Monday, August 29, 2011

Science in America: History?

Are Republicans at war—on science? The relationship between the GOP and the scientific community is in the news, and certain aspects of the coverage will be of interest to those working on the history of science in America.

Rick Perry (on the "Stump")
Rick Perry's recent entry into the race has raised a number of questions about his party's (and the American people's) relationship to science. Over the past few weeks, Perry has revealed—nay, reveled in—skepticism about both evolution and climate change.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dinosaurs and Dime Museums: Exhibiting the Past

Child Looking at Brontosaurus, American Museum of Natural History, 1937.

HANK's posts (here and here) on research methods have got me thinking about the craft aspect of what we do. But I'd like to take the discussion in a slightly different direction and ask what happens if we stop assuming that we historians ought to be primarily in the business or writing texts.

In my research, I think a lot about the different effects that various media have on us as consumers of culture. For example, I have found that fully articulated, free-standing displays of mounted dinosaurs in the late 19th and early 20th century are best thought of as mixed media installations. In addition to fossilized bones, lots of other materials were required to mount a dinosaur, including shellac, gum acacia, paint, plater of Paris, and iron or steel. Moreover, mounted dinosaurs were almost always paired with other ways of representing prehistory, including three dimensional models and paintings of these animals in the flesh.

Brontosaurus displaying characteristically turn-of-the-century amphibious habits in a painting by Charles Knight, under the direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn.

There are a number of ways we can go about making sense of mounted dinosaurs as mixed media sculptures. I like to think about the various strengths and weaknesses of each medium. For example, paintings and three dimensional models are a good way to put life into dead bones, to use a phrase of which my historical actors were very fond. They literally helped visitors interpret the fossils on display, showing them how to visualize these animals in the flesh. At the same time, the fossils served as a reminder that these visualizations were not mere, idle speculation. They were grounded in material traces that survived from the actual past.

Mounting Brontosarus at the American Museum, 1904.

In addition to a mixed media sculpture, mounted dinosaurs were a form of publication. Many decisions (often controversial ones!) had to be made when putting a dinosaur on display. For example, when Curators from the American Museum of Natural History mounted a Brontosaurus in 1905, they took a wager that it held its legs erect under its belly, like modern elephants do. This was by no means a foregone conclusion at the time, and several paleontologists, including Oliver Perry Hay from the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C., and Gustav Tornier from Berlin, objected. They thought it more likely that dinosaurs held their legs sprawled out at a ninety-degree angle, like modern lizards and crocodiles.

Illustration of sauropod dinosaur Pose by Mary Mason, under the direction of Oliver Perry Hay, Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 1910.

In the past two or three decades, we historians have become reasonably used to (and, I hope, good at) analyzing non-textual sources. But, unlike the paleontologists that I study, most of us continue to use words as the principle (if not only) way to communicate the fruits of our research. We historians write a lot of books and deliver even more lectures.  But we rarely curate exhibits or make images. Why should this be the case?

I see no reason it should!  

There are some encouraging signs of things moving in a new direction. Several historians of science I know of, including Peter Galison and Hanna Shell, use documentary film as a form of publication. But what other media might historians use to communicate with one another, and with a broader public?

One thing I've been especially interested to explore in my research is the relationship between elite science and popular culture. So, I have a soft spot for 19th century sites of amusement that blur the boundary between the two, especially those that throw in some humbug for good measure.  

Dime museums, like PT Barnum's museum, which used to be located on Broadway and Anne Street in New York, are a particular favorite of mine. So I was super excited to visit the Spectacularium in Coney Island this weekend. This is a re-creation of a 19th century Dime Museum (of which there were several in Coney Island), that exhibits a number of period photographs, playbills, and guidebooks, in addition to some taxidermy and other exhibits. (Most of the latter were acquired when one of the last Dime Museums, on the Canadian side of the Niagra Falls, finally shuttered its doors a few years ago.)  

