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 / http://www.Lucnix.be|
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)