Category Archives: HSS

The Queues of Disneyland, and other thoughts from HSS

My undergraduate course in discrete mathematics introduced me to some of the paradigmatic problems of the field, including Euler’s Seven Bridges of Königsberg or the Gas-Water-Light puzzle (the latter a creation meant, in my experience, to frustrate the solver and make the poser feel smug). Both problems reduce practical or real world situations to fascinating and generalized mathematics. The practical becomes the pure, in other words. At a variety of talks and sessions that I attended at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society (program here), it struck me how flat and unsatisfying a picture of the interactions of science and practice such examples provide us.

Bridges of Königsberg, a map adapted by Bogdan Giuşcă.

I first thought of Königsberg during a fascinating paper by James D. Skee (UC-Berkeley) exploring the use of operations research (OR) in the design of Disneyland and other parks. As Skee persuasively argued, consultants like Harrison Price trained in wartime operations research successfully sold their skills to a new “mass leisure” industry, typified by Walt’s emerging empire. They translated park design into a series of optimization problems and consumer projections; they simulated visitor behavior and solved elaborate scheduling problems. One could imagine this being a story simply of application—using OR to remake parks. Yet there is clearly much more. Price and his associates created new problems and new concepts to deal with the particularities of mass leisure in post-war America. “Design,” a word I would associate with architects and park builders appears to have been undergoing a mathematical formalization in the mid-twentieth century—this was my own speculation and conclusion, Skee was too careful a scholar to make such leaps—on its way to today’s “d-school” ideal. I wonder if some future textbook will hold (or if one already does) a “queues of disneyland” paradigmatic problem.

daVinci’s Vitruvian Man, photographed by Luc Viatour /

On either side of Skee’s paper I heard equally evocative talks. One by Emory’s Aimi Hamraie explained the development of laws and standards employed by architects to make buildings accessible to (nearly) everyone. I agreed wholeheartedly with Karen Reeds’ assessment of the paper in the question period, that it was not only well constructed but morally significant. Hamraie identified a continuing tension in the twentieth century transnational development of accessibility standards between ideals (the shadows of Vitruvian man) and distributions (anthropometric data concerned with averages but also with accommodating from 5% to 95% of human variation). Another paper, by Brittany Shields (Penn) considered the design of NYU’s Courant Institute, including the central position given to lounges and the library in the building, as spaces for fertile exchange of ideas. I was particularly intrigued by the idea (I think it was Courant’s) that the mathematics library would serve as the equivalent of a laboratory, with the key feature of a laboratory being that it provides a space for students to share insights and materials—a strange and telling definition of a laboratory.

All three of those papers looked back, as commentator Tom Gieryn noted, to the Cold War. Yet the Cold War played little or any direct role in them. The same could be said for Nadia Berenstein‘s talk “Flavor Added” on the work of flavor chemists from 1954-74. Berenstein (Penn) highlighted the wonderful complexities of industrial science. I found particularly compelling her discussion of flavorists’ work in an increasingly instrumentalized setting. Interestingly, even as gas chromatography empowered flavorists with the capacity to analyze naturally occurring flavor chemicals much more accurately than ever before, the flavorists’ judgments remained crucial. Gas chromatographs could dissect a strawberry, but the best (and most practical) synthetics seldom came by replicating nature directly. Analytical data became creative fodder for the flavorist to practice his scientific art.

The Cold War became a much more explicit object of inquiry and contest in one of the best roundtables I have ever attended. Organized around the publication of an edited volume by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (Cold War Social Science), the session pondered and argued over whether there really was such a thing as “Cold War” social science. But it really sprang to life in a debate over Jessica Wang‘s brilliant and provocative paper on what she referred to as the “immunity of the national security state to knowledge.”* Drawing on Ted Porter’s idea of “thin description,”Wang (UBC) argued that the US national security apparatus privileged thin ways of knowing over thick (even, Sarah Igo noted, as it commissioned and paid for plenty of thick description, as explored in historical work by Joy Rohde or Rebecca Lemov). The discussion challenged Wang’s argument to some extent, but spent much more time trying to explain it—some argued that a preference for thin description owed to the necessities of expanding American empire, others pointed to the hubris of a super power with a series of successful occupations under its belt following WWII, and still others (including Wang) focused on the theoretical ideology of Talcott Parsons and the general social scientists who believed in the power of thin description and simplifying models of society.

