Category Archives: Joanna

JAS-BIO 2012

Hard to believe it has been a year since I reported on the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, (see here).  This year’s meeting, held at Penn, was one of the most well-attended in recent memory and featured a dozen well-crafted and dynamically-presented papers from grad students as local as Philadelphia and as distant as Arizona.

The meeting was kicked off by a plenary from Penn anthropologist Adriana Petryna, who spoke about work-in-progress on the demise of the sick role and the right to recovery.  I am biased (I have worked with Petryna for a number of years), but I appreciated the choice of an anthropologist of bioscience, following on the plenary given by anthropologist Marcia Inhorn last year. Anthropologists’ attention to the life sciences have been informed by historians of biology and the methodological insights being generated through conversations across fields is responsible for some truly important work (here, I’m thinking of Hannah Landecker’s Culturing Life, Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean, and Hugh Raffles’ In Amazonia, though there are many others). Creating a space for anthropology at our table is an opportunity to recognize that our work matters to communities other than our own, which is a good thing.

Read about some resonant themes from the meeting after the jump.

The first is the question of “phenomenology,” and its connection to empathy.  In his talk on Otto Potzl’s neuropsychiatry, Harvard’s Scott Phelps grappled with early 20th century efforts to fathom the brain as a scientific object and the self (cue Hank). He spoke of this in terms of “neuro-phenomenology,” an approach to the physics of subjectivity that required “perceptual empathy.”  Ok, there’s a lot going on in that sentence, but what I think Phelps might be talking about is the personal equation that characterizes encounter in the human field sciences.  Or, perhaps literary analysis, as was beautifully described by Princeton’s Sarah Eldrige in her account of the family and the rise of the novel in 18th century Germany.  She spoke of empathy as a way into understanding new ideas about interiority and epigenesis.  What work does “phenomenology” do for Potzl . . . and for Phelps?  Is it an effective way of linking the material to the affective?  Or does it obscure that very relation?

Phenomenology was also invoked by Hopkins’ Adrianna Link on efforts to create a film archive of disappearing human cultures in the mid-20th century.  She described how these 8 million feet of anthropological film were intended to be a “phenomenological” resource for the science of man.  What kind of “perceptual empathy” is called upon to make sense of this sort of evidence?  Again, I found myself wondering about what phenomenology, as an actors’ category, obscured. As historians of life science dip into anthropology, history of technology, etc., we can reconstitute ways of thinking and talking about the material and the social.

I was fascinated by the resurgence of risk in several papers.  Robin Scheffler, from Yale, gave us a remarkable  story of role of Simian Virus 40, first a contaminant and then an experimental organism, in driving research in cancer biology and regulation of vaccine production. Scheffler went beyond the “follow the thing” approach to show how the thing is constituted in relation to a broader physical infrastructure and affective context of anxiety about health and security.  Penn’s Mary Mitchell engaged with risk in a different way, trying to make sense of how human geneticists reckoned with the application of their insights in the realm of prenatal screening.  Mitchell linked the clinic, lab, and field as she tracked concerns about risks to individuals and to populations. 

The tension between the individual and the collective is an old theme, newly rendered at this JAS-BIO.  Richard Nash from Hopkins’ has bravely begun to rethink the eclipse of Darwin to reveal a richer landscape or “milky way” of efforts to understand variation.  Penn’s Maxwell Rogoski’s account of Curt Stern’s travels in the American South demonstrated how theories of variation were constructed with regard to shifting racial politics. Harvard’s Myra Perez examined the multiple personas of Stephen Jay Gould and their relative impacts on debates over the role of science in American democracy. 

On this last theme of individuals and collectives, I want to offer another explanation as to why environmental history was relatively absent from this year’s meeting: the proliferation of new forums dedicated to the subject.  Along with the ASEH, the fledgling Yale graduate student conference met the week before JAS-BIO.  It’s probably safe to say that if the two meetings had been scheduled further apart, we might have seen overlap in participants. The more places people have to gather, the better, but this will surely have consequences for group identity.  I agree with Lukas that the burgeoning relationship between environmental history and history of science is one to watch.

So, I’m casting my vote for an environmental historian as plenary speaker next year, when JAS-BIO meets at Woods Hole!

Reflecting on History of Science, Feb 3 in Philadelphia

I’m reposting an announcement for an interesting upcoming event hosted by the Philadelphia Center for the History of Science (PACHS). If any of our readers are in attendance, I hope that you will continue the discussion here at AmericanScience.

What Matters About the History of Science and What do we Do About it?
Feb 3, 2012, 4-5:30, Followed by a social hour and light dinner. The American Philosophical Society’s Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St.

Join three distinguished scholars for an evening of big questions: What do historians want audiences to understand about the history of science, technology and medicine? What do historians want students to take away from classes, audiences from events, readers from books? What answers to these questions does the community of historians share in common? How do—or should—historians promote what matters about history of science?

Nathaniel Comfort is Associate Professor in the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University specializing in history of biology; history of recent science; and oral history and interviewing. In addition to his academic publications, he writes newspaper and magazine articles for wider audiences.

Matthew Jones is James R. Barker Associate Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University working on history of early modern science, technology and philosophy. He is also chair of Contemporary Civilization in the Core Curriculum, a program that aims to prepare students to become active and informed citizens by introducing them to issues concerning the communities that people construct and the values that inform and define such communities.

M. Susan Lindee is Professor of the History and Sociology of Science and Associate Dean for the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania where she works on the history of genetics, gender and science, science and popular culture, and science and war. She was a journalist for ten years before entering academia.

If you are in the area and plan to attend, RSVP by clicking through to the PACHS website here.