I also discovered that Coney Island Museum still runs a sideshow. Here, you can see a snake charmer, a mesmerist, a strong man, and other remnants of the 19th century stage now usually only found in the circus.  

Moreover, there is an excellent website and live gallery exhibit, the Moribund Anatomy, located near the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, for those of you into 19th century medical museums. Am I alone, or does anyone else see these as a call to arms?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Using Scrivener: A Brief Overview

After last week's post on the tools of the trade, I got a lot of feedback (mostly offline). I think Lukas is right that there's probably enough helpful material in our collective experience to justify a few more posts on methods.

Most feedback centered on Scrivener, the "content-generation tool" I've switched over to for my first chapter. Some readers had already been using it and chimed in with their favorite features, others picked it up for the first time and are now using it for dissertations.

The web is full of Scrivener reviews – a "Blogs" search on Google yields a dozen in the last couple days. Most reviewers that I've seen are (aspiring) novelists, concerned with character profiles and writer's block. As historians, we share those issues and have a few of our own.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

HOS methods, American history questions

I was struck by Hank's conclusion a few posts back:
To put it another way: instead of answering history-of-science questions with American-history answers, we're increasingly answering American-history questions with history-of-science answers. For those of us at the boundary–especially those on a market with more jobs in one than the other–this is a promising path.
Those ideas were floating in the back of my head while I was re-reading Alain Desrosieres' _The Politics of Large Numbers_.

In his first chapter, Desrosieres does for France what Hank talks about us doing for the United States. An earlier generation of social historians, he explained, had been frustrated in their attempts to construct statistical models from the data left in departmental prefects' statistical memoirs, instituted and published in post-revolutionary France up to 1830. Desrosieres' gloss: "Historians long considered them to be heteroclitic, incomplete documents, unserviceable as a source of numerical data." (40) 

But Desrosieres sees an opportunity. Rather than attempt to construct statistical series---which effort was indeed doomed to fail---why not shift one's gaze to the "process of adunation," to the means by which the revolutionary state went about remaking France. "Not only does the prefects' view of their departments offer precise information on the actual departments," he wrote, "it also and above all shows how the protagonists in this venture portrayed themselves, how they perceived the diversity of France, and the possible obstacles to this political and cognitive undertaking."(41)

There's something subtle going on in the first clause of that sentence I just quoted. Desrosieres does not simply abandon social substance for cultural interpretation. He offers an "and," instead of an "or." The careful reader can learn and convey a great deal of valuable information about the people of France, as read through these elite observers, he suggests. At the same time, that reader gains new insights into the cultural transformation of the French nation, with all its fits, starts, set-backs, and inconsistencies.

Of course, HOSers have already used their unique approach to offer revisions of standard American stories---Phil Pauly's take on immigration restriction and cherry trees springs to mind from a much longer list. But Desrosieres struck me because he took an apparent limitation (the muckiness and diversity of statistical memoirs) and turned it into a decided advantage. As the old programmer's adage goes (okay, so it can't be *that* old): it not a bug, it's a feature!

Hank is right. Historians of science have developed some extraordinary techniques for wringing meaning and significance out of the dryest and barest of facts. Why not turn those techniques back to problems that pester our fellow craftsmen?

But I'm even more intrigued and challenged by the idea that in the process of wringing meaning from limited facts, we can also bring those facts back into fruitful historical conversation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

