Category Archives: online resources

Now that’s a dune, Dr. Cowles!

The Library of Congress now hosts a fascinating set of photographs taken by University of Chicago ecologists (and their students), most prominently Henry C. Cowles (no relation to our dear Hank).

On a personal note, I love the images of Lake Michigan dunes. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I did my best to escape every year to explore these enormous white-sand oddities and feel a bit of wonder.

I did not realize at the time that those same dunes had inspired Cowles’ theory of ecological succession, beginning with his 1898 dissertation “The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan.”

In that seminal work, Cowles explained:

“Ecology, therefore, is a study in dynamics. For its most ready application, plants should be found whose tissues and organs are actually changing at the present time in response to varying conditions. Plant formations should be found which are rapidly passing into other types by reason of a changing environment.” (3-4) 

While I saw the dunes as a wonder-filled getaway, Cowles saw a natural laboratory: “These requirements are met par excellence in a region of sand dunes. Perhaps no topographic form is more unstable than a dune.” (4)

The LOC site has some useful background pieces on Cowles and the other ecologists involved. There are also many more photos worth perusing. I enjoy the group shots especially, for what they show about “the field” as a place that is certainly serious, but also quite fun.


Did Tom Kuhn Decide Errol Morris Was Incommensurable?

Errol Morris—in an odd lecture— claims that Tom Kuhn threw an ashtray at him after an argument over incommensurability turned personal. Weird. Check it out here (video) (audio).

According to Morris, he approached Kuhn with a certain indignation over Kuhn’s apparent abnegation of the search for Truth in science and the history of science. We can only guess how (if?) the conversation turned violent. But like all conflicts, this one pleads for analysis.

Morris takes Kuhn’s idea of incommensurability to make the accumulation of knowledge impossible. I’ve always favored a reading of Structure that allows for the accumulation of knowledge, even as paradigms come and go. I guess I presume a sort of translation can and does take place across paradigms.

I’m fascinated by Morris’ passionate response. Is this an example of a reformist Liberal’s fear of creeping relativism? I think I (we?) too often forget that the culture wars were not simply left-right. Liberals and conservatives all did and do have reason to object to strong post-modern epistemologies.

Because Ether Doesn’t Propagate Itself

Or who knows, maybe it does.

At any rate, our History of Science blogging friends at Ether Wave Propaganda are on vacation. That provides us the perfect opportunity to point back to a terrific, recent post on the history of science in America that you might of missed.

Will Thomas offers a vivid and engaging reading of Paul Lucier’s 2009 Isis article, “The Professional and Scientist in Nineteenth Century America.” I recall my own astonishment at learning (as a fresh graduate student) the recent origin of the label “scientist”—who could imagine a world without scientists, as such, I wondered. As Thomas relates in his post, Lucier gives us plenty more material about the recent origins of apparently natural labels and distinctions that should similarly astonish our students in years to come.

Historians of Science in America have probably already taken note of Lucier’s 2008 book, Scientists and Swindlers. Forum steering committee member David Spanagel wrote a particularly useful review (but you need a subscription to see it) for the most recent Isis. I’m inspired by it to put on my syllabus for American environmental history either Lucier’s chapter on the “technological science of kerosene” or the “rock oil report.” Any other recommendations?

Even the Canadians Claim Edison

Thomas Edison may have only come in ninth on the Atlantic’s list of the top 100 most influential Americans, but amongst Victorians enshrined with their own museums or historical sites he takes the cake. Five North American sites, including Vienna, Ontario, lay claim to Edison’s memory.

Check the full list of “shrines”, which may serve many purposes, but clearly would serve well a geek planning her summer vacation.