Category Archives: Not exactly about American science

Welcoming a New Team Member!

Americans, Scientists, and non-American non-scientists: I’m very excited to be joining the AmericanScience team from my new home in Philadelphia, where I’ll be spending the next few months reading, writing, and—of course—blogging about all things history of science. I’m a PhD candidate in the Program in the History of Science at Princeton University, where I work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural history in a (mostly) global context. My interests, which range from Victorian botanical exploration to entomological museum displays, are decidedly less “modern” and physical sciences-based than the other bloggers on AmericanScience. Nevertheless, I hope that the discussions that will be had over the coming months will broaden not just my own dissertation work, but will deepen the historical bent of the blog as a whole.

I came to the East Coast by way of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I got my B.A. in the history of science, medicine, & technology with a minor in African studies. Over the past few years, I’ve focused my work on various strange species that challenged nineteenth-century conceptions of what it meant to be human, blurring boundaries between plants and animals, races and genders. Beginning with an exploration into Victorian explorer Paul du Chaillu’s gorilla-hunting expedition into West Africa, my research moved into studies of butterflies, the “stuff of séances” in Victorian spiritualist circles, and, most recently, Cryptogams and other plants that confounded men of science and oftentimes ended up in the hands (and hothouses) of women. My dissertation (at this early stage of conception) tracks several “reproductively confusing” species of plants—corpse flowers, mosses, deadly nightshade, and the like—from islands to museums and gardens, from field collection to preserved herbarium sheets and living hothouses, in an effort to understand the changing aesthetic, gendered, sexualized, and scientific practices and material cultures of nineteenth-century botany.

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about a range of historical topics (with presentist hooks) in the life sciences and in museum studies. Expect histories of pioneering natural history institutions (I just finished a stint at the New York Botanical Garden Humanities Institute); of Continue reading

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Do we still need harvest festivals?

Loyal AmericanScience reader Anna Zeide wonders about Thanksgiving in a post-can world over at the Food Studies section of Grist. Check it out.

For those of you who teach some environmental history or history of technology alongside history of science, I can vouch for “The Miracle of the Can” as a great tool to generate discussion right around Thanksgiving. Seasons be damned!

For more Thanksgiving scholarly fun, see Neil Prendergast’s recent Environmental History article on “Raising the Thanksgiving Turkey.”

Talking Turkey the Somewhat-Old-Fashioned Way…

And a final tid-bit, from the department of applied science: Butterball University!

Statistical Infrastructure

It has little to do with America directly, but I am fascinated by the New York Times‘ coverage of India’s new nation-wise statistical and biometric registry: “Aadhaar”—which translates, in an Asimovian twist, to “foundation.”

The project aims to assign a 12-digit ID to every Indian—that’s 1.2 billion IDs—and link those IDs to names, fingerprints, and iris-scans. As Lydia Polgreen, the Times reporter, notes: “It is a project of epic proportions.” It also promises to make the Indian government into the world’s most important aggregator of biometric data, surpassing the US-Visit program by an order of magnitude.

Nandan M. Nilekani, the former chairman of Infosys and Aadhaar’s head, explained the necessity of the system in terms that made it sound like a natural governmental activity: “What we are creating is as important as a road.” It is, in other words, a kind of infrastructure: statistical infrastructure. That’s a phrase I use quite a bit in my own work as I trace the ways that different systems for gathering data about individuals developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around the life insurance industry. In that story, private and public actors worked in parallel and sometimes together to improve the nation’s system of vital statistical registration, to discipline doctors and nurses, and to build special biometric (of sorts) databases that could help assess each individual’s risk. Yet the United States’ own giant leap in gathering data (Social Security) created a national identity database only as an after-thought and had no thought of including biometric data.

That’s the most intriguing thing about Aadhaar, as viewed through Polgreen’s reporting. Identity sits at the center of the project. Polgreen begins with Ankaji Bhai Gangar volunteering to be IDed with hopes of getting “the first official proof that he exists.” She ends with Mohammed Jalil pointing to the biometric station and saying “This will give me an identity….It will show that I am a human being, that I am alive, that I live on this planet. It will prove I am an Indian.”

I’m wary of Polgreen’s enthusiasm. She brushes aside concerns of “privacy watchdogs” effortlessly. She thrills at the possibililies of overcoming corruption on the local level and getting around the “crippling bureaucracy that is a legacy of [India’s] socialist past.” Aadhaar, we learn, will increase worker mobility and allow for greater agricultural modernization—these are both, we are made to understand, necessarily good things.

I’m all in favor of reducing corruption, improving the distribution of poor relief and welfare benefits. I think the poor ought to have access to savings, credit, cell phones, and teachers who show up to work. Who doesn’t? But will a centralized, national system of identification really do that? Does bypassing local government—rather than, say, fixing it—solve that problem? I can’t pretend to know, but I think there’s reason to be skeptical with any theory of improving governance that tries to bypass local institutions. I do hope my fears prove entirely unfounded.