History of Science in America . . .and Zombies

Inspired by the recent trend of adding the phrase “and zombies” to great works of literature, I want to use this post as an experiment in pedagogy.
For a while now I’ve been thinking
about the potential examine changes in 20th century ideas about political economy, technical knowledge, and the body through the concept of the zombie. I imagine an undergraduate course in science and popular culture that draws upon shifting depictions of the undead in American life. We would think about how the figure of the zombie has been mobilized to express anxieties about technoscience and describe the loss of personhood in our late capitalist -- increasingly interconnected -- society. Here is an initial take on the trajectory of the course with a few choice selections. I’m interested to see what people think and if we can flesh this out (pun intended) together.
I. Theorizing the Zombie
Let's start with some theory:
- Marx & Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
- Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry. (2008) “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism” in Boundary 2, 35(1): 86-108
- Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millenial Capitalism” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(4), 779-805
- Henry A. Giroux Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Peter Lang
- Kirk et al, “Zombies” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
II. Voodoo Roots
Unlike the European vampire or werewolf, the zombie has its roots in West Africa and was articulated early on in circumstance of slavery in the Caribbean. Divorced from their persons, and alienated from the products of their labor, the zombies worked for voodoo masters in sugar plantations without needing food or rest. In this sense, they are an “ideal” labor force . . .
Journalist William Seabrook’s 1929 The Magic Island was one of the first books to bring the zombie concept to a broad Western audience.
The 1932 film White Zombie, depicts the undead as exploited sugar plantation laborers.
Another important glimpse into the relation between ‘voodoo’, science, and capitalism is anthropologist Wade Davis’ 1985 The Serpent and the Rainbow (also a fantastic movie staring Bill Pullman). Though it relates to a later time period, the trope of ethnobotanical prospecting is of a piece with early articulations of the zombie.
III. Atomic Zombies
The atom bomb and the postwar threat of nuclear holocaust lead to a mutation in the zombie concept in the 1960s. The relationship between technical knowledge and its byproducts posed new kinds of threats. Now, one became a zombie not through voodoo, but via contact with radioactivity. The paranoia of the Cold War period is perhaps best captured
in the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. In this film, zombie sickness is linked to radiation from a fallen space satellite.
Another film which, through the use of high camp, mocks secret government experiments is Astrozombies, also from 1968. In this film, it’s not radiation that creates zombies; it’s the government that seeks to build a super-human astronaut from bits of criminals whose brain can be controlled from earth.
IV. Pandemic Zombies
With the end of the
Cold War came a new set of fears as well as a new paradigm of zombie transmission. Emerging infectious diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, SARS, and Bird Flu brought forth zombie tropes which reflected a new view of apocalypse. Recent years have brought us Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie. Films like 28 Days Later depict a zombie epidemic and the bleak struggle for survival that ensues.

V. Neuro Zombies

Zombie survival clubs have popped up around the country and even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has embraced the paradigm, issuing in May 2011, a Zombie Preparedness Guide.

Increasingly, the zombie is being mobilized to make sense of problems of mind and personhood being raised through contemporary sciences of the brain. Zombies have been used to pose philosophical questions about the theory of mind and, most recently, to hold a critical lens to neuroscience.

Take for example, as a bridge between infectious and neurological conceptions of the zombie, the novel: The Neuropathology of Zombies, recently published by Peter Cummings, a Boston-based forensic neuropathologist.
On a similar tip, we’ve also got Harvard psychiatrist Stephen Schlozman on “Zombie Neurobiology.”

***And we’re off and running . . . Let’s hear suggestions about additional potential readings/movies/graphic novels/scientific papers, creative assignments, discussion questions, and projects!***

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tools of the Trade: How Historians Work

We're a long way from the index card. Or are we?

It used to start here (or so I'm told..)
Historians work a lot of different ways, and probably always have. Right at the beginning of my dissertation, I had a series of how-to conversations with other grad students: how to take notes in the archives, how to organize research material and your own thoughts, how to start (and finish) the writing process. That kind of thing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Biology and the Public (Bonus Image!)

Darwin loomed large in Ischia and elsewhere.
This apparition spotted on the streets of Kreuzberg, Berlin.

Publics *As* Biology? (Part 3 of 3)

I like how this conversation is taking shape. It might be possible to see my contribution as taking up Lukas’ second methodological point – about the ongoing negotiation of the epistemic boundaries of scientific disciplines.

