What the History of Astronomy Can Teach Us about the Unknown

Humanity has long wished to know the universe. This desire has been present in nearly every civilization, culture, or community of human beings. Knowing the universe has always been extremely challenging, notwithstanding diverse approaches to the task—scientific reasoning, ancestral respect, the identification and worship of divinities, to name but a few. Nevertheless, there is a common gesture when we connect to the universe. No matter in what time or place, humans look up to the stars and wonder. We exhibit a common attitude as well, overwhelmed by how much we do not know about our own universe.

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Louis Agassiz and the Classification of Brazil’s Fish

Drawing of "Sudis Pirarueú" from Agassiz et al., Selecta Genera et Species Piscium Brasiliensium, Tabula XVI.

Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a young student at the University of Munich when Johann von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius returned from their expedition to Brazil. Among the many items and specimens the German naturalists brought back were fish. The methodology they had followed on their journey through what was then part of the Portuguese Empire was typical of naturalists in the field: They observed, collected, and in some cases classified. Then, back in Europe, they studied the amassed material. Their journey through the exuberant and unfamiliar natural environment had lasted three years (1817–1820). In this geographical and temporal context, the fish and marine species were rarities that few scientists could address with authority within the framework of European natural history. The observant naturalists were nonetheless able to classify species unknown in Europe while also learning about these species’ natural environments.

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Swedish Science and European French

Eighteenth-century Sweden was a scientific powerhouse. Its researchers gave their names to some of the most significant developments of the period, from the Linnaean system of binomial classification to the temperature metric established by Anders Celsius. But what if I told you that one secret to Sweden’s success was a German-speaking Protestant from Alsace?

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Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

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

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Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism

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.

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The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing

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”

The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology

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

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Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science

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?

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Punnett Squares and Hybrid Crosses: How Mendelians Learned Their Trade by the Book

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.[1] 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.[2]

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