Monday, November 28, 2011

Historians and their Index Numbers

John Steele Gordon argues---over on Bloomberg's recently revamped "echoes" blog---that historians of the US stock market in the mid-twentieth century has been misled by that market's most prominent index. The handiwork of a publisher (Dow) and a statistician (Jones), the Dow-Jones Industrials evolved from a series of focused indexes into a single number meant to represent the entire NY exchange, and by proxy the American economy.

But for all the power and influence this number has had, Gordon shows how dependent it is on basic assumptions. Swap out AT&T for IBM in the Depression years and the market recovery comes years before we have generally thought.

For our purposes, the Dow, its development, and public understandings of stock indexes strike me as topics awaiting a historian of science's analysis. I would read that book.

If you haven't seen the new "echoes" blog---edited by Stephen Mihm, the UGA historian of capitalism in the US, it's worth a peek.

Also, as long as we're talking about American science and index numbers, here's a shout-out to Tom Stapleford's recent history of the Consumer Price Index, which also happens to be a fascinating history of American statistics generally.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do we still need harvest festivals?

Loyal AmericanScience reader Anna Zeide wonders about Thanksgiving in a post-can world over at the Food Studies section of Grist. Check it out.

For those of you who teach some environmental history or history of technology alongside history of science, I can vouch for "The Miracle of the Can" as a great tool to generate discussion right around Thanksgiving. Seasons be damned!

For more Thanksgiving scholarly fun, see Neil Prendergast's recent Environmental History article on "Raising the Thanksgiving Turkey."
Talking Turkey the Somewhat-Old-Fashioned Way...

And a final tid-bit, from the department of applied science: Butterball University!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Beyond Presentism vs. Historicism in the History of Anthropology

This weekend I participated in the Stocking Symposium at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting in Montreal. Named to honor George Stocking – widely credited with legitimating anthropology as subfield of historical study – the Symposium was begun in 2006 to provide a forum for historical perspectives at the AAA.

The panel featured about a dozen papers, many of which focused on the contributions of individual theorists like Franz Boas, his student Zora Neale Hurston, and even Irving Goffman (long claimed by sociology). Discussant, Ira Bashkow, an anthropologist at University of Virginia, responded to the relatively favorable portrayal of these subjects with some pointed reflections on the state of the field. He revisited Stocking’s important 1965 essay, "On the limits of 'presentism' and 'historicism' in the historiography of the behavioral sciences." In that piece, Stocking was interested in importing more rigor into the methodology of the history of human science. Rather than taking sides, he critically evaluated both stances.

Bashkow noted that the reflexive turn in anthropology that took root in the decades after the publication of this essay has led to histories that have often tended to castigate the architects of the field. In view of the somewhat celebratory tone in which 2011 Stocking Symposium panelists depicted their subjects, Bashkow mused that this might mark a new phase in the history of anthropology. In a moment when the human sciences are under attack, what would it mean for historians of those fields to draw on the past to strengthen their claims to knowledge in the present? Stocking, he suggested, would want to see the history of anthropology push beyond the dyad of "presentism vs. historicism."

To be sure, Bashkow was not asking for hagiography, saying that the founders of the field are "Not idols to revere, but neither are they gods to smash." However, he argued, if anthropology is to persist as a viable field, it needs to attend more carefully to its own social reproduction. Anthropologists and their historians need to consider how to engage constructively with the past in ways that maintain a space for social sciences and humanities, both within and beyond the academy.

I'm not an anthropologist – nor a strict presentist – but as someone who cares about what the history of science can contribute to civic life, I think Bashkow's perspective is worth taking seriously.

AmericanScience in Literature: Pynchon

What's the place of science (specifically, American science) in literature (specifically, American literature)? While literary scholars have written more about this than have historians, I think more dialogue's in order between historians of science and New Historicists.
As a way in, I'll start where lots of others do – with Thomas Pynchon.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

American science and the budget crisis

Last week's issue of Science included a number of short articles on the effects of the budget crisis on science funding in the United States. Most emphasized the challenges that budget cuts present for administrators at NSF, NASA, NIH, and other science agencies who must determine the priorities for research funding. As I read the essays, I wondered about the contributions that taking a longer perspective on American science funding or the agencies involved might provide to these debates.

