Back in January 2013, twenty-three year old Kim Suozzi passed away after her fight with glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. Kim, a recent college graduate and neuroscience major, made headlines in the months leading up to her death for her decision to cryopreserve her brain in hopes that she would one day be revived. Unable to pay for the high cost of the procedure, Kim and her boyfriend Josh Schisler took her case to the Internet, determined to drum up donations to fund Kim’s dream. Ultimately, their campaign was a huge success: Kim raised the $80,000 dollars she needed to preserve her brain until neuroscientists figure out a way to bring her back to life.
This past weekend in New Haven, Yale hosted the 50th annual Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, known colloquially as JAS-Bio. Since 1965, the seminar has been hosted by institutions up and down the Eastern seaboard. JAS-Bio is a unique setting where historians of biology at all stages of their careers can meet and interact. While all the papers are given by graduate students, the audience is a great mix of senior faculty, early career scholars, and graduate students from many different institutions. This makes JAS-Bio an ideal venue for graduate students to receive feedback on their research, both from their peers and from more established scholars.
Polly Winsor, the esteemed historian of biology, published a short history of the seminar in Isis in 1999. Winsor describes the seminar as a small, friendly, and supportive environment in which students could “try their wings in circumstances less daunting than the annual meeting of HSS.” This year’s meeting was no exception. After each paper, the audience of over fifty people had an abundance of friendly feedback for the speakers. There were so many questions, in fact, that some session chairs had to forbid speakers from responding in order to collect all of the comments. The intellectual exchange didn’t stop there. At coffee breaks, meals, and receptions, I heard speakers field questions about their talks and discuss their larger research projects (including one lively conversation that carried on well after midnight). As compared to larger national meetings, there really is something unique about the type of intellectual engagement that happens at JAS-Bio. The seminar provides the time and space for extended conversation that can get drowned out in a larger conference setting. The regular attendees also take the seminar’s tradition of supporting graduate students very seriously, and it shows.
|Reminiscing about fifty years of JAS-Bio. Photo Credit: Daniel Liu.|
On Saturday, ten talks were delivered by students from Johns Hopkins, Yale, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, UW Madison, Brown, and Princeton (check out the program here). The papers covered everything from the biochemistry of the cell membrane (Daniel Liu, UW Madison) to the economics of goldfish breeding (Laurel Waycott, Yale). I learned why the disappearing pinky toe has become a ubiquitous symbol of human evolution (Emily Kern, Princeton) and how the discovery of echolocation grew out of military research on sonar and radar during WWII (Richard Nash, Johns Hopkins). I would say there was an even split between intellectual history and social/cultural history, with some speakers dabbling in intellectual frameworks such as disability studies and the history of capitalism. What struck me was not only the high quality of all of the papers, but also the growing awareness among graduate students about what makes a good presentation. Shira Shmuely (MIT), for example, took advantage of Powerpoint to show off her amazing archival find: handwritten laboratory inspection notebooks from late Victorian Britain. Speakers also shared a lot of jokes and light-hearted anecdotes, which was fitting given the relaxed tone of the meeting (also, I just really enjoy puns).
My favorite part of the day was the final session. Henry Cowles, AmericanScience alum and co-organizer of the conference, invited audience members up by “cohort” (the year they first attended the meeting) to reminisce and reflect on their experience. Over the next hour, audience members sketched out an informal history of the seminar and, in the process, the history of the discipline. Three members of the audience – Everett Mendelesohn, Garland Allen, and Ruth Cowan – had attended the original 1965 meeting at Yale. They recalled the department’s hospitality as well as the intellectual generosity of the original gathering. Research in the conference archive (held at the Smithsonian) revealed that two of the graduate students originally slated to give papers that day were unable to do so when time for discussion ran short. They were apparently quite relieved, however, as they had been roped into giving talks by their advisor and didn’t actually have anything prepared!
In her history, Winsor highlights the role of JAS-Bio as a “training ground” for young scholars giving their first academic paper. The tradition continued at this year’s seminar. The program included four first-year graduate students and one incredibly impressive undergraduate (Eliza Cohen, Brown). Indeed, the list of scholars who gave their first academic paper at JAS-Bio is impressive: Ruth Cowan, Gar Allen, Steven Shapin, Bernie Lightman, Rob Koehler, Jane Maienschein, John Harley Warner, Janet Brown, and Jim Secord, among many others. In reminiscing, these scholars recalled the nerve-wracking experience of delivering their first papers (tenured professors – they’re just like us!). Bernie Lightman was afraid that his mother (in attendance) was going embarrass him by asking a question; John Harley Warner was worried that the smart British girl who presented before him would make him look bad (it was Janet Browne). Pam Henson, scheduled to present her first paper after taking three days of oral exams, tried to escape the lecture hall (but was dragged back in by one of her professors).