Save the Date for the 47th Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology

The 47th Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology will be held at the University of Pennsylvania, beginning with an opening reception and plenary the evening of Friday April 20th, followed by the presentation of papers, a faculty panel, and a dinner on Saturday April 21st.
Events will primarily take place in Claudia Cohen Hall, located at 249 South 36th Street, between Spruce Street and Locust Walk, on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.
Abstracts (200 words) of papers submitted for presentation are due by Wednesday February 1st, 2012 at 5pm, and can be emailed to Andy Hogan at: . Decisions on submitted abstracts will be made as soon as possible, and the chosen presenters will be informed on or about March 1st.
Some travel support is available for graduate student presenters.
Hope to see you there!

Pre-science/Prescience and the History of the Future

Just a quick post to direct our readers’ attention to this week’s themed issue of the New York Times “Science Times” on “The Future of Computing.” There are some cool interactive features and a series of interesting profiles on computing visionaries. Given recent posts on scientists and cinema and science and literature, I wanted to highlight this interview with SF author Neal Stephenson. I must confess to not being a huge fan of his prose, but I have recently developed significant academic interest in how science fiction colonizes the future.

A big part of history of science as a discipline involves paying attention to how people have envisioned the future and how that vision was received. Why not start bringing more attention to science fiction into that endeavor? There’s a reason that the word for having knowledge of things before they happen is “prescience.”

Someone who is giving this a lot of attention is Patrick McCray. He’ll be speaking on the subject of “Visioneering” at UPenn’s Department of History and Sociology of Science colloquium this coming Monday.

Anyone out there got some thoughts on the history of the future?

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

The Buzz on Google NGram Viewer

‘Tis the season for conference presentations. A time when people are compelled to make grand statements and mobilize snappy visuals to back them up. In this short post I’m hoping to spark some conversation about one such resource: the Google Ngram Viewer.

For the uninitiated, the Ngram Viewer works like this: through a relatively simple user interface, you plug in one or more terms. With the click of a button, a graph pops up that tracks the frequency with which they appear in a wide range of books since 1800. C’mon, try it — everyone’s doing it. I mean, who doesn’t crave quick answers to the question of ‘zombies’ versus ‘vampires?’:

But like sugar and caffeine — two of my addictions — the buzz wears off quickly, often leaving me more disoriented than before I imbibed.

In all seriousness, this is a tool that invites as many questions as it answers, especially when tracking concepts across different languages and cultures (although you can search in a range of other modern languages). I won’t even get into the bigger issues of sampling and statistical modelling, but welcome comments on these aspects, as well.

Take an example from a recent workshop I attended on “Endangerment and it Consequences.” It was exciting to be in a room with scholars from around the world, working in different cultural contexts across several centuries. However, this raised the inevitable question of terminology. In the final wrap-up, the Ngram viewer provided a provocative means of reinforcing our shared sense that “endangerment” was a timely topic; that the two days of attention had been worthwhile:

But, of course, this graphic could not tell us what the word meant or even how it has come to assume such currency. And it made it easy to forget that the ideas expressed by the English word “endangerment” might be expressed differently in other languages (or even within English, itself).

You get the point. For me, the initial buzz of “wow!” quickly gave way to a lull of “so what?” But a week later, I’m coming around to realizing that instruments like the Ngram Viewer present problems of knowledge as worthy of inquiry as concepts like “endangerment.” This, I imagine, is an issue that those of you in the digital humanities are particularly well-situated to consider.

So, what I really want to know is: Have you used the Ngram Viewer in conjunction with your scholarly activities, teaching included? How? What do they tell you? What are the risks?

Cinematic Cultural Cartography: Scientists in Hollywood

Kubrick and Clarke working on 2001


This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the company of a bevy of historians of Cold War science. One of them, a specialist, as he puts it, in “the human experience in the milieu of space,” pointed out the way in which Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke – the author of the book that formed the basis for the movie – worked closely with engineers at NASA to shape such visions. It seems fair to say that 2001 played an important role in stoking support for the Apollo Program that led astronaut Neil Armstrong to take his momentous “small step” on July 20, 1969.

Why I am telling you this? There could be a thousand reasons. But the one I want to highlight in this short post is about scientists as technical advisers to filmmakers. I’m particularly interested in the role that claims to technical accuracy (not to be confused with T/truth) play in mediating science and fiction.

In my research on the history of cryobiology I have been startled at how often scientists, as early as the 1930s (if not before), were asked to go on set to ensure the ‘accuracy’ of scenes involving attempts at human preservation. For example, in the late 1930s scientist Ralph Willard was credited as a consultant to the film “The Man With Nine Lives,” a medical thriller starring Boris Karloff as a mad-scientist who attempts to freeze humans alive. Willard, who is now viewed as a purveyor of pseudo-science, conducted early experiments with cold-induced hibernation. In the late 1950s, James Lovelock (yes, that James Lovelock) earned a day’s pay by serving as an on-set consultant for the play The Critical Point, which “revived” the effort to depict humans in a state of cryopreservation. Before he came up with his cybernetic Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock made important breakthroughs in the ability to keep blood and sperm functional after exposure to low temperatures. The ability to defrost and revive whole bodies remains controversial and elusive, but is an example that makes it worth asking: What’s at stake for scientists when they participate in the production of fiction? The boundary work of scientists behind the scenes of pop culture is still largely uncharted territory for students of the cultural cartography of science.

I’ll conclude with an example from the present. In the weeks following the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a number of the scientists and public health officials who served as technical advisers for the film have used their involvement as a platform for raising awareness about biosecurity and epidemic preparedness. Assuring accuracy in the film both legitimates them as experts and legitimates the film as an extension of that expertise. Time will tell if anyone is taking them seriously and how.

There are many, many more examples. What scientists/films come to mind? What sort of scholarship — work on nature films, scientists as consultants in other fields, etc — could one draw on to go deeper into these questions?