For example, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes about a dilemma facing NASA administrators, in particular those who manage the agency's astronomy and planetary science initiatives. They reportedly must choose between supporting big-budget, high profile programs and the many smaller programs that gather little media attention. Bhattacharjee quotes one administrator who sees smaller programs as more important, in that they "maintain and train our next generation of scientists," while another argues that the flagship programs and other high-profile projects are essential because they not only fund many researchers but sustain interest and momentum in aerospace research as a whole.

I suspect that this is a debate that has been ongoing for a long time (those out there who are more familiar with NASA history can tell me), visible not only now but also at other points in the agency's past when funding dollars have seemed short. What would a look back at tradeoffs made in previous decades tell us about the effects of supporting flagships over small programs -- or even about the rhetorical power of claims to maintaining and training scientists versus inspiring interest in aerospace science, both within the agency and among a broader public?

Or, to take another example, a piece by David Malakoff pointed out that the association of oceans and atmosphere in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is causing problems for ocean scientists, whose research budgets are pinched by the expensive satellite-based research programs associated with weather and climate monitoring. 

NOAA was formed in 1970 by bringing together a number of existing environment-related agencies. This makes me wonder whether the current division of interests was not always a problem in an agency, which though formed to foster "a better understanding of the total environment," was cobbled together from organizations that had studied narrow aspects of that total environment.  If so, it might make sense to locate the problems faced by oceanographers not in the ever-more-sophisticated and ever-more expensive satellite technologies but in the organization of the agency itself, a conclusion that points towards a more radical intervention that mere budgetary juggling.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Science Does to the Environment

I noticed a fascinating Call For Papers this morning on h-net for a conference on "Science, Space, and the Environment," sponsored by the Rachel Carson Center in Munich and scheduled for thus July 17-18 at London's Science Museum.

Here's the pitch: "Although the sciences have provided critical resources in environmental debates, their own role in environmental change has been little studied. This conference will explore how the sciences have affected the physical environment."

The organizers seem to have negative impacts on the environment foremost in their minds, but there are clearly other directions one could take such an inquiry. Don Worster's Nature's Economy imagined science to have split personalities when it came to nature: the "Arcadian" strain of science produced knowledge that helped humans understand, love, and live with nature; the "imperial" strain led to domination and abuse. Forgive me a pun, but I imagine that the history of scientific agriculture would provide particularly fertile ground for thinking about the positive and negative impacts of science on our environments.

I'll post the full CFP after the break. Perhaps it will inspire one of our readers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

4S/HSS/SHOT Recap #2

I very much agreed with Hank's recent post about this year's HSS, so I thought I'd add my two cents.  In particular, I wanted to say something about the "Making Mathematics: Models, Machines, and Materialities" panel.  It was excellent; indeed, one of the best at this year's HSS!

Although the presentations were quite diverse, the panel had a remarkably tight and coherent theme. Chris Phillips delved into the history of the chalkboard as a ubiquitous tool in American mathematical pedagogy. David Roberts talked about the late 19th century enthusiasm for "linkages," that is, mechanical instruments that transformed circular motion into a perfectly straight line.  Stephanie Dick explored the architecture of a mid 20th century geometry theorem proving machine developed at IBM.  And Alma Steingart discussed the role of visualization in topology. 

In her talk, Steingart argued that although Stephen Smale had conclusively shown that a sphere can be turned inside out in the 1950s, a large contingent of the mathematical community was not satisfied until a coherent visual account of the transformation had been supplied. This lead to a number of attempts to model the process using everything from chicken wire to advanced computer graphics imaging techniques.

Beyond its coherence, what made this panel so good was the fact that it explicitly engaged in an ongoing conversation about the importance of inscription techniques in mathematical theorizing. In some way or another, all of the talks helped cement the claim that diagrams, three dimensional models, and images are far from mere heuristics. Rather, they are often a constitutive element of theorizing as mathematical practice.

In this regard, I was especially intrigued by Stephenie Dick's paper, which centered on a geometry theorem proving machine developed at IBM in the 1960s. What made it so exciting is that she added an ontological component to the usual epistemic claims about the role of diagrams in mathematical theorizing.