One of the first sessions of our Summer School dealt with research whereby members of various human communities were asked to “donate” genetic material. We read about a multi-faceted anthropological study in Brazil that attempted to discredit particular ideas about race in the service of taking a stand regarding the State’s position on affirmative action.(1) In this particular project, high school students were asked to assess their own racial makeup and to reflect on culturally held ideas about race. Then, they submitted genetic material to be analyzed for ancestry informative markers. There is much to be said about the merits and limitations of this project (including science in the service of politics). For the purposes of this conversation, however, I want only to make one basic point: in providing the material bases for genetic research, this public – Brazilian high school students – became biological.

Human population genetic research has been taking place in America for decades and, as it has merged with parts of anthropology, has intensified with the rise of genomics. In addition to those instances when they are actively enrolled by scientists in biological research, Americans can now also purchase any number of genetic tests that offer insights into their heritage and makeup.

From the case of human population genetic research, historians of science are finding themselves reassessing what kinds of actors might be found in the lab – too often understood as a closed site of inquiry and knowledge production. However, when humans become objects and, pieces of their bodies, subjects of biological inquiry the lab takes on a new analytic significance for historians concerned with thinking about “biology and the public.” Not least of all because – following Latour – a lab can raise the world.

I’ll stop here with a “public” image that I find particularly illustrative. It is from an April 22, 2010 New York Times article that covered a lawsuit in which members of the Havasupai successfully sued Arizona State University for misuse of their genetic material.

(1) Ricardo Ventura Santos, Peter H. Fry, Simone Monteiro, Marcos Chor Maio, Jose´ Carlos Rodrigues, Luciana Bastos-Rodrigues, and Sergio D. J. Pena. Color, Race, and Genomic Ancestry in Brazil Dialogues between Anthropology and Genetics by Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 6, 2009

Monday, August 1, 2011

Biology & the Public: Actor's and Analyst's Categories (Part 2 of 3)

One thing I like about HANK's post is that it questions the utility of both categories -- biology & the public -- by suggesting that their application to 16th century exploration, say, is anachronistic.  There was no such thing as a unified discipline of biology at the time.  Moreover, the relationship between natural history and its various publics were nothing like that between biomedicine and modern citizens.  So is it foolhardy to attempt a relatively longue durĂ©e history of biology and the public?

I'm not sure that it is.  It is indeed tricky -- risky even -- but I think the potential payoff of such a project outweighs its considerable pitfalls.

I'll restrict myself to two points, one methodological and the other more substantive.  First, a point on historical method:

I grant it is very important not to confuse actor's and analyst's categories when doing history.  It would be a grave error to import our modern notions about the relationship between biology and the public into a discussion about 16th century natural history, thinking they apply in roughly the same way.  However, that does not mean we cannot use modern concepts as a useful analytic jumping off point for a historically sophisticated conversation.

One way we might do so would be to trace a constellation of modern categories backwards in time, watching them coalesce into older concepts, disciplines, and ways of life.  Having done so, in our case it it would then be important to realize that early modern natural history has a number of descendants besides contemporary biology.  (Including popular institutions like zoos, acquaria, nature documentaries, etc.)  Moreover, as we trace the path of natural history to modern biology forwards in time again, it's equally important to take note of the many cultural and intellectual influences that creep in laterally, as it were.  (One obvious source would be medicine, but there are many others.)

Historical genealogy is difficult, to be sure, but that does not mean we should shy away from it at the get go!

The second point I want to make is more substantive.  Tracing the historical relationship between biology (or science more generally) and the public is extremely important.  One reason is precisely because in so doing we learn how difficult it is to make this distinction before the late 18th or early 19th century.  However, we also learn that issues of community membership are always being negotiated along some register or another.  Moreover, I do think we can say that an important shift took place around the turn of the 19th century.  As disciplines like biology coalesced into coherent and powerful social institutions, their practitioners deliberately went about setting themselves apart from other sectors of society.  I would argue that it is certainly worthwhile to investigate their reasons for doing so, as well as the mechanisms by which they succeeded in policing the epistemic boundaries that signal their status as holders of expertise.