Author Archives: David Singerman

About David Singerman

Research Associate, Harvard Business School (2015-16); instructor, MIT (fall 2015) and University of Pennsylvania (spring 2016).

A great resource for early American science

Now that the fall semester is just about done, we can all start putting together syllabi put the finishing touches on courses for the spring. For my part, at Rutgers, I’ll be leading a seminar called “Science in American Culture” (Hardenbergh Hall room A1, W 9:50-12:50). And as I finalize primary and secondary readings and materials, especially in the period of early American history with which I am less intimately familiar, I’ll be very grateful for something that Seth Rockman of Brown University passed on to me a little while back.

At the summer 2014 meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, in Philadelphia, Rockman exercised his societal presidential privilege to organize a plenary on “SHEAR meets STEM”—as in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In advance of the session itself (held at the super-cool Mutter Museum), the panelists had compiled and made available a terrific bibliography of resources, primary and secondary, paper and digitized, for the study of early American science and technology, framed around the categories of STEM.

You can download the bibliography here: https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/shear-meets-stem-bibliography.pdf.The four panelists and bibliographers were Adam R. Nelson of the University of Wisconsin – Madison (who got Science), Nina E. Lerman of the Max Planck and Whitman College (Technology), Ann Johnson of the University of South Carolina (Engineering), and Caitlin Rosenthal of UC Berkeley (Math). Unfortunately, I don’t have the panelists’ individual comments, and I didn’t attend the conference myself (which took place the week my PhD was due).

In his remarks, Rockman acknowledged the anachronism of “STEM” (an NSF concoction from the nineties), but expressed his hope that such anachronism could be put to provocative and productive uses. As he put it, the “current cultural obsession with STEM” should be an opportunity for historians to provide “some historical perspective on techno-utopianism, on neuro-everything, on entrepreneurial research, commodified knowledge, and intellectual property, on instrumental thinking and its social consequences.” It’s another way to connect the study of history to “urgent questions of social justice, environmental sustainability, and the future of humanity itself.”

In fact, as Rockman points out, and as others reflecting on the panel have noted, adopting the categories of S-T-E-M can be a way to subvert them. This is a great point. While asking “how did we get to the present?” is a limiting kind of inquiry in the actual study and writing of history, I don’t think I’m alone in finding that the opposite is true in historical teaching. This is especially true when teaching an introductory course, like the “History of Science and Society, 1500-present” that I taught this fall, in which the class is likely to be filled with non-majors more than majors, and budding scientists and engineers more than little humanists. Starting with Copernicus and Vesalius runs the risk of accidentally telling a just-so story—or a story of historical construction that’s relatively easily grafted onto a whiggish timeline by students unused to historicizing scientific ideas. The most successful moments in my just-concluded class happened when I took a category or concept that the students took for granted, and proceeded to blow it up. The very framing of S, T, E, and M can be used to show how and why each of those terms has come to include some people, practices, and forms of knowledge, while excluding many others. (Here, from Monday’s links, is a piece from December’s AHA Perspectives on History offering an argument that history is integral to the work of the STEM fields themselves.)

That said, one potential peril of using the S/T/E/M tetrachotomy to discuss inclusion and exclusion is knowing how to classify what’s been left out. For instance, I recently read Wieland, a 1798 novel by Charles Brockden Brown, the first professional (full-time, that is) novelist in the U.S. It’s amazing, well worth reading, and completely bonkers: it begins with a case of spontaneous combustion in a gazebo overlooking the Delaware River. The late Jay Fliegelman, in his fabulous and necessary introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, explains the ways in which Brown is addressing questions and terrors of free will, rhetoric and persuasion, and the place and nature of authority in a democracy—concerns which, he compellingly argues, preoccupied citizens of the early republic. As I read the book, and especially when I then read, Fliegelman’s introduction (I recommend that order, to avoid spoilers), it was obvious that this highly epistemologically-interested work should be included in any discussion of early American science. But it’s difficult, though by no means impossible, to figure out where a work like “Wieland” fits on a STEMatic list.