The program that Herbert Gelernter and his colleagues at IBM developed to generate geometric proofs was modeled on human cognition.  In particular, Galertner explicitly tried to make the program mimic the geometric intuitions and proof generating strategies of a high school student. (Indeed, he seems to have had students at the Brooklyn Technical Hight School in Fort Greene in mind.) Among other things this included working backwards from a desired conclusion to the assumptions, rather than the other way around.  Most interesting, though, is that it also involved drawing figures, shapes, and diagrams.  

For each proof, Gelertner and his colleagues  supplied the computer  with a visual diagram. This was in addition to a modest set of commonly known results in Euclidean geometry and the usual logical transformation rules that allow you to transform one syntactic expression into another.  One way I understood the role of the diagram in Stephanie's talk is to think of it as a model -- as something for a syntactic expressions to be true of.  Working backwards from the conclusion, the computer was thus able to eliminate certain fruitless paths to the assumptions by ascertaining whether they violated the supplied diagram.

What's so interesting about this? To my (admittedly limited) understanding, Stephanie was trying to go  beyond just pointing out that here again diagrams and inscriptions played an important role in doing theoretical work.  She also raised another, perhaps deeper question: what is it to be a diagram for a computer?

One way to understand the importance of diagrams for humans is that they offer us another way of thinking.  Whereas equations help us think analytically, diagrams help us to think synthetically (or perhaps spatially, which may amount to much of the same thing).  But computers are only capable of analysis.  They are syntactic manipulation engines -- transforming one string of digits into another. A provocative way to read Stephanie's talk is thus to ask whether Gelertner was trying to give the computer a way to do something beyond merely manipulating strings of digits by supplying it with a diagram. The question of course is what this was.  If the traditional syntactic symbol shuffling that computers engage in can be said to correspond to analytical thinking, then what does the computer do with a diagram? What is it to be a diagram for a computer?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Because Raccoon Intelligence Really Is a Problem

...for science!

At the recent meeting of the Forum for the History of Science in America at HSS, David Spanagel awarded Michael Pettit of York University with the Forum's article prize for this year.

Pettit's article, "The Problem of Raccoon Intelligence in Behaviorist America" appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science in September 2010. You can read the article here.

We'll publish the award citation and feature a conversation with Pettit. But for now: enjoy the article!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

4S/HSS/SHOT Recap #1

As announced in a recent post, the whole sick crew spent last weekend in Cleveland at the jointly-located 4S, HSS, and SHOT meetings. Dividing our time differently between the three hotels (and various local watering holes), we each got our own snapshot of the state of the field(-s) today.

To my mind, two themes characterized some of the best panels: (1) the material culture of theories and (2) the structural power of metaphors. I hope a co-blogger will touch on the former as featured at "Making Mathematics," a panel widely lauded as one of the weekend's best.

For my part, I'll describe the latter theme as it emerged in a Sunday panel on "Bodies, Colonies, and Stem Cells." Each of the three papers – by Ben Hurlbut, Hallam Stevens (the organizer), and our very own Lukas Rieppel – dealt with the link between social and scientific categories.

That's a sloppy way to label a subtle conversation, but I think the panelists (along with their commentator, Andy Yang) would agree that the slipperiness of distinctions between science and society was at play in many of the examples they raised, ranging from cell theory to South Park).

Take, as an example, George Bush's famous 2001 allusion to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in describing the production of human embryonic stem cells for research research, which Hallam quoted in his talk. Once raised, the image of the "human hatchery" is hard to kill.

Ditto, in a different way, the cell-state metaphor Lukas discussed. August Wiesmann tacitly imported that intercellular framing for his intracellular theory – with the result that, though seemingly unintentional, his language was as political as that of his rival, Herbert Spencer.

