As announced in a recent post, the whole sick crew spent last weekend in Cleveland at the jointly-located 4S, HSS, and SHOT meetings. Dividing our time differently between the three hotels (and various local watering holes), we each got our own snapshot of the state of the field(-s) today.
To my mind, two themes characterized some of the best panels: (1) the material culture of theories and (2) the structural power of metaphors. I hope a co-blogger will touch on the former as featured at “Making Mathematics,” a panel widely lauded as one of the weekend’s best.
For my part, I’ll describe the latter theme as it emerged in a Sunday panel on “Bodies, Colonies, and Stem Cells.” Each of the three papers – by Ben Hurlbut, Hallam Stevens (the organizer), and our very own Lukas Rieppel – dealt with the link between social and scientific categories.
That’s a sloppy way to label a subtle conversation, but I think the panelists (along with their commentator, Andy Yang) would agree that the slipperiness of distinctions between science and society was at play in many of the examples they raised, ranging from cell theory to South Park).
Take, as an example, George Bush’s famous 2001 allusion to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in describing the production of human embryonic stem cells for research research, which Hallam quoted in his talk. Once raised, the image of the “human hatchery” is hard to kill.
Ditto, in a different way, the cell-state metaphor Lukas discussed. August Wiesmann tacitly imported that intercellular framing for his intracellular theory – with the result that, though seemingly unintentional, his language was as political as that of his rival, Herbert Spencer.
Here’s proof of the power of metaphor and allusion – of language – in scientific thought. This should come as no surprise, but the smart ways these papers elucidated this familiar theme suggests its renewed vitality at the heart of a paradigm aimed at practice and material culture.