On the whole, the papers I saw exemplified the possibilities for historical work in the history of science that reaches out: into the history of mass leisure, disability history, industrial development, and the Cold War state. I’ll close by mentioning a final, lovely paper by John Tresch (Penn) on Michel Chevalier’s Letters on North America (trans. 1839). Chevalier, the “Tocqueville of Techniques” in Tresch’s title, appears a truly fascinating character: a Saint-Simonian apostle and engineer sent to America on a mission similar to Tocqueville’s, but with very different ends. Where Tocqueville found “democracy,” with all the possible perils of that word (the rule by mob), Chevalier saw a beacon of industrial development, of redemptive industrial empire. As I’ve noted on this blog before, I am happy to see Tocqueville de-emphasized and Tresch offers Chevalier to do the job in a way that emphasizes transnational connection instead of national exceptionalism, that sets American western expansion next to French control of Algeria in a story of industrial empire building.

Chevalier landed in America during Jackson’s war on the Bank of the US. He took the Bank of the US as a model for what the French should create, even as the American version stood ready to fall. The bank war has nearly always been told as a purely American national narrative, yet even it clearly belongs to a broader story of modern nation states and their relationship to finance and capital. From this side of the fiscal cliff, it strikes me as a topic worthy of continued attention.

*(or something very close to that—my notes are, I’m afraid, not perfect transcriptions)

Southern Science

In a post last month for the “Southern Roundtable” blog, Jay Malone (HSS executive director) makes a few noteworthy claims. For instance: historians of science and southern historians share peculiar senses of isolation in most history departments. Or:someone like William Dunbar (a Scot who came to North America in 1772 and became a planter) matters most to the history of science because he welcomed and supported visiting naturalists, like William Bartram or Alexander Wilson. (Also: tell me more about these visits. What they bring to mind most readily are the stops that Darwin made and recounted with Spanish officials on the Beagle voyage.)

But the most striking claim came in the title of the post. (And I know, I’m probably just showing my ignorance here.) What does “Southern Science” look like? Please, internet community, tell me more. (And, I know, you had the same question about “American Science.” My question is: does a literature on “Southern Science” exist that parallels the larger American version?)

Looking Outward

In case you missed it, HSS president Lynn Nyhart used her column in the last newsletter to ask the history of science community of scholars to think expansively about the profession:

Here’s a thought: we could become “them.” Instead of noticing (and complaining about) science writers who take our best material and get it not-quite right, we could sometimes choose–and then learn–to write the way they do. Instead of sighing over science textbooks that compress history into brief sidebars, we could work with their writers to show why history of science deserves not only more space but integration into the overall presentation of science. We could further encourage history of science students to become K–12 teachers, museum professionals, and film-makers, and seek out active means to funnel people headed for these futures into history of science courses. Instead of bemoaning the lack of science-cultural literacy among our politicians and government bureaucrats, we could prepare our students for non-academic jobs that engage with science-related public policy.

I would add that we can and should push for integration of history of science into other branches of history. For us, that means making HOS a part of standard US history narratives.

Nyhart also mentions our little experiment here and that HSS has opened up an on-line forum that—err, um—has not exactly caught on yet. I like this spirit of experimentation. I think the question for Google Group is: what does an HSS Forum do that H-Net can’t? Any ideas?

Dr. Cynthia Beall and the Science of Human Adaptability

This Friday, Nov. 4 at 12pm, those attending the FHSA distinguished scientist lecture will have the privilege of hearing from and talking with Case Western’s Dr. Cynthia Beall. Gina Rumore, an FHSA stalwart, got in touch with Beall and offers the following introduction to her work. Enjoy:

Cynthia Beall and nomad friends: Phala, Tibet, altitude 4500m, 2005, 
copyright Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein

Dr. Cynthia Beall of Case Western University will deliver this year’s FHSA Distinguished Scientist Lecture at the History of Science Society’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Beall, a physical anthropologist, studies how humans adapt, physiologically, to living at high altitudes. She conducts her research on populations in the South American Andes, the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas, and the Simien Plateau of Ethiopia. She is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Over the past forty years, Beall’s research has challenged some of the most fundamental ideas about human adaptation—including her breakthrough discovery that Tibetan and Andean highlanders have adapted physiologically quite differently to living at high altitude. She is, indeed, a distinguished American scientist, and her talk on the history of high altitude studies and physical anthropology promises to be of interest to a diverse audience of historians of science. There is truly a little something for everyone in her story.