This exercise in collective memory also turned up a host of other entertaining anecdotes. When Stony Brook hosted JAS-Bio in 1994, James Watson was invited to give short opening remarks, which ballooned into a forty-minute lecture on the history of biology. As Nathaniel Comfort recalled, Watson’s speech was “interesting to [historians of biology] in ways that he could not even imagine.” Sharon Kingsland described eleven-hour drives from Toronto and groups of graduate students lounging around the seminar room listening to Janis Joplin (before getting busted by their advisors). In 2009, graduate students had to work together to help a fellow speaker who locked himself out of his room wearing only a towel (while his clothes and talk remained inside). At the very end of the day, Luis Campos opened a package containing the very first advance copy of his book, fresh from the publisher. Luis explained that he wanted to share the accomplishment with his JAS-Bio family, who had been there since the beginning of the project. Put together, all of these anecdotes demonstrate the role that JAS-Bio has played not just intellectually, but socially, in the creation of a history of biology community. I can attest to the fact that the meetings are a great venue for forging friendships across institutions. This is true not only of JAS-Bio but its many siblings, including the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Medicine (JAS-Med), the Midwest Junto for the History of Science, and Phun-Day (the Harvard-Princeton-MIT History of Physical Sciences Workshop).
With so much reflection on JAS-Bio’s history, we weren’t left with much time to reflect on its future. Upon studying the list of this year’s participants and their first JAS-Bio appearances, one scholar noted that there was a conspicuous gap between 1965 and 1978. What happened to the scholars who had first presented during those years? Someone suggested that the gap could be explained by the dismal job market during that time, a comment that was not lost on current graduate students facing our own job market crisis. As more historians of biology find employment outside of the academy, or forge hybrid careers, JAS-Bio has the potential to bridge the academic/non-academic divide by bringing together the largest possible number of historians of biology (regardless of academic appointment) at least once a year. And while I don’t pretend to know which new framework will preoccupy us ten, twenty, or thirty years down the line (if I did, I would write a book about it!), this year’s papers indicate that graduate students are not afraid to push the discipline in exciting new directions. Here’s to another fifty years of fun, friendship, and exciting ideas in the history of biology.
Back in January, I was presented with a unique opportunity: the chance to walk inside of a particle accelerator.
And I was really really excited about it.
The tour was part of Yale’s Science Studies Lunch series. The brainchild of AmericanScience alum Joanna Radin and Bill Rankin, both Assistant Professors in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale, these monthly events bring together an interdisciplinary crowd of historians, sociologists, scientists, medical practitioners, and artists: anyone remotely interested in the social study of science. In a series of field trips, we have explored scientific collections, museums, labs, farms, and, on one day in January, a particle accelerator.
|The installation of the original accelerator, 1965|
Part of Yale’s Wright Lab, the Van de Graaf particle accelerator is in the process of being decommissioned. Originally installed in the mid-1960s, the atom smasher made Yale a national hub for the study of nuclear particle physics. At 100 feet long, the machine is dwarfed by the mammoth particle accelerators in operation today (for comparison, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is 17 miles long). But at the time of the accelerator’s last upgrade in 1987, it was the highest-energy tandem accelerator in the world.
|The installation of the new tandem accelerator, 1985.
Note the yellow exterior – the tank was promptly painted blue for purposes of school spirit.
From the outside, the accelerator looks unremarkable. Nestled in the side of a grassy knoll on campus (in an area known as Science Hill), the only outward clue of what lies beneath is a formidable set of double doors plastered with a “Security Notice.” The accelerator is so unremarkable, in fact, that I lived two blocks away from it and walked by it every day for three years without ever noticing it was there. We postulated that the grassy camouflage was a strategy to keep the lab hidden from view, or perhaps served as a shield for radiation. But the lab’s director, Karsten Heeger, assured us that he knew of no particular reason that the accelerator was placed underground other than an apocryphal story that the lab’s original director didn’t want his graduate students to have windows (sigh).
