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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Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences

All are invited to attend the online symposium “Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences,” organized as part of the History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University.

Friday, May 21, 2021, 9:30–17:30 CET
Online via Microsoft Teams (registration not required)

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a number of promising new approaches to the historical study of the sciences. All share the goal of understanding scientific thinking and practice as historical phenomena, but each does so in its own distinctive way: created against different backgrounds and in response to different problem situations within and outside academia they orient themselves around different themes, topics and perspectives. This raises the issue of whether and if so, how, these approaches could best collaborate.

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Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science

How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.

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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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CfP: Global Knowledge, Global Legitimacy? Transatlantic Biomedicine since 1970

Washington, DC, Sept. 6-7, 2019
Application deadine: Dec. 15, 2018

When the French pharmaceutical company Roussell Uclaff, a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Hoechst AG, was ready to introduce an abortion pill in 1988, American activists flooded the company’s headquarters near Frankfurt with protest letters. In response, the company’s German CEO mandated to stop the project. But the French state, a Hoechst minority shareholder, took the idea across the border, patented it, and embarked on medical trials for the new product in France. Ten years later, scientists in the United States successfully isolated human embryonic stem cells. The country’s regulatory framework had left them free to let the cells proliferate indefinitely. But researchers adopted concepts implemented in Britain to limit the cells’ growth to 13 days after gestation.

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More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books

In Elizabethan London, one of the more surprising things a wealthy owner of a beautifully illustrated folio volume could do was to take a sharp knife and cut it to pieces. John Blagrave’s 1585 Mathematical Jewel, in fact, demands nothing less.1 This work, which introduced an elaborate instrument of Blagrave’s design for performing astronomical calculations, included woodcuts that were specifically provided in order to be cut out and used as surrogates for the brass original:

get very fine pastboord made of purpose, and then spred your paste very fine thereon, & quickly laying on this picture & clappe it streight into a presse before it bee thorowe wette with the paste (fol. ¶6v)

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Indonesianizing Knowledge, or: The Postcolonial Invention of ‘Colonial Science’?

“We are living in a new age,” President Sukarno proclaimed at the First National Science Congress in 1958, “the age of atomic revolution, of nuclear revolution, explorers and sputnik, of interplanetary communications with the moon and the stars, and the content of the sea.”1 And the new age, he reasoned, necessitated new roles. If it was up to him, scientists and other academically trained elites would guide Indonesia’s development into the future. Yet there seem to have been two problems. Although Indonesians had conducted scientific research during the colonial era, their number remained insignificant. As a result, Indonesian culture lacked a sense of scientific authorship and ownership.2 At the same time, “science” had overtly Western and imperialist connotations, against which the new Indonesian state postulated its postcolonial identity. Here I discuss three discursive strategies that Sukarno employed during the 1950s and early 1960s to resolve these tensions and Indonesianize the production of academic knowledge.

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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”

‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire

Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.”[1] Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home.

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