In 1970, Beall began her graduate education at Pennsylvania State under Dr. Paul Baker, who is credited as the founder of human adaptability studies. Focused on addressing questions of how natural selection acts on humans, Beall never really considered the challenges of being a female graduate student in an all-male program. “My dissertation advisor, and I didn’t know this until I got there,” Beall recalls, “it turns out was famous for not liking to take female graduate students. Or infamous I should say. And I remember someone telling me this and asking, ‘why?’ I was so out of it, right, that it never occurred to me that of all of the things someone would worry about they would worry about that. After my first field experience I found out that the male graduate students had had a betting pool as to whether or not I would survive the season. I don’t know who won it. I hope they all lost their shirts. It never occurred to me that it would be a problem.” Beall not only survived that first field season in Peru, but she would go on to become the most successful of Baker’s students, revolutionizing the field of high altitude population studies along the way.

Beall completed her doctorate in 1976 and immediately began to study, with her partner and colleague Melvyn Goldstein, the adaptations of populations living on the Tibetan Plateau of Nepal and, beginning in the early 1980s, of Tibet as well. “[T]here was no possibility of working [in Tibet] until the open door policy of the early 80s,” Beall explains, “and that, I should also say, was a policy of the Dalai Lama too. They used to either turn people away or kill them.” Access to these populations fundamentally altered the views of anthropologists and physiologists on how humans have adapted to live at high altitude. “Well the first change occurred in studying Tibetans in Nepal and finding that they didn’t have the same biological patterns as Andean highlanders,” according to Beall. “However, in Nepal, the people who we had access to at the time lived, what you might call, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and so it was possible for them in the course of an annual cycle or even in the course of a day to move up and down a lot in altitude. So there was always in the back of people’s minds the idea that the reason for the apparent Tibetan Indian difference was a pattern in the difference of exposure to high altitude. So in going to Tibet, where it’s a huge plateau, and you are talking about people living in the midst of the plateau, they never go to low altitude. So that was a very nice study design to address that one particular concern.” The natives of the Tibetan Plateau had adapted, physiologically, quite differently to living at high altitude than the Andean natives of Bolivia and Peru.

Humans living at high altitude face the deadly threat of high-altitude hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, resulting from the lower air pressure at high altitudes making it harder for sufficient oxygen molecules to enter the blood stream. Earlier studies of the Andean populations living at high altitudes revealed that individuals in these populations generally had elevated hemoglobin concentrations, and this came to be the accepted means of high-altitude adaptation. But when anthropologists began studying the populations of the Tibetan Plateau in the 1970s and 1980s, they discovered that these populations did not adapt in the same way. Beall’s work over the past four decades has addressed this question of how these two populations, as well as a third, Ethiopian highlanders, have evolved different physiological mechanisms to solve the same biological problem – the need to draw sufficient oxygen into the blood stream from thin air.

Just as access to new populations has shifted anthropologists’ perspectives on how humans adapt to high altitude, changes in science and technology over the past four decades have also radically reshaped the questions physical anthropologists can ask and what data they collect and how. “[When we first started out in the field,” Beall recalls, “it was things like height and weight, chest depth, everything super low tech … and then it became possible slowly to have portable generators, so you could have some electricity. So then you could expand a little bit what you could measure. My favorite device was invented in the early-to-mid 80s, called the pulse oximeter that measures the amount of oxygen that hemoglobin is carrying. And that’s a little portable box that changed the field radically, because before to get that measurement you had to take an arterial blood sample. And that’s quite invasive. Sometimes you can’t even get permission to that here in the U.S. Then blood samples became smaller, people developed new techniques for measuring things in saliva and in urine, and in exhaled breath … So all of that has changed what we can measure. Now in the more rural areas people are starting to put in micro-hydro and they have their own electricity or they have solar panels and they have their own electricity. And then we moved to genetics, and again there have been changes: at first you needed blood, and now you only need saliva. People are happy to spit.” Technological changes have also allowed anthropologists to begin to tackle a tough question with genetic data: what genes are responsible for adaptability to living at high altitude (meaning what allows humans from low altitude to acclimate) and what specific genes show adaptation driven by natural selection?