I think that points to a plea Rockman made in his wrap-up—for a home for the list that allows it to surpass its current form, especially but not only the immutable mobility of a PDF. Surely a compilation like this is most powerful if it is flexible, and can incorporate expertise from beyond the panel that created it. What’s more, a bibliography of 18th- and early-19th-century primary sources might very profitably take advantage of the fact that so many of those sources are fully digitized and in the public domain, on Google Books, HathiTrust, and the like. As it stands, the links in the PDF are really valuable, but as far as I know the bibliography still awaits a medium that enables it to integrate those sources—one that makes it more than a list of links, and makes it easlier to recalibrate, reassemble, and experiment with. Perhaps a Zotero group is in order? Until such a format comes about, however, my students will already have the “SHEAR meets STEM” plenary to thank for enriching their spring.

(Thanks to Evan for his advance comments on this post.)

Atomic shells

Like a lot of us, I’m applying for jobs. In practical terms, that means I have been firing a lot of PDFs into the cloud, with no reason to believe that anyone will ever read them. Months go by with nary an automatic email of receipt. So when, one recent day, I heard from an institution’s search committee, my surprise was so complete that my mind could only grasp its dimensions through an analogy. Or, more precisely, through an analogy to an analogy.

What immediately popped into my head was a famous description of a rather more important shock in the history of science: Ernest Rutherford’s astonishment that alpha particles—today aka helium nuclei—reflected off a piece of gold foil. Being told of the reflection “‘was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life,” Rutherford said in one of his last recorded lectures (he died in 1937). “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

Abraham Pais, in his 1986 Inward Bound: On Matter and Forces in the Physical World, transcribed the recollections of Ernest Marsden, the undergraduate who was working in the lab of Hans Geiger at the University of Manchester in the spring of 1909:

“One day [early that year] Rutherford came into the room where we were counting . . . [alpha]-particles . . . turned to me and said: ‘See if you can get some effect of [alpha]-particles directly reflected from a metal surface’. I do not think he expected any such result, but it was one of those ‘hunches’ that perhaps some effect might be observed . . . To my surprise, I was able to observe the effect looked for . . . I remember well reporting the result to Rutherford a week after, when I met him on the steps leading to his private room.”

Pais points out that, given what we now believe about the atom, Rutherford was fortunate in his choice of experimental apparatus and in his approximations (but what’s new?). It isn’t Rutherford’s experimental apparatus that’s interesting to me, but the analogical one.

The phrase had been lodged in my brain for many years, but this time I was suddenly curious, in a way I hadn’t been before, about its material components, the shells and the tissue paper. This is probably because I have recently been reading about things—reading about how, over the past decade or so, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, literary critics, and others have gotten interested in studying recalcitrantly material things, as opposed to compliant objects, and the relations between their thingness and the meanings we give them.


I’m hardly the first to have been struck by this analogy. It turns out that when, exactly, Rutherford first made this analogy has been a subject of some interest and dispute, largely for what it might say about how this result was interpreted in 1909. The history of science is replete with experimental results that are retrospectively interpreted as remarkable in a way that they were not judged so by contemporaries, thanks to the experimenter’s regress. The Michelson-Morley experiment is probably the most famous: to Richard Feynman, it clearly demonstrated the falsity of the electromagnetic ether, but Feynman had the signal advantage of working in the 1960s. In a footnote, Pais observes that two of Rutherford’s later students at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory heard him use a similar comparison. But Pais laments that “We cannot know how early this picturesque comparison struck Rutherford for the first time.” But John Heilbron, in a 1968 article, was convinced that “the military imagery and the incredulity are later fabrications.” He noted that in a September 1909 lecture, just a few months after the experiment, Rutherford’s main problem was to account for the penetration of alpha particles, not their sometimes reflection. The Thomson model of the atom, hitherto, held it to be filled, not empty, and thus “only with the identification of the alpha particle with a bare nucleus and the atom essentially with empty space did the former become a cannon ball and the latter tissue paper” (265). Heilbron cites a passage from the same lecture which, he says, further demonstrates a lack of sufficient astonishment at the reflection: “not yet…the most remarkable event in Rutherford’s life!”*


