Via the Twittersphere

J. Laurence Laughlin, Methods of Teaching Political Economy (1885), chap. 5, at Irwin Collier, Economics in the Rearview Mirror.

No matter how clear the exposition of the principles may be [in a lecture], no matter how fresh and striking the illustrations, it still remains that the student is relieved by the instructor from carrying on the mental processes which he ought to conduct for himself.

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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publish printed books in an age when everything is expected to be available online and when print is widely deemed outdated?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] Continue reading “The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology”

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

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] Continue reading “Punnett Squares and Hybrid Crosses: How Mendelians Learned Their Trade by the Book”

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of ‘Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual’

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. Continue reading “Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of ‘Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual’”