Realizing that I had lived in such close proximity to the lab made it even more exciting to explore the particle accelerator at my own doorstep. Here is what I took away as three of the most interesting themes of our conversation.
The Challenge of Commemoration
As the accelerator is decommissioned, the Wright Lab is making a concerted effort to commemorate the occasion and to preserve the accelerator’s historical legacy. Back in November, the lab held a open house that attracted over 700 people from across Connecticut. Long lineups of visitors waited out in the cold for their chance to tour the accelerator before it is dismantled. As one employee explained, this kind of public outreach wasn’t possible while the accelerator was still operational, because there was rarely a moment when the facility wasn’t being used to run experiments. But the lab has relished the opportunity to finally let the public in to explore the accelerator, and have proven receptive to alternative uses for the space. For example, local artists are organizing an exhibition that will take advantage of the unique setting. There has also been “at least one” skateboarder who has used the accelerator as a half-pipe.
As a historian, I was impressed by the lab’s sensitivity to issues of historical preservation. The lab is working with history of science Professor Paola Bertucci, who is also the Assistant Curator of the Historical Scientific Instruments Collection, to preserve key artifacts and eventually build an exhibit commemorating the accelerator in conjunction with the Peabody Museum of Natural History. We discussed the challenges inherent in preserving an experimental apparatus that takes up more than 14,000 square feet of space. As I snapped pictures with my phone, I quickly realized that photography was an insufficient medium for capturing the size of the machine, and the sense of awe it entails. So how do we preserve a sense of scale? One suggestion was to project and then paint an outline of the accelerator onto the wall. This way, future visitors to the lab will be able to see the accelerator’s footprint long after it disappears.
|The group inside the accelerator. I’m there too!
Photo Credit: Charlotte Abney
I wondered aloud if the accelerator might not be preserved as is (or at least in part) for future museum goers to walk through and experience just as our group did. I had in mind my visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum last summer, where life-sized models of space shuttles and airplanes hang from the ceiling and can be explored by the museum’s visitors. It was explained, however, that the accelerator and its scientific paraphernalia had to be taken apart because it is being parceled off to various institutions around the country. In fact, because the accelerator was partly funded by the federal government, Yale doesn’t actually own all of the equipment and therefore doesn’t control what happens to it. If the equipment can still be used to conduct “useful science,” it will be recycled and repurposed. I think there is much more to say about the idea of recycling in science, and the ways in which “outdated” technologies can have long and varied scientific careers of their own.
Heeger also explained how the spirit of the lab’s history will be preserved in the new designs for the Wright Laboratory, which will be renovated following the accelerator’s removal. The accelerator’s centrality in the lab meant that generations of Yale students received hands-on training in the design, construction, and maintenance of equipment. The lab hopes to keep this hands-on training as a fundamental part of student life by building a workshop for designing and building detectors for use at other major research sites. Even for theoretical physicists, these mechanical skills are a crucial part of the research endeavor.
Maintenance, Repair, and the Invisible Labor of Big Science
My favorite part of the trip was hearing from Frank Lopez, the lab’s Research Development Technician. He described the day-to-day operations of the accelerator, and the challenges of keeping such a complex piece of machinery working properly. As Lopez quipped, “if it exists, it will break down,” and the accelerator seems to have been a particularly finicky piece of equipment.
Lopez described the mundane task of cleaning the machine, as any dust or hair present in the inner chamber could interfere with the experiment. The accelerator is made up of thousands of individual metal parts, and they all had to be perfectly clean for an experiment to succeed. The image of scientists perched on top of a giant particle accelerator, carefully removing dust and hair from every nook and cranny, contrasts sharply with stereotypically heroic representations of experimental science. Graffiti along the walls and ceiling of the accelerator hints at the long hours the crew must have spent inside of the chamber inspecting, cleaning, and maintaining the equipment.
|There are lots and lots of individual parts, and lots of things that can go wrong.
Photo Credit: Bill Rankin
Because visiting teams of scientists would reserve the accelerator months or even years in advance, the crew had to be ready to run the experiment as soon as the group arrived. As each scientific team usually only had a week with the accelerator, there was no time for second chances. Part of the challenge was that in order to insulate the accelerator (which operated at 22 million volts), the inner chamber had to be pumped full of gas. Once the gas was pumped in (a process that in itself took an entire day), no humans could go back inside to tweak the machinery.