In understanding the things of Rutherford’s analogy, I first thought, its timing might be crucial; but it turns out that in understanding the chronology of this experiment’s interpretation, Rutherford’s analogical things might help. It appears that in 1909—when Rutherford claimed, later, to have immediately registered his shock—15-inch shells did not yet really exist. HMS Dreadnought, the 1906 battleship famous for instantly rendering every other warship obsolete with her steam-turbine speed and heavy armament, boasted guns “only” 12 inches in caliber. 15-inch shells would only implausibly have been in the arsenal of metaphors for a layman to draw on.

But by the time Rutherford returned to Cambridge and the Cavendish in 1919, where his analogy was first reported, guns that big had become major things. During the First World War, the Paris Gun of the Krupp firm, mounted on a railway car, had bombarded Paris from 80 miles away. Even that, however, wasn’t very big, below 10 inches. 15-inch guns were really large. They were, with rare exceptions, only mounted on battleships and battlecruisers. Yet while British 15-inch guns had become cultural things, their shells were most famous for their failures to penetrate their targets. The Royal Navy’s largest projectiles had embarrassingly failed to make a dent in German armor at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, exploding harmlessly against their opponent’s plates, while several British ships had detonated after taking a paltry number of salvos on their lightly-armored chins. In other words, when Rutherford is recorded to have first made this analogy, 15-inch shells were actually known for their tendency to bounce off their targets. And this analogy couldn’t have been made much before he arrived at the Cavendish in 1919, or else it would have had to have been a smaller-bore analogy. Do analogies, like guns, get re-bored at higher calibers?

Perhaps this is evidence that Heilbron is right: Rutherford’s surprise was retrospective. I leave it to historians of atomic physics to tell me if this is important.  Or perhaps it’s evidence that the comparison to faulty weaponry was not meant to imply such great shock after all. Or perhaps a 15-inch shell is just a 15-inch shell.

And I haven’t even talked about the tissue paper. Consider this somewhat odd post, therefore, a call for those who know more about atomic physics, military history, and the history of fibers than I do to consider the “thingness” of the things in Rutherford’s phrase.

*Amusingly, Heilbron begins his article with the sentence “Alpha and beta particles are the chief shrapnel of natural radioactive decay.”

Photos, via JSTOR.org, from Nicholas A. Lambert, “‘Our Bloody Ships’ or ‘Our Bloody System’? Jutland and the Loss of the Battle Cruisers, 1916,” Journal of Military History 62, no. 1 (1998).

Pluto is a planet again, or not, who cares

In the introductory history of science class I’m teaching this fall, we began with some chapters from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—just to shake up your average undergraduate’s whiggishness. One of my students’ points of confusion, at least at first, was the way that a scientific community decides on a new paradigm. A few suggested that scientists [sic] should (and perhaps do) literally get together and vote on it, a thought most others thought overly simplistic. But eight years ago, the members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) controversially decided to strip Pluto of planethood, after its members voted on a definition of “planet” as something round that orbits the sun and “clears its neighborhood.” Its decision was, shall we say, not popular.

The spectacle of scientists publicly voting on a definition was weird enough. This September, however, Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics held a forum to vote on a definition of a planet. Historian of science Owen Gingerich chaired, an astronomer named Gareth Williams represented the IAU, and exoplanet scientist Dimitar Sasselov spoke on behalf of other stars’ subsidiary bodies. Gingerich proposed that the definition of planet is historically contingent and changing, Sasselov argued that a spherical body formed and orbiting around any star is a planet, and poor Williams had to defend what was clearly the unpopular position. The voice vote went to Sasselov; Pluto is a “planet” again.

