Black border for page.
History of Science & Technology
History of Science & Technology
University of Minnesota
People Academics Events and Info
The Faculty Courses we offer Colloquia
Our Graduate Students Graduate Programs Newsletter
Contact us Undergraduate Minor Resources
black-pixel.gif (807 bytes)
YOU ARE HERE: events & info > colloquia > abstracts 
Spring Semester 2015

(January 23: Christian Wüthrich)
"Space and Time from Causality"
ABSTRACT: Space and time are conspicuous by their absence in fundamental theories of quantum gravity. Causal set theory is such a theory. It follows an eminent tradition of reducing spatiotemporal relations to causal ones. I will illustrate how the causal sets lack all spatial and most temporal structure. The absence of spacetime from the fundamental level of reality poses, however, a deep philosophical and scientific challenge. On the philosophical side, the threat of empirical incoherence looms. The scientific aspect arises from the need for any novel theory to explain the success, such as it was, of the theory it seeks to depose. Both sides of the challenge are resolved if we articulate a physically salient recovery of relativistic spacetime from the underlying fundamental causal sets. I will sketch ways in which this can be achieved. (return)

(January 30: Andrew Odlyzko)
"Gravity Models, Information Flows, and Inefficiency of Early Railroad Networks"
ABSTRACT: Gravity models of spatial interaction, which provide quantitative estimates of the decline in intensity of economic and social interactions with distance, are now ubiquitous in urban and transportation planning, international trade, and many other areas. They were discovered through analysis of a unique large data set by a Belgian engineer in 1846, at the height of the British Railway Mania. They contradicted deeply embedded beliefs about the nature of demand for railway service, and had they been properly applied, they could have lessened the investment losses of that bubble. A study of the information flows in Britain, primarily in the newspaper press, provides an instructive picture of slow diffusion of significant factual information, the distortions it suffered, and the wrong conclusions that were drawn from the experience in the end.

(February 6: Ann Johnson)
"Engineers in the Early American Republic: Where the Political Meets the Mathematical"
ABSTRACT: In the early American Republic, politicians and engineers both faced the challenge of how to build national infrastructure. However, it was not clear to the politicians who had the technical expertise to make decisions about what to build and where, while the engineers face the challenge of not knowing how to build the desired structures. As a result, a small cadre of well-connected engineers, who gained the trust of politicians, had an unusually influential say in developing a vision of the nation's commercial infrastructure. At the same time, they developed new mathematical methods of engineering analysis that took into account the diversity and variety of American building materials in order to produce structures that would not collapse, sink, or degrade too quickly. Once these methods were developed, engineers created institutions for disseminating them and in doing so laid the foundation for the professionalization of engineering in the second half of the 19th century. However, in considering how to replicate their technical expertise, they lost their political standing—as the argument that all engineers had the same basic knowledge meant there was little reason to offer any engineer a privileged place in executive or party politics. (return)

(February 13: Craig Hassel)
"Spanning Cultural Difference in Food and Health "
ABSTRACT: I will explore examples of University outreach/cross-cultural engagement with older, non-biomedical thought systems (African, Chinese Medicine, Indigenous knowledge traditions) bringing profound cultural difference in epistemology and ontology. Spanning these chasms of cultural difference involves cognitive bridge-building, a form of community engaged scholarship wherein habitual attachment to familiar, self-affirming, biomedical mental models is relaxed, allowing for temporary dwelling within unfamiliar, and often unsettling assumptive terrain. Perseverance with such bridge-building creates novel cognitive locations and perceptual lenses through which to reconsider disciplinary issues of the day and to illuminate otherwise opaque cultural/disciplinary “hidden subjectivities” that too often escape conscious attention and peer review. I refer back to nutrition science with its positivist legacy, its history of success with deterministic, acute deficiency disease, and its current struggle with more complex diet-related chronic disease and concepts of well being. I propose that nutrition as a biomedical science would advance by learning and adapting discourses and/or thought styles akin to those within the humanities and/or social sciences.

