Saturday, June 26, 2010


Seriously, laserfest!

I'm digging this fantastic history of the laser, courtesy of the American Institute of Physics. You should too.

Amplify the press for this
Stimulating feature on
Emitting coherent beams of
Radiation for 50 years.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Science and Spills

While we anxiously await a closer telling of the geologists in Afghanistan tale, there are some fascinating moments of science in action to be found in this gripping tale of Deepwater Horizon's last hours and immediate aftermath.

I had no idea how ridiculously huge and complex these drilling rigs are. I know that the federal government pitched deep sea exploration as a kind of parallel to space exploration in the second half of the twentieth century: exploring inner space. Sean Flynn draws on a similar metaphor: "Deep-sea drilling is a risky and complicated process, of course—the oil industry's equivalent of a moon shot—and it's vulnerable to all sorts of delays."

The scientists, as opposed to the engineers and technicians, only make a cameo here and they are set up against BP's official pronouncements on the volume of the leak. The problem of knowledge becomes: how do we settle on a measurement of oil flow at a mile and one half (8,000 feet) below the Gulf's surface. I post the relevant passage after the break, but the entire story---for all its detail and pathos---demands to be read. Read more...


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bankrupted by Scientific Complexity?

I glanced over the scientific/medical dichotomy in my last post. Now I see that Atul Gawande has attacked it head on. Science has made medicine effective, he says. It's also made it into a budget-bending Frankenstein.

In Gawande's words:
When we talk about the uncontrollable explosion in the costs of health care in America, for instance—about the reality that we in medicine are gradually bankrupting the country—we’re not talking about a problem rooted in economics. We’re talking about a problem rooted in scientific complexity.

"Rare books on their way to the Internet Archive scanning pod"

That's right: we live in a world with scanning pods. How magical.

Those scanning pods are doing good work, too. The Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library's terrific blog reports on the library's efforts to digitize their nineteenth century French works in obstetrics and gynecology. Those worried about corporate hegemony will be happy to hear that those books will land at the Internet Archive.

Lest our readers wonder what this has to do with "science" in "America," the Center's blog notes that "John Collins Warren, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other Harvard Medical School luminaries completed post-graduate studies in Paris."I suppose we could quibble that medicine ≠ science, but does anyone really want to have that argument?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Even the Canadians Claim Edison

Thomas Edison may have only come in ninth on the Atlantic's list of the top 100 most influential Americans, but amongst Victorians enshrined with their own museums or historical sites he takes the cake. Five North American sites, including Vienna, Ontario, lay claim to Edison's memory.

Check the full list of "shrines", which may serve many purposes, but clearly would serve well a geek planning her summer vacation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

US Geologists Discover Soviet Documents, Lithium Exploitation Ensues.

The New York Times gives the barest outline to a truly momentous piece of archival work, albeit one done by historians of another sort than usually reads here at Americanscience. This document digging will certainly raise the stakes for the US military, the Afghan government, and perhaps the Taliban as well. Cell phone battery manufacturers may be holding their breath too:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
US geologists used "an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface" to confirm the earlier mineral findings. The Times calls it "the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted."

Still, this data languished for two years until the Pentagon's business development task force translated those geological maps into dollar signs. The geologists and task force now think that Afghanistan may become a major producer of iron and copper, niobium, and perhaps lithium.

Now that's my kind of story: intrigue in the archives; field scientists flying retrofitted planes; international exchanges; lost opportunities; geopolitical significance.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Decentering National Narratives and Historicizing the Shuttle

Our Scuttle the Shuttle series continues with a fortuitous offering from Asif Siddiqi, whose wide-ranging, thoughtful historiographic essay in the most recent Technology and Culture speaks to a debate we've already witnessed on this blog: can and should historians write histories of space exploration that do not privilege national narratives or boundaries (here, and in the comments)?

It's fascinating to see historians of science innovating in the growing field of transnational history (especially in justifying such an approach in thinking about the last century and a half, where the great and growing power of the nation-state encourages nation-bound histories). This essay provides a fine example of such historiographical innovations.

The question remains, though: how would this advice give us a new way of thinking about the decision to scuttle the shuttle?
I include a few highlights from Siddiqi's piece in the extended entry.

American Birds

The Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati has posted a wonderful little exhibit full of illustrations from ornithological illustrators. It isn't unusual to see images from Audubon or Catesby, but it's refreshing to see a panoply of images of a single species from a variety of popular observers and illustrators. I think it would be a wonderful use of internet-space to construct a database of changing bird images over time. Check out the feature on the passenger pigeon for a hint of what I'm imagining.

Be sure to check out the "Birds for Children" section too. After all, as one steadfast supporter of the Forum could certainly remind us, a key to understanding science in America is understanding how it came to be taught. Also, the pictures look neat.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Drivers of American Space Policy

We began our "Scuttle the Shuttle" series with the question: how can we use history to better understand the recent decision to end shuttle missions?

Robert MacGregor kicked us off with a long set of suggestions in an e-mail to me. He suggested we should think about the peculiarities of 1960s politics, about the jobs created by aerospace spending, and about the narrative of the "space race." Instead of exploring these bigger narratives, I chose to highlight a side note that Bob made, in which he attempted to explain how naive narratives of colonization with a decidedly progressive bent may encourage Apollo conspiracy theorists.

Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took a moment out of his well-deserved celebration over the release of Merchants of Doubt---co-written with Naomi Oreskes---to take me to task in the most productive of fashions. Erik shows exactly how many fascinating angles I passed over. Consider this bit from the end of his comment:

To historicize the Shuttle decision by comparing it to earlier colonization attempts is to impose a historical narrative that conceals more than it reveals. But the decisions made by several administrations to try to replace the Shuttle were shot through with conflicts over the militarization and / or weaponization of space, over whether we even need to continue putting humans into space given the growing capabilities of robotic explorers, over the proper role of government in space activities, and with interagency rivalry.  Too, there’s a large historical question hovering around the willingness of government agencies to misrepresent the true cost of space technology to Congress and the White House.

The Cold War, weapons platforms, and the growing grip of neoliberalism inside in the Beltway have been far more important drivers of American space policy. These are where the interesting historical questions about Shuttle replacement lie.

Wow. Keep reading for Erik's entire note, including a nice brief summary and analysis of the shuttle decision. It's worth reading.