Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Act of Curation: HSS 2010

Below (after the "read more" bit), you will find a listing of all papers from the upcoming History of Science Society's Annual Meeting that have something to do with American history, broadly construed. I'm working off of titles here, so I may have missed some or added too many.

Please don't interpret this as a plea to be too parochial. We can and ought to cross national borders in our study of the history of science.

This is an act of curation, meant to show off the diversity of Americanist work at HSS and to bring your attention to panels and papers that you might otherwise miss.

Manifesto (beta version, b/c that's what we do online)

One of my fondest hopes for this blog---and for the Forum for the History of Science in America generally---is that it will help us build a community of scholars. I recognize that this has long been the Forum's purpose. Yet I think our means of community building have been changing, out of necessity.

The "What's American about the History of Science in America" series of essays---a brilliant collection that you can peruse on this blog, thanks to the editorial work of my predecessor (and fellow Dan) Dan Goldstein---showcased the changing nature of the forum. Founded as an advocacy organization for Americanists trying to break into a field dominated by Europeanists, the Forum now finds itself surrounded by Americanist historians of science. The earlier forum sought to bring together Americanists to support one another in a difficult environment. It defined success as increased attention to the history of science in America. Forum policies were necessarily expansionary.

It's no longer clear that the Forum must actively drum up new research. I don't mean that anyone need oppose more research into the history of science in America. Far from it, I encourage it wholeheartedly. But the larger HOS field seems to be doing plenty of drumming on its own. In fact, the degree to which the Forum's original mission has succeeded leaves us with a new and familiar problem: how can we keep up with all of the new Americanist stuff out there. There appear to be too many new investigators, too many new directions.

That, I believe, may be where the Forum can step in. Expansion will take care of itself, but we all could use help managing that expansion.

To that end, Americanscience aims at a curationary policy. Yes, I just made that word up. But it's the best word for what I mean. This blog should curate our field's expanding cabinet of HOS curiosities. It should highlight new directions and new voices in the field and showcase the range and diversity of on-going investigation.

Thus ends the manifesto. What do you think, dear readers? Will you help?

Monday, September 20, 2010

You're Shirley Jackson!

I spent some time teaching elementary school before heading back to grad school. One of the favorite games at our after-school program was "Guess Who"---the game where each play selects an individual card and then has to ask yes or no questions about the appearance of the person on the other player's card in order to figure out who that person is.

Guess Who came to mind when I saw the layout for this terrific and informative site giving biographies of black scientists in the U.S., hosted by the HistoryMakers. Just imagine that game, using biography instead of appearance:

Was your scientist inspired by reading Benjamin Banneker's biography as a child?
Was your scientist a particle physicist?
Did your scientist ever become a high-level administrator?

You're Shirley Ann Jackson!
--That's right.

In all seriousness, though. This is a nicely done site that students and scholars alike can enjoy if they are looking for reliable sources of biography for important African American scientists.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New to the HOS Blogosphere

There's a new arrival on the scene and it looks promising for our crowd. The Bubble Chamber traces the thought lines (and decay paths?) of a handful of historians and philosophers of science at the University of Toronto.

Here at Americanscience, we aim to talk to a pretty limited audience. We want to build a community of professor historians of science as it has developed in and around the United States. Still, we applaud the Bubble Chamber's ambitions to create a Web equivalent to the public lecture series.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stories of Ideas/Science in America

A colleague shared this podcast with me earlier this summer.

In it, Louis Menand gives the short version of his pulitzer prize-winning The Metaphysical Club. I've long been a fan of the book, but what struck me in hearing the short version was the centrality of Darwin and the comparative unimportance of what seems like the main argument (the impact of the Civil War). I've long felt that the Civil War argument---that the generation that experienced the war learned from its experience a deep distrust of universal truths and unwavering belief---did not hold up to much scrutiny. For one thing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. seems to have remained quite a fan of martial valor, despite the horrors of war. I would expect someone so deeply scarred by war that he gave up belief in Truth to also be skeptical of war itself. Darwin, however, makes a very convincing predecessor to pragmatism. Don't take my word for it, though. Listen to the podcast.

I've also been thinking about the subtitle to Menand's book: "A Story of Ideas in America." Menand takes a nice, commonsensical approach to one of the key problems we face as either historians of science in America or historians of American science. How do we square a concern for a subject (science/ideas) that's usually transnational with a concern for integrating science/ideas into broader histories delineated by nation? We look locally and trace globally---at least that's what Menand does. He's looking at James, Holmes, Dewey, and Peirce---in the U.S.---but he's tracing the movement of ideas that traversed the globe---Darwin's Origin, to be sure, but also Quetelet's l'homme moyen and Agassiz's creationism. And the upshot---pragmatism---hardly respects national borders in its philosophical career.

What do you think? Look locally, trace globally. Too kitsch?