As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
At the beginning of the history and sociology of knowledge as we know them today, there was a crisis. By the early 1970s, the future of the earth as a natural habitat for prosperity and progress was looking so bleak that many observers began turning pessimistic. Most famously, the Club of Rome declared Limits to Growth in its 1972 report. But other institutions and intellectuals took a similar line. To name just one, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, probed the depths of history with The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) only to find that Malthus was right all along. In spite of two centuries of industrial frenzy, entropy always was and always would be the reigning earthly principle.
Why should researchers publish printed books in an age when everything is expected to be available online and when print is widely deemed outdated? Similarly, from 1955 to 1988, physicists who published articles in the 78-volume Handbuch der Physik—Encyclopedia of Physics had to explain to their colleagues why they were participating in a project that many thought too slow, too heavy, too expensive, too definitive, yet not dependable or up-to-date enough. Some authors were assailed by doubts themselves since publication dates were pushed back by the publisher time and time again. (Surely, the editor would have declined his own role in the project, had he known that the series would take some 33 years to complete.) Looking at the early period of the making of this handbook reveals some interesting aspects of the characteristics of science publishing in the mid-twentieth century, right when the struggling German publishing industry was seeking ways to gain traction,1 and just before journal publishing as a stand-alone publishing model picked up pace.2 Continue reading “The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing”
How does an expert transmit expertise? What genres of scientific writing are available for doing so? Does the choice of genre matter in the long run? In this essay, I approach these questions by comparing two monographs published in the mid 1940s in the field of microbiology. While the works shared a concern with life at its smallest, they were written in different genres. One, entitled L’évolution physiologique: étude des pertes de fonctions chez les microorganismes, was a general survey of research on microbial nutrition.1 The other, called Pure Cultures of Algae: Their Preparation and Maintenance, was a manual of techniques for cultivating microscopic algae in test tubes.2
When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country?
In 1901, Erich von Tschermak (1871–1962) produced a critical edition of Gregor Mendel’s (1822–1884) paper on “Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden”; and in the same year, William Bateson (1861–1926) submitted an English translation entitled “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” to the readers of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. Tschermak’s edition appeared as volume 121 of the renowned series Ostwalds Klassiker der exakten Naturwissenschaften (Ostwald’s Classic Texts in the Exact Sciences). Historians have rarely noted the paradox that lies in the fact that a paper, which scientists like von Tschermak and Bateson had lifted from obscurity just a year earlier, was almost instantaneously included in the Pantheon of classical contributions to the “exact” sciences. The discipline that Mendel supposedly founded, namely genetics, did not yet exist in 1901, and his alleged “discovery” of laws of inheritance would remain highly contested for at least another decade, even involving accusations of scientific misconduct.
Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.