Here's proof of the power of metaphor and allusion – of language – in scientific thought. This should come as no surprise, but the smart ways these papers elucidated this familiar theme suggests its renewed vitality at the heart of a paradigm aimed at practice and material culture.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dr. Cynthia Beall and the Science of Human Adaptability

This Friday, Nov. 4 at 12pm, those attending the FHSA distinguished scientist lecture will have the privilege of hearing from and talking with Case Western's Dr. Cynthia Beall. Gina Rumore, an FHSA stalwart, got in touch with Beall and offers the following introduction to her work. Enjoy:

Cynthia Beall and nomad friends: Phala, Tibet, altitude 4500m, 2005, 
copyright Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein
Dr. Cynthia Beall of Case Western University will deliver this year’s FHSA Distinguished Scientist Lecture at the History of Science Society’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Beall, a physical anthropologist, studies how humans adapt, physiologically, to living at high altitudes. She conducts her research on populations in the South American Andes, the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas, and the Simien Plateau of Ethiopia. She is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Over the past forty years, Beall’s research has challenged some of the most fundamental ideas about human adaptation—including her breakthrough discovery that Tibetan and Andean highlanders have adapted physiologically quite differently to living at high altitude. She is, indeed, a distinguished American scientist, and her talk on the history of high altitude studies and physical anthropology promises to be of interest to a diverse audience of historians of science. There is truly a little something for everyone in her story.

In 1970, Beall began her graduate education at Pennsylvania State under Dr. Paul Baker, who is credited as the founder of human adaptability studies. Focused on addressing questions of how natural selection acts on humans, Beall never really considered the challenges of being a female graduate student in an all-male program. “My dissertation advisor, and I didn’t know this until I got there,” Beall recalls, “it turns out was famous for not liking to take female graduate students. Or infamous I should say. And I remember someone telling me this and asking, ‘why?’ I was so out of it, right, that it never occurred to me that of all of the things someone would worry about they would worry about that. After my first field experience I found out that the male graduate students had had a betting pool as to whether or not I would survive the season. I don’t know who won it. I hope they all lost their shirts. It never occurred to me that it would be a problem.” Beall not only survived that first field season in Peru, but she would go on to become the most successful of Baker’s students, revolutionizing the field of high altitude population studies along the way.

Beall completed her doctorate in 1976 and immediately began to study, with her partner and colleague Melvyn Goldstein, the adaptations of populations living on the Tibetan Plateau of Nepal and, beginning in the early 1980s, of Tibet as well. “[T]here was no possibility of working [in Tibet] until the open door policy of the early 80s,” Beall explains, “and that, I should also say, was a policy of the Dalai Lama too. They used to either turn people away or kill them.” Access to these populations fundamentally altered the views of anthropologists and physiologists on how humans have adapted to live at high altitude. “Well the first change occurred in studying Tibetans in Nepal and finding that they didn’t have the same biological patterns as Andean highlanders,” according to Beall. “However, in Nepal, the people who we had access to at the time lived, what you might call, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and so it was possible for them in the course of an annual cycle or even in the course of a day to move up and down a lot in altitude. So there was always in the back of people’s minds the idea that the reason for the apparent Tibetan Indian difference was a pattern in the difference of exposure to high altitude. So in going to Tibet, where it’s a huge plateau, and you are talking about people living in the midst of the plateau, they never go to low altitude. So that was a very nice study design to address that one particular concern.” The natives of the Tibetan Plateau had adapted, physiologically, quite differently to living at high altitude than the Andean natives of Bolivia and Peru.

Humans living at high altitude face the deadly threat of high-altitude hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, resulting from the lower air pressure at high altitudes making it harder for sufficient oxygen molecules to enter the blood stream. Earlier studies of the Andean populations living at high altitudes revealed that individuals in these populations generally had elevated hemoglobin concentrations, and this came to be the accepted means of high-altitude adaptation. But when anthropologists began studying the populations of the Tibetan Plateau in the 1970s and 1980s, they discovered that these populations did not adapt in the same way. Beall’s work over the past four decades has addressed this question of how these two populations, as well as a third, Ethiopian highlanders, have evolved different physiological mechanisms to solve the same biological problem – the need to draw sufficient oxygen into the blood stream from thin air.