Despite the many changes in science and technology over the past forty years, Beall is careful to point out that much of the basic work of physical anthropology remains the same: “You need pedigrees. So you need to know who is related to whom. You need to know what people do for a living. You need to know what they eat. What their exercise patterns are… a lot of the social context, and you still have to get that by sitting down and talking with people and living in the village. And that has absolutely not changed and that is crucial. There are some classic examples where basically we were misled by data being collected from the wrong people or without thinking about important confounding social factors. So the things that I have been talking about have been technical changes that have allowed us to be able to measure human biology better. The things that have remained the same are old-fashioned techniques. We are doing ethnography and observing people and talking with them.” As a physical anthropologist, Beall spends months at a time living among the high-altitude populations with whom she works. And, fortunately, she has a knack both for learning languages—she is fluent in Spanish and speaks conversational Tibetan (she did note that she does not yet speak Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia)—and she seems to be immune to altitude sickness.

Beyond, or perhaps in conjunction with, their research, Beall and Goldstein (a social anthropologist) have also worked hard to give back to the communities in which they conduct their research. One of their largest efforts has been establishing a sheep bank in the nomadic area of the Tibetan Plateau. “[W]e thought, what is it that nomads can do to get rich?” Beall recalls. “Everyone else in China is starting businesses and things like that, and what can the nomads do? Well, the only thing they can do is raise more animals, and so what we did is we got funding so that we could buy 250 fertile female sheep of the highest quality one year. And we talked to the community and the community helped decide which five families should get this loan of animals, and the idea was that they would be able to keep any babies that were born in subsequent years, keep the milk, the meat, the wool. Well, we hoped that they wouldn’t keep the meat. We did not want them to kill any animals. So remove the meat from that list. Then in the fourth year they were to pay back half of the animals and in the fifth year pay back the second half. Then we did the same thing in year two; we got another 250 animals, and in year three we got another 250 and now its been working for about seven years and the idea is that as they pay back their animals, then the community has a bank. It has these animals to loan out to other families. And it’s been working beautifully. They took 100% seriously control. They watch, they monitor. If Joe Schmoe looks like he has a gambling problem, and he’s about to sell his animals and eat them, they go and take them back.”

Listening to Beall tell of her work in Tibet, it is hard to miss the passion for the people, the environment and the science that motivates her research. Beall’s career touches on and highlights so many issues in the history of science in America: really cool, cutting-edge science; the role of gender in science; the challenges of working in the field and working on human subjects—a natural experiment, as she calls it; and technology and how it has changed and been changed by scientists and their research questions. She will, without a doubt, add immeasurably to the History of Science Society program this November. Her talk will take place on Friday, November 4, following the noon business meeting for the Forum for the History of Science in America.

Gina Rumore is a lecturer in the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation, titled “A Natural Laboratory, A National Monument: Carving out a Place for Science in Glacier Bay, Alaska, 1879-1959,” won the 2010 Rachel Carson Prize for the Best Dissertation in Environmental History. Rumore has served as Secretary-Treasurer of FHSA since 2006.

AmericanScience Goes to Cleveland

AmericanScience will be all over the place at the jointly-held annual meetings of HSS/SHOT/4S in Cleveland next week. We’re looking forward to meeting and talking with our readers! Let us know your ideas for topics, guest posts, interview suggestions, and general feedback. Here’s where to find us:


HSS: 9:00 – 11:45 AM

Blossom (4th Floor)

“Costs and Benefits: Life Scientists and the Assessment of Wartime Technologies, from 1945 to the Vietnam War”

Chair and Commentator: Karen Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