(February 20: Amy Fisher)
"Hare's Calorimotor: Rethinking Thermodynamics in Early 19th-Century America"
ABSTRACT: In the early nineteenth century, prominent chemists, such as Jöns Jacob Berzelius and Humphry Davy, proclaimed that a revolution had occurred in chemistry through electrical science. Examining Robert Hare’s contributions to this discourse, this presentation analyzes how chemists understood the relationship between heat and electricity during this transformative period. As an avid experimentalist, professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the American Philosophical Society, Hare actively shaped early American chemistry. He was part of a larger network of scholars, having corresponded with a number of scientists such as Joseph Henry, François Jean Arago, and Berzelius. He published works abroad in the Philosophical Magazine in England and the Annales de Chimie in France. He also experimented with and wrote extensively on electricity and its associated chemical and thermal effects. In particular, Hare's calorimotor – a device that utilized the voltaic pile (battery) and set caloric (or heat) into motion – raised important questions about Lavoisier’s caloric theory of heat and its relationship to electricity.

(February 27: Abena Dove Osseo-Asare)
"From Plants to Pills: Take Bitter Roots for Malaria"
ABSTRACT: How do plants become pharmaceuticals? In this talk, I examine the history of efforts to patent a treatment for malaria made from the bitter roots of fever vine (Cryptolepis sanguinolenta). Malaria is a serious health risk in tropical West Africa. In Ghana, where these bitter roots became known as "Ghana Quinine", a group of African scientists devoted their lives to creating a patented pharmaceutical from the plant. I consider their interactions with traditional healers from the 1940s, their struggles to establish a fledgling pharmaceutical industry, and the conflicts that complicated the success of the new drug in this postcolonial nation. This little known historical case provides a window into recent controversies surrounding biodiversity prospecting in tropical environments, the rights of indigenous peoples to shared benefits, and the quest for pharmaceutical patents. It is drawn from my recently published book, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa.

(March 6: Andrea Woody)
"A Methodological Role for Explanation in Science: Mechanistic Explanation and the Functional Perspective"
ABSTRACT: Philosophy of science offers a rich lineage of analysis concerning the nature of scientific explanation. The vast majority of this work, aiming to articulate necessary and/or sufficient conditions for explanations, presumes the proper analytic focus rests at the level of individual explanations. In recent work I have been developing an alternative, which I call the functional perspective, that shifts focus away from explanations as individual achievements and towards explaining as a coordinated activity of communities.

In this talk, I outline the functional perspective and discuss certain virtues and challenges for the framework. In particular, the functional perspective suggests that explanatory discourse should be “tuned” to the epistemic and practical goals of particular scientific communities. To explore the plausibility of this contention, I examine explanatory patterns involving reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. The aim here is to investigate ways in which such explanations are shaped to support the largely synthetic goals of the discipline. The contrast case will be mechanistic explanations in the biological sciences as recently characterized by philosophers of science. Mechanistic explanations in chemistry seem different in important respects. Most basically, I will argue that this example illustrates how taking the functional perspective may reveal an important methodological role for explanation in science, a role situated ultimately in social epistemology. (return)

(March 27: Kristin Peterson)
"Transcontinental Drug Traffic: Chemical Arbitrage, Speculative Capital, and Pharmaceutical Markets in Nigeria"
ABSTRACT: In the 1970s, Nigeria's oil boom generated unprecedented state wealth, quite in contrast to a massive U.S. economic recession. During that period, U.S. and European multinational companies turned to Nigeria to manufacture drugs and sold them on what was then a significant and important foreign market in terms of sales. By the 1990s, brand name drug markets in Nigeria and throughout Africa were completely eviscerated and relocated elsewhere. What was once almost exclusively a brand name drug market is now home to mostly imported pharmaceuticals throughout the world, for which there are constant concerns over drug quality. The paper first discusses two simultaneous convergences that remade the West African brand name market: Nigeria's structural adjustment program and the pharmaceutical industry's turn to speculative capital. It then provides an overview of the kinds of markets and the kinds of drugs that emerged in the aftermath of brand name industry's abandonment of the West African market. It concludes with a discussion on how actors within Nigerian and global drug markets interact with chronic, and indeed anticipated, market volatility in ways that produce new orders of pharmaceutical value. (return)

