Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Strength of American Materials -- An Environmental History of Engineering Science

From the Franklin Institute's General Report on the Explosions of Steam-Boilers  
One of the many pleasures of writing "Tocqueville's Ghost" for HSNS (discussed on AmericanScience here) was revisiting Ann Johnson's “Material Experiments: Environment and Engineering Institutions in the Early American Republic,” from Osiris in 2009.

It's a fascinating essay and makes a convincing case for rethinking the sort of science and engineering going on at West Point and in the Corps of Engineers in the early nineteenth century. Johnson shows how the West Point/Corps project adapted the French Polytechnique model in research as well as teaching, creating in the process a very productive "research school." She shows how prominent men of science like Alexander Dallas Bache carried on later celebrated work (most prominently his steam-boiler experiments, above) that owed much to their time working with Joseph Totten and the Corps of Engineers at Fort Adams.

Just as interesting for our blog and our HoTeEs/HoTMESs discussions, is the way Johnson succeeds in fusing environmental history with the history of science and of technology. Johnson forces us to think about the material conditions of early American engineering research.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Eye-Candy for HoTeES


After a week of great posts by my colleagues, I give you a bit of fluff, a Flickr account dedicated to "Science and Tech Ads" from the 1950's and 1960's. An informal pass through the materials finds ads mostly for science-intensive technology firms, but the page should suit the fancy of most historians of science and technology, especially those interested in the Cold War. Plenty of military imagery there. And a cool breeze of existential horror blows through the lot.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Big Histories of Science

For some time now, historians of science--including those who transformed the field with their carefully wrought, local, micro-studies--have been lamenting the lack grand narratives. Nevertheless graduate students continue to be trained to drill deep, sacrificing breadth for depth. And even if and when junior scholars contemplate "going big," they find precious few examples to follow. Writing stories that transcend a single community, idea or even place, involves thinking differently about sources and about audience.

Big histories also require the historian to think differently about herself and her relations to other scholars, those whose local stories have slowly carved out the vast canyon that becomes recognized as a national treasure. I'm suggesting that the best big histories make visible the canyon and the river, they reinterpret the accretion of "small" but powerful studies without which such sweeping narratives cannot be well told.

This kind of metaphorical talk invites debate (so, bring it), but the reason I'm motivated to write about this at all is that I can't stop thinking about Jill Lepore's new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012). Lepore, Chair of Harvard's History and Literature program, initially published many components of the book through her other gig as a staff writer at the New Yorker. Bound together, the whole is greater than the parts, a fantastic resource for thinking about what it means to write "big histories" for audiences comprised of our peers and other reading publics.

The narrative conceit is deceptively simple: tracing a shift in attention to life and death "from the library to the laboratory" over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. In doing so, Lepore tackles some massive questions about the consequences of the rise of experimental knowledge and the apparent displacement of humanistic approaches as central to ideas about life and death.  

The form of the book is ontogenic, each chapter recapitulating a stage of human life in America. After some clever framing in terms of the history of the board game "The Mansion of Happiness," familiar to many more of us as "The Game of Life," she presents a critical reading of Lennart Nilsson's iconic photos of fetuses, moving on to debates over infant feeding, sex, marriage, work, parenting, aging, dying, and so on.

Lepore did plenty of archival research to write this book, but she also drew deeply and generously on the expertise of a vast range of historians of science, technology, and medicine, including Steven Shapin, Ruth Cowan, Charles Rosenberg, Dorothy Ross, Karen Rader, Lynn Morgan, and the list goes on and on. I read Lepore's Mansion of Happiness as a calling card for history of science, in particular, the history of the life and human sciences, big and small.

Few readers of AmericanScience will be surprised that Lepore makes evident that high and low forms of literature have shaped and been shaped by the apparent scientization of American culture. But, perhaps most intriguing to us practitioners is the note on history with which Lepore chooses to conclude.

Following an account of cryonics and a visit to a warehouse of frozen bodies (!) in a penultimate chapter titled "Resurrection," she writes, "Hiding between the covers of this book . . . lies a theory of history itself, and it is this: if history is the art of making an argument by telling a story about the dead, which is how I see it, the dead never die: they are merely forgotten or, especially if they are loved, remembered, quick as ever."

