification but I am convinced that very often we tend to forget our public role. The late medieval figure of the court jester can teach us some very important lessons in this respect.
(October 25: James Cortada)
"China Embracing IT in Changing Times"
ABSTRACT: Jim Cortada discusses China's recent adoption of computing, demonstrating that it quickly diffused to large numbers of people of many ages, following an Asia-wide phenomenon underway. He describes the economic and political circumstances that made this possible since the 1980s through the use of historical analysis. Cortada argues that before the Internet and smart phones, China had already started to embrace computing.
(November 1: Jessica Pfeifer)
"Fitness, Abstraction, and the Environment"
ABSTRACT: Fitness is always relative to an environment. However, not all features of an organism’s environment are relevant for its fitness, since not all features of an environment are selectively relevant. As a result, there are explanatory reasons to abstract from features of the environment that are not selectively relevant, even though they are causally relevant to evolutionary outcomes. This is, as I and others have argued, one of the main reason biologists invoke probabilities in understanding evolutionary processes. Building on my earlier work and on the work of others, I develop an account of which features of the environment are and are not relevant for selection and show how these environmental features ought to be factored in to determine fitness values. This account is then used to resolve some recent debates about the nature of fitness, selection, and random genetic drift. (return)
(November 8: Joe Cain)
"Honeymoon Caked in Mud: George Gaylord Simpson and Anne Roe in the Field, 1938"
ABSTRACT: In 1938-1939, George Gaylord Simpson -- palaeontologist and evolutionary theorist -- spent nine months travelling through Venezuela with his newlywed wife, Anne Roe, an academic psychologist. On the surface, this was a simple project aimed towards prospecting for fossil mammals. Underneath, this was anything but normal. Despite poor palaeontological results, Simpson and Roe ranked this as one of the most valued travels of their lives. My talk explores why. It sets this Venezuelan expedition at the centre of a biographical study of identity, both personal and projected. Simpson undertook profound personal and public redefinition at precisely this time. He worked hard to break from some long-held associations and worked even harder to tie himself tightly into others. The spatial and social imagery of Venezuela figured prominently in their efforts to construct themselves anew.
(November 15: Ofer Gal)
"Passionate Knowledge: The Dilemmas and Anxieties that Shaped Modern Science"
ABSTRACT: Modern science and modern democratic thought, so we are told, came to the world together. Both were founded on the trust in human Reason and its capacity to attain truth and lead to individual and political peace. Both espoused and benefited from the creation of an open public sphere, where Reason conquered over the passions so argument and evidence could be marshaled undisturbed. For both, Reason promised universal order: to be found in nature; to be established by law.
This uplifting Enlightenment narrative is a myth. That it sits ill with historical facts has been noted: early modern science thrived under princely patronage and absolutist monarchs and its champions never shied from acknowledging their benefactors and hailing their rule. That it belies the philosophical order of things is the subject matter of this talk.
The spectacular success of the New Science, I will argue, convinced its agents that Reason is hopelessly estranged from its surrounding world and that nature is irreducibly complex. Adopting the passions – anger, fear, desire, wonder – as a basis for an alternative, naturalized conception of knowledge, they developed ethics that reduced ‘good’ to ‘good for Man’ and political thought that stressed the primacy of sovereignty over law.
(November 22: Luke Premo)
"Great Expectations: The Potential and Perils of Using Models Borrowed from Neutral Theory to Study Cultural Transmission in the Archaeological Record"
(December 6: Allan Franklin)
"What Makes a Good Experiment? Mendel, Millikan, and Others"
ABSTRACT: Good experiments come in several varieties. They can be conceptually important, technically good, and pedagogically important. They also play many roles in science, beyond the testing of theory. These other roles include exploratory experiments, designed to investigate a subject for which a theory does not exist so that a theory may be formulated; experiments that help to articulate an existing theory; experiments that call for a new theory either by demonstrating the existence of a new phenomenon in need of explanation or by demonstrating that an existing theory is wrong; experiments that provide evidence for the entities involved in our theories, or new entities; experiments that measure quantities that are of physical interest such as Planck’s constant or the charge of the electron; and experiments which have a life of their own, independent of high-level theory. An experiment may also correct previous incorrect or misinterpreted results. In this talk I will illustrate this by discussing Mendel’s experiments on plant hybridization, Millikan’s measurement of Planck’s constant, and, if time permits, the Ellis and Wooster experiment on the energy spectrum in ß decay. (return)