Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scrooge Embraces Industrial Research and Other Tales from a Scientist's Conversion

I ran across this clever adaption of Dickens' classic story of Christmas redemption a few days ago. The authors use the story's structure to present a resume of Steve Shapin's The Scientific Life: A Moral History a Late Modern Vocation.

I love the idea. I also love the acting. Check it out here.

If the podcast has a flaw, it's probably that it's a bit of an in-joke: its the sort of thing you might assign a class of upper-level STS majors. It's not a way to convince the unconvinced.

For readers of this blog, it's noteworthy where the ghosts of science in the early twentieth century and late twentieth century end up: in US industrial research divisions.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Too big to wrap? Just can it.

For those doing last minute wrapping, or those just enjoying a few days off, here's a thought.

Look up at the moon. What do you see? A future site for human settlement? A reminder of human ingenuity? One more bit of evidence that human experience has barely grazed one nook of the universe?

Or maybe you see a big ball of cheese, just begging to be canned:
"Cut all the tin plate used annually to make the tin cans of America into a strip one foot wide and you can wind that strip around the earth fourteen times. Or, to visualize it another way, take the five billion odd square feet of tin plate into which we put our fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, beer, paint, oil, candy, cheese and tobacco each year and it would be a simple matter to can the moon. You'd have the biggest cheese can ever made, and still have a lot of tin plate left over."
(From: "Romance of the Tin Can" in Modern Mechanix, 1937, via Anna Zeide, who at this moment may be contemplating her recently launched project on the history of canned food in America.)

Have a fun vignette from a project you've been working on? Send it my way: dbouk *at* colgate #dot# edu.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another New Kind of Science?

I've got my copy of Steve Wolfram's A New Kind of Science proudly displayed in my living room. Okay, so that's just where my bookcases are. I am proud though: I look at the bright red and yellow on the spine and remember the excitement of 2002. I have even on occasion read some of the words inside.

Wolfram positioned himself as the next Galileo, bringing about a fundamental change in the practice of science. Some computationally-minded folks in the science community appear to have taken this seriously. At least, that's what I gather from John Markoff's recent write-up of The Fourth Paradigm in the NY Times.

The editors and contributors to The Fourth Paradigm take as a given already existing paradigms of 1) experiment, 2) theory, and 3) computation. Now they present a next step forward, which on quick glance appears to be a kind of super-charged empiricism reliant on computer-instrument hybrids.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Numbers on the Air

Radio Lab, probably the smartest science show on the radio,---no offense Science Friday, but there is no contest here---aired a show devoted to "Numbers" in October, but I only caught the podcast recently. It's worth a listen.

Historians of science might be attracted to a bit speaking about combinatorists' Erdös numbers, via Paul Hoffman.

But even more exciting: the show succeeds in making math relevent crucial to humanity and culture. We see math as the catalyst of friendship, math in the midst of a detective story (Benford's Law!), and math as potentially a human imperative.

I even caught references to log tables. My heart went all a-flutter.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Is Agriculture Really the Best Model for Heath Care?

I always look forward to Atul Gawande's interventions in the Health Care Reform debate, but I'm not so certain about his most recent New Yorker article. Gawande sets out to defend the Senate health bill's apparently disconnected string of minor pilot programs by pointing to some government pilot programs that worked: the federally funded agricultural extension system and a slew of other USDA knowledge-gathering and know-how-distributing apparatuses:
What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pleasant surprises from Phoenix?

Were you at the History of Science Society's Annual Meeting in Phoenix? Why not share a highlight?

I'll get us started, but I'm relying on the rest of you to help me out. We don't need essays here. Feel free to submit half-digested thoughts. Based on your contributions, I'll ask paper authors to put together mini-entries for our general edification.

Watch while I set the bar low with my own short shout-out:
Sadiah Qureshi of the University of Cambridge got me thinking in her Friday morning (20 Nov. 2009) paper about the benefits of talking about nineteenth century nature conservation alongside efforts to create reservations for Native Americans. Often the same people pushing for reservations were also advocating national park lands. Those people spoke in both cases about a vanishing past that would not be preserved without intervention. Why not consider these two apparently separate activities together? I---I think rightly---shy away from any formulation that would appear to equate Native Americans and nature. Yet that's no reason not to pay attention to a way of thinking and talking about Native Americans and nature that many prominent thinkers employed in the nineteenth century.