My fellow MIT HASTS graduate Lisa Messeri (now at UVA) published a clever 2010 article called “The Problem of Pluto: Conflicting Cosmologies and the Classification of Planets” in Social Studies of Science. There she argued that “astronomers, amateurs, educators, and school children had been employing Pluto in different ways to construct multiple scientific and cultural cosmologies,” and that the IAU’s decision represented the victory of one of these views of the heavens over others. It has taken eight years, but other Plutonian cosmologies and their devotees are striking back.

What to make of the mock-outrage around Pluto’s de-planetification? Some of it, Messeri argues, is not so mock: it comes from “discomfort stemming from awareness that science is not as robust and objectively true as elementary education teaches.” This is precisely not the same as saying that searching for definitions is exactly what science does, and that “we’ll sort all of this out eventually.”

Optimistically, we might think the latest vote represents citizen involvement in scientific decisionmaking. “Pluto’s demotion exposed the role that scientists and scientific institutions play in constructing science,” Messeri writes. I suspect such hope is misplaced; the question of whether Pluto is a planet is too arbitrary, too obviously silly, to be in the same category of social phenomena as, say, vaccination or global warming. Instead, if people somehow don’t get bored of this question, I expect the planethood of Pluto will become something like the Latke-Hamentash debate that is an annual feature of the University of Chicago, MIT, Harvard and other university campuses. After those debates, a vote is taken, of course—but the result is always a tie.

What a joke

One frigid February evening, I arrived home from a long day of dissertation-writing and fellowship-applying at my MIT office, and settled down with some kind of takeout to watch the latest episode of FX’s “Archer.” I thought I was done with the history of metrology for the day. I was so wrong.

For those of you who don’t know “Archer,” it can be a little difficult to describe. It’s an animated spy spoof, set in a quasi-1960s world in which the private espionage contractor of ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) battles the KGB. But ISIS’s agents have desktop computers and visit moon bases. To call this anachronism would miss the point; it’s intentionally surreal and viciously funny. Think one-third “Get Smart,” one-third “Adult Swim,” and one-third “Arrested Development” (with whom it shares a creative team), and you’ll get an idea.
Among the protagonists (all wild alcoholics) are Mallory Archer, the owner of ISIS; her son Sterling, simultaneously a narcissistic fool and the world’s greatest secret agent; his ex-girlfriend Lana Kane; the ISIS accountant, Cyril Figgis; and the HR manager, Pam Poovey. The best character is a mad scientist named Krieger, who may or may not be a clone of Adolf Hitler. The show’s writers are particularly famous for having these characters make endless witty references, not just to contemporary culture, but to obscure parts of it.
In the latest, fifth season, the showrunners got bored of secret-agent storylines; ISIS got shut down by the Feds and the gang became fugitives, strapped for cash but with a thousand kilograms of cocaine to unload. By the fourth episode, they’ve sold some of it, but Pam has eaten much of the stockpile. The cold open shows Cyril presenting their predicament.
The metric-system jokes begin immediately. But it’s easy to make fun of the United States’s obstinance.

Cyril: From our initial supply of one thousand kilos of cocaine—
Archer: Hold on, dummy, we had a ton of cocaine¡
Cyril: Well, we had a “tonne,” t-o-n-n-e, also known as a metric ton.
Mallory: Pssh! Metric, who uses metric?
Lana: Every single country on the planet except for us, Liberia, and Burma.
Sterling: Wow, really? Because you never think of the other two as having their [censored] together.

My own work is about the links between the measurement of nature and of economic value; in my dissertation, and in a forthcoming article, I write that “the history of capitalism is a history of struggle over the terms by which to evaluate human labor and the products of nature.” It would, possibly, be too much to suggest that’s what the “Archer” writers meant by the following pun:

Cyril: As you can see, we’re already down to 125 kilos of cocaine, which was worth about six million dollars—
Sterling: And, wait, how much is that in pounds?
Cyril: Forget pounds! We’re doing kilos!
Sterling: No, I meant pounds—
Mallory: Sterling!
Sterling: Exactly! As in “Doctor Who” money.