If one of the thousands of parts that made up the accelerator came loose and fell on the ground, it would create sparks so massive that the machine “sounded like a monster.” To solve this problem, the crew actually used remote-control cars, and later a robot of their own design, to retrieve errant pieces and save the experiment. If the robot failed to solve the problem, all of the gas needed to be pumped back out (which would take another day), so that the crew could re-enter the chamber and fix the machine. With such tight timelines, there was a lot at stake in making sure the machine worked properly.
Jeffery Ashenfelter, the Associate Director of Operations, reflected on the the tacit knowledge required to make the accelerator work. The key to successful science was tricking nature – but nature doesn’t always like to be tricked. He described the process of aligning the ion beam as “ion sorcery,” and admitted that they didn’t always understand how or why a certain alignment worked better than others. It took a lot of trial and error and a deep familiarity with the machine to create a successful experiment.
When we think of “big science,” we (naturally) tend to think about what’s “big”: the exorbitant costs, the challenges of international cooperation, the sheer scale of the required machinery. But the day-to-day operation of a particle accelerator requires a highly knowledgeable team that can carry out the countless small tasks and adjustments that make experiments work.
The Future of Big Science
Lastly, our tour guides reflected on the future of the Wright Lab and of “big science” more generally. The decision to decommission the particle accelerator stemmed in part from the lab’s shift away from particle physics towards the study of neutrinos and dark matter. When the accelerator was first installed in the 1960s, particle physics was an exciting and politically significant area of inquiry. Today, particle physics is what one lab member described as a “mature field.” While the accelerator could still be used to generate new knowledge, research in a mature field holds less appeal for an elite institution like Yale who strives to be on the cutting edge of new knowledge production.
While Yale had been a central hub for visiting researchers around the world, the massive scale of modern research facilities requires them to be placed in remote locations scattered throughout the globe, away from universities and urban centers. Members of the Wright Lab, for example, conduct research in several facilities around the world including the Gran Sasso National Underground Laboratory in Italy, the Daya Bay Reactor near Hong Kong, and (the coolest of all) the IceCube High-Energy Neutrino Telescope in Antarctica.
|A shot of the outside of the accelerator. It looked a little like a submarine, complete with portholes.
Photo Credit: Bill Rankin.
The international nature of such work presents new challenges for physicists. While they know how to write equations and design detectors, members of the lab felt less prepared for the cross-cultural cooperation required to conduct major experiments. Ashenfelter spoke of his experiences in Italy and admitted that at first he didn’t know how to “get science done” in a different cultural setting. At every new site there is a learning curve as scientists adjust to the facility’s unique culture and regulations.
Thank you to the Wright Lab for giving us such an excellent tour and for answering our many questions about the facility and its history. I can now brag about having been inside of a particle accelerator, which I’m sure will be a huge hit at future academic gatherings and nerdy cocktail parties.
|A Ford Model T on display during Thursday evening’s reception at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn MI.|
|An engaging panel on Friday morning asked: Who Were The Innovators?|
- Pamela O. Long, recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, was also the recipient of this years’ SHOT Leonardo da Vinci Medal. Audience members were assured that the award committee had decided to recognize Long’s work long before the MacArthur folks made their announcement. Long gave a great speech reflecting on her scholarly career, and called on young scholars to embrace the study of premodern technology.
- There were several panels reflecting on the importance of public engagement in the history of technology, including a roundtable response to Nicholas Kristof’s “indictment of academia” published last year in the New York Times. I had a few great conversations with academics who are engaged in curating exhibits in public spaces, and many emphasized how the materiality of the history of technology provides perfect opportunities for “hands-on” public engagement.
- On Friday afternoon, I attended the panel Indistinguishable from Magic: Technology and the Occult in Machine Age America. The title was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”,) and the papers were an fascinating look into how both spiritualists and magicians adopted modern technologies to create and study magic. Robert MacDougall (University of Western Ontario) capped off the panel with a smart paper on the Keely Motor, which touched on the challenges of writing the history of a failed technology as well as combining biography with the history of technology.
- Although I wasn’t able to attend, there was lots of buzz about Thursday’s THATcamp, and more generally about the need to bring fresh methodological approaches to the history of technology. I think it is fair to say that there was a lot of excitement and experimentation among the new generation of scholars at the meeting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how a list of “defining features” of the discipline might look very different a decade from now.