(April 3: Gabriela Soto Laveaga)
"Rural Health and Striking Urban Doctors: The Aftermath of Mexico's Attempt to Provide Healthcare for All"
ABSTRACT: In late 1964 residents and interns walked out of Mexico City hospitals and clinics in what would become a ten-month-long medical movement. In the months that followed the walkout, young doctors' demands shifted from salary and better working conditions to openly questioning an increasingly oppressive regime. Mexico had long been seen as a leader in health care delivery in Latin America and the image of doctors protesting in the streets became a visible sign of the failings of the nation's public health care system. This presentation examines the unlikely aftermath of the medical movement as well as its causes and links to earlier policies to provide healthcare to rural Mexicans. (return)

(April 10: Mazviita Chirimuuta)
"Ontology of Colour, Naturalized"
ABSTRACT: Can there be a naturalized metaphysics of colour—a straightforward distillation of the ontological commitments of the sciences of colour? In this talk I first make some observations about the kinds of philosophical theses that bubble to the surface of perceptual science. Due to a lack of consensus, a colour ontology cannot simply be read off from scientists' definitions and theoretical statements.

I next consider three alternative routes towards a naturalized colour metaphysics.
1) Ontological pluralism—endorsing the spectrum of views associated with the different branches of colour science.
2) Looking for a deeper scientific consensus.
3) Applying ideas about emergent properties that have been useful elsewhere in biology. (return)

(April 17: Francesca Bray)
"Happy Endings: Narratives of Reproduction in Late Imperial China"
ABSTRACT: A rich resource for exploring the reproductive cultures of late imperial China ca. 1500 – 1800 is the abundant corpus of gynecology (fuke) treatises and case-histories. Demographic historians have recently used quantitative sources to argue that deliberate checks on fertility became common during this period, and that a rational, "modern" demographic mentality emerged which saw elite or better-off families matching numbers of children to resources and opportunities. In documenting specific attempts to intervene in natural processes, the fuke medical cases offer some very different perspectives on how childbirth and fertility were understood by Chinese families, what was considered a successful outcome, what a failure, and whose opinions counted. Here I focus on the temporal framing and narrative choices of selected fuke cases to ask what they can tell us about how practitioners and their clients attempted to control reproductive processes, and about the ideals, decisions and emotions associated with childbearing. The medical sources corroborate several elements of the demographers' model of reproductive agency and rationality, yet vividly portray the uncertainty, peril and intense emotions of reproductive life, and underline the heavy price the many women had to pay in order to produce a socially desirable family. (return)

(April 24: Leslie Tomory)
"London's Water Supply before 1800 and the Origins of Network Modernity"
ABSTRACT: (return)

(May 1: Erik Angner)
"There Is No Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons"
ABSTRACT: The proposition that interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible has been part and parcel of mainstream economics for almost a century. These days, the proposition is invoked inter alia in arguments against happiness-based measures of well-being, which average happiness scores across populations in an effort to represent social welfare. In this talk, I will argue that interpersonal comparisons of utility are in fact implicit in virtually all traditional economic social welfare measures as well; if such comparisons are problematic, then, the problem is not unique to happiness-based measures. Fortunately, however, I will argue but that the proposition is a piece of zombie methodology: a methodological prescription that should have been dead and buried a long time ago. Social welfare measures have many problems, but interpersonal comparisons isn't one. (return)

(May 8: Michael Worboys)
"The Making of the Modern Dog: Breed, Blood and Britishness"
ABSTRACT: (return)


Black border for page.
Black border for page.
© 2001 University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Comments, questions to:
Updated: January 27, 2015
(Return to HST Home page)