But shortly thereafter—through cartoon logic too convoluted to explain—Mallory comes to a conclusion about what to do with Pam. And this is where the episode just got weird.

Mallory: We throw her a party! With an enormous cake! Cyril, can we spare another five pounds of cocaine?
Lana: Mallory!
Mallory: 2.27 kilograms, then. Who are you, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall?
Sterling: Ha! Right?

This is when I fell off the couch. Who would make a joke about Thomas Corwin Mendenhall? Who would even think to make a joke about him? Who even knew who he was?
Of course, I knew—but it’s my job. In fact, I had spent an entire cold, dark, rainy, fruitless week in Mendenhall’s papers at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, in the winter of 2005/6. Mendenhall was an American physicist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who spent most of his career performing fundamental metrological work, determining ever-more-precise values of such quantities as solar wavelengths and the Earth’s mass. In 1889, he became superintendent of the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, responsible for maintaining the accuracy and consistency of the government’s weights and measures, a topic addressed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution (not to mention Deuteronomy 25:13-16). It was during his superintendence that Mendenhall issued the order that officially calibrated all Federal units, even English ones, to the metric system. (If the joke is “about” anything, it’s about this Mendenhall Order.)
Mendenhall circulated his order just a month before the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Alongside the Exposition’s pavilions, canals, and sadistically murderous hoteliers, numerous international scientific congresses met in an attempt to settle once and for all the values of fundamental units, particularly but not only new and disputed ones dealing with electromagnetic phenomena. It is no joke to say that an important part of agreeing on a fundamental unit was to agree on its name; nomenclature, as Evan can tell us much better than I, is a crucial means by which scientists from astronomers to atomic physicists claim priority, credibility, and facticity.
And indeed this is what I, anyway, mostly remembered Mendenhall for. My week spent in his papers was fruitless; there was nothing about the domestic electrical meter, the subject of my undergraduate thesis. But there was this letter, from Mendenhall to Arthur Gordon Webster, a polymathic physicist at Clark University, on May 13, 1893. At stake was not just names, but the orthography of names. “I have not failed to observe, as you suggest,” Mendenhall wrote to Webster, “that the English write ‘metre.'”

I have noticed, also, that they write ‘annexe’, ‘honour’, ‘jewellery’, and ‘shew’. (The spelling ‘dogge’ has gone out, even there.) They also wear their trousers turned up on the street, and, I am informed, now wear pink shirts at afternoon weddings. I see as good reason for our imitating them in one practice as in another. Like yourself, I am no advocate of an ‘American’ spelling unless a decided advantage can be shown to exist, but I see no reason for doing a thing simply because the English do it.

Such was the spirit of internationalism that surrounded world’s fairs. As Ken Alder has recently argued, the nineteenth century’s scientific congresses were junkets just as today’s are: excuses for  scientists to see colleagues and have a good time in a new city.
What to make of all this? It appears to be humor week on the blog, and like Jenna yesterday I’ve found humor important for understanding the past. I don’t just mean as source, but almost as analytic—it’s important to recognize when a story from the past is absurd, since contemporaries often did.
In any case, the Mendenhall joke raises two lines of historico-philosophico-comedic questions for which I don’t have good answers. One is practical: how is a joke about an obscure figure from the history of American science conceived? (Did the writers start with the Wikipedia page for the metric system, and work outward? Had one of them taken an undergraduate class in the history of American science?) I tried getting in touch with an “Archer” writer in order to talk about how the show’s more obscure jokes get written. After much trawling, I found contact information for just one—an Emerson student who had submitted a particularly good spec script. From her, I learned that the Mendenhall joke was written by none other than Adam Reed, the show’s chief creative brain. But that’s as far as I got. If anyone has an in with the “Archer” team, please let me know in the comments.
Second, and perhaps more troublingly, is the humor equivalent of the question about the tree falling in the forest. If a television show makes a joke that almost nobody except historians of American metrology is able to “get,” is it even a joke at all?