1. Environmental Consciousness in the Cold War: Radioecologists, Nuclear Technology, and the Atomic Age, *Rachel Rothschild, Yale University
2. Quickening Nature’s Pulse: Mutation Plant Breeding at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Oregon State University
3. The Atomic Farmer in his Gamma Garden: Agricultural Research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1948-1955, Helen Curry, Yale University
4. The Area Should Be Treated as a Laboratory: Scientists, Controversy, and the Vietnam War, Sarah Bridger, California Polytechnic State University


4S: 8:30am – 10:00am

Crowne Plaza, Grand Ballroom – West

“Science and Commercial Culture: Competition, Cooperation and Assimilation”

Chair: Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)

1. Publish When You Cannot Patent: Counterintuitive Relations Between
Early Modern Science and Commerce. Mario Biagioli (University of California, Davis)
2. Academies in the Press: The Structural Transformation of the Scientific Public. Alex Csiszar (Harvard University)
3. Vertical Integration and the Market for Vertebrate Fossils, 1890-1910. Lukas Rieppel (Harvard University)
4. Purity vs. Property? Entrepreneurship, War and Technoscience’s Changing Identity. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds), Stathis Arapostathis (University of Leeds)

Discussant: Bruno Strasser (Yale University)

HSS: 9:00-11:45 am

Holden (4th Floor)

“Floating Labs: Mobile Scientific Spaces and the Reconfiguration of Practice “

Chair and Commentator: Helen Rozwadowski, University of Connecticut, Avery Point

1. Scientists Under Pressure: The Scientific Practices of a Cold War Underwater Laboratory, Nellwyn Thomas, University of Pennsylvania
2. Ship as Instrument: The R/V Alpha Helix and Human Biological Research, 1966-1977, Joanna Radin, University of Pennsylvania
3. The Tale of Bathybius: Of Sea, Ships, and Urschleim, *Emma Zuroski, Cornell University
4. The Oceanic Feeling in Human Biology: The Voyage of the Zaca, 1934-35, Warwick Anderson, University of Sydney

HSS: 1:30-3:30 pm

Severance (4th Floor)

“Knowing Society”

Chair: Dan Bouk, Colgate University

1. Early Modern Social Analysis: Nicolas de Nicolay on the Ottoman Empire, Chandra Mukerji, University of California, San Diego
2. Lamarckism and the Constitution of Sociology, Snait B. Gissis, Tel-Aviv University
3. Observation in the Social Field in Mid-20th Century America, Mary S. Morgan, London School of Economics and University of Amsterdam
4. Habitats of Organized Science: Louis Guttman and the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, Tal Arbel, Harvard University

SHOT: 2:00-3:30 pm

Marriott Salon C

“Hot & Cold: Manipulating & Disciplining Bodies with Technologies of Temperature”

Chair and Commentator: Jonathan Rees, Colorado State University

1. Joanna Radin*, “Shock of the Cold: Freezers and the Preservation of Bodily Extracts”, University of Pennsylvania
2. Lisa Onaga, “A Silkworm for All Seasons,” Cornell University
3. Deanna Day, “The ‘Heart’s Knowledge’ of ‘Walking Biological Computers:’ How Domestic Thermometry Created a New Hybrid Subjectivity,” University of Pennsylvania

HSS: 4:00-6:00 pm

Halle (4th Floor)

“Pragmatism and the History of Science: James, Dewey, and Mead”

Chair and Commentator: Francesca Bordogna, University of Notre Dame

1. The Wealth of Notions: The Evolutionary Epistemology of William James, *Henry M. Cowles, Princeton University
2. Dewey before James: Evolution and the Organic, 1875-1889, Trevor Pearce, University of Wisconsin, Madison
3. Reading What Was Spoken: Classroom Notes in our Understanding of George Herbert Mead, Daniel R. Huebner, University of Chicago


HSS: 10am – noon

Van Aken (4th Floor)

“Bodies, Colonies, and Stem Cells”

Chair: *Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
Commentator: Andrew Yang, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

1. Weismann’s Authoritarian Cell State, Lukas Rieppel, Harvard University
2. Stem Cells and the Colonial Metaphor,*Hallam Stevens, Harvard University
3. Biological Kinds and Moral Categories in American Regulation of Human Embryo Research, Ben Hurlbut, Arizona State University