Just as access to new populations has shifted anthropologists’ perspectives on how humans adapt to high altitude, changes in science and technology over the past four decades have also radically reshaped the questions physical anthropologists can ask and what data they collect and how. “[When we first started out in the field,” Beall recalls, “it was things like height and weight, chest depth, everything super low tech … and then it became possible slowly to have portable generators, so you could have some electricity. So then you could expand a little bit what you could measure. My favorite device was invented in the early-to-mid 80s, called the pulse oximeter that measures the amount of oxygen that hemoglobin is carrying. And that’s a little portable box that changed the field radically, because before to get that measurement you had to take an arterial blood sample. And that’s quite invasive. Sometimes you can’t even get permission to that here in the U.S. Then blood samples became smaller, people developed new techniques for measuring things in saliva and in urine, and in exhaled breath ... So all of that has changed what we can measure. Now in the more rural areas people are starting to put in micro-hydro and they have their own electricity or they have solar panels and they have their own electricity. And then we moved to genetics, and again there have been changes: at first you needed blood, and now you only need saliva. People are happy to spit.” Technological changes have also allowed anthropologists to begin to tackle a tough question with genetic data: what genes are responsible for adaptability to living at high altitude (meaning what allows humans from low altitude to acclimate) and what specific genes show adaptation driven by natural selection?

Despite the many changes in science and technology over the past forty years, Beall is careful to point out that much of the basic work of physical anthropology remains the same: “You need pedigrees. So you need to know who is related to whom. You need to know what people do for a living. You need to know what they eat. What their exercise patterns are… a lot of the social context, and you still have to get that by sitting down and talking with people and living in the village. And that has absolutely not changed and that is crucial. There are some classic examples where basically we were misled by data being collected from the wrong people or without thinking about important confounding social factors. So the things that I have been talking about have been technical changes that have allowed us to be able to measure human biology better. The things that have remained the same are old-fashioned techniques. We are doing ethnography and observing people and talking with them.” As a physical anthropologist, Beall spends months at a time living among the high-altitude populations with whom she works. And, fortunately, she has a knack both for learning languages—she is fluent in Spanish and speaks conversational Tibetan (she did note that she does not yet speak Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia)—and she seems to be immune to altitude sickness.

Beyond, or perhaps in conjunction with, their research, Beall and Goldstein (a social anthropologist) have also worked hard to give back to the communities in which they conduct their research. One of their largest efforts has been establishing a sheep bank in the nomadic area of the Tibetan Plateau. “[W]e thought, what is it that nomads can do to get rich?” Beall recalls. “Everyone else in China is starting businesses and things like that, and what can the nomads do? Well, the only thing they can do is raise more animals, and so what we did is we got funding so that we could buy 250 fertile female sheep of the highest quality one year. And we talked to the community and the community helped decide which five families should get this loan of animals, and the idea was that they would be able to keep any babies that were born in subsequent years, keep the milk, the meat, the wool. Well, we hoped that they wouldn’t keep the meat. We did not want them to kill any animals. So remove the meat from that list. Then in the fourth year they were to pay back half of the animals and in the fifth year pay back the second half. Then we did the same thing in year two; we got another 250 animals, and in year three we got another 250 and now its been working for about seven years and the idea is that as they pay back their animals, then the community has a bank. It has these animals to loan out to other families. And it’s been working beautifully. They took 100% seriously control. They watch, they monitor. If Joe Schmoe looks like he has a gambling problem, and he’s about to sell his animals and eat them, they go and take them back.”

Listening to Beall tell of her work in Tibet, it is hard to miss the passion for the people, the environment and the science that motivates her research. Beall’s career touches on and highlights so many issues in the history of science in America: really cool, cutting-edge science; the role of gender in science; the challenges of working in the field and working on human subjects—a natural experiment, as she calls it; and technology and how it has changed and been changed by scientists and their research questions. She will, without a doubt, add immeasurably to the History of Science Society program this November. Her talk will take place on Friday, November 4, following the noon business meeting for the Forum for the History of Science in America.

Gina Rumore is a lecturer in the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation, titled “A Natural Laboratory, A National Monument: Carving out a Place for Science in Glacier Bay, Alaska, 1879-1959,” won the 2010 Rachel Carson Prize for the Best Dissertation in Environmental History. Rumore has served as Secretary-Treasurer of FHSA since 2006.