Against claims that the library--in this case, the archive--has become a kind of laboratory for making knowledge about the past, Lepore would have us remain attuned to the fact that the laboratory and its inhabitants have left rich libraries for understanding what it means to be human. In this project, her account is neither the first nor will it be the last. But it goes far in demonstrating that historians of science, medicine and technology are asking questions whose answers are of consequence beyond the bounds of our allied disciplines; there is still plenty of room to grow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Next Week: PACHS Introductory Symposium

As many of you know, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS) anchors an increasingly rich array of HPS offerings—talks, conferences, fellowships, and even a blog—on offer in Philly. They've got events almost every day of the week, drawn together from institutions spread up and down the Delaware.

In about a fortnight, PACHS is hosting its 2012 Introductory Symposium. This is a chance for scholars from around the area to present brief synopses of their current projects. It should provide a great cross-section of current work in HPS, much of which (by the looks of the program) falls within the purview of AmericanScience.

There are projects spanning from the colonial period, through the Early Republic, the Gilded Age, and across the twentieth century. Lots of comparative work, tons of connections between science and politics, agriculture, and industry, and even a tiny bit on the scientific method. 

The all-day event is being held on Friday, September 28th, at (I believe, though it's not obvious—to me—from the website) the Library Company of Philadelphia

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trust in Standardized Test Scores

If you are like me, you have been following the Chicago Teacher's strike over the past week.  Last Friday, it seemed as though the labor dispute was about to be resolved and schools would re-open on Monday, but that turned out to be wrong.  Union delegates met on Sunday and voted against the city's proposed contract and it now looks like the strike will continue until Wednesday at least.

A close friend of mine belongs to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I've been struck by how different her take on the situation is from the one we get in the local and national media.  Over the weekend, for example, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial under the headline Don't Cave, Mr. Mayor whose opening paragraph read:

"Over the weekend, Chicago Public Schools leaders offered teachers a sweet deal that would make most workers in the city envious. Teachers stood to reap a remarkably generous 16 percent raise over four years in a new contract. Guaranteed."

Despite the fact that Chicago is broke, the editorial continued, "Everyone knows the Chicago Teachers Union response to the CPS offer: No way."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tocqueville's Ghost

Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences recently gave me the opportunity to review three thought-provoking books and in the process muse on the history of "American science." You can read the entire essay here.

I had a great deal of fun writing this essay, especially because it gave me an excuse to think about of the earliest figures in the field. For instance:

When Shryock and Schlesinger turned to science, they asked with Tocqueville: is there something distinctive about American science? Looking for American distinctiveness was part of their larger project, which multiplied exceptionalisms in the wake of the U.S.’s rise to superpower status. After the atomic bomb—Schlesinger called it “this terrible engine of destruction”—understanding American science mattered even more. Shryock recast and refined Tocqueville’s laments, explaining that industrial society lay behind the dearth of “pure” science in the United States. Shryock had reform in mind: “one way to overcome American indifference to research is to give more attention to its history.” He was looking at the nineteenth century, but thinking about the twentieth. His fundamental assumption, borrowed from Tocqueville and nineteenth-century discussions, was that politics and national character could have a defining influence over science. (336)
My argument, in sum, is that it more than time to "exorcise" Tocqueville's ghost. You can decide for yourselves if I'm convincing.

Note: I owe a special thanks to our blog's dear Hank for his comments, early and often, on this essay, and to the editorial criticisms of HSNS's book review editors, Angela Creager and Michael Gordin.

Cite: (D. Bouk, "Tocqueville's Ghost," Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42, no. 4 (2012): 329-339.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Roger Cohen's recent piece in the Times -- The Organic Fable -- has caused quite an uproar!

Briefly put, Cohen reports on a new study out of Stanford questions whether organic food is healthier and more nutritious than conventional foods.  Cohen uses the study as a springboard from which to go on what can only be described as a rant against what he views as an elitist and self-satisfied culture of privilege.  Based on dubious science, the organic food movement, Cohen writes, has "become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it."

I mainly write this post to share a link to Anna Zeide's excellent take-down of Cohen's argument (if you can call it that).

In the opening paragraph of her post, Zeide asks: "How can there be so much bad writing on this topic in the country's leading newspaper? How can an esteemed journalist write such poorly-argued drivel?"

I've been asking myself the same question -- a lot! -- lately.  It's not at all infrequent that I read an editorial in the Times or the Washington Post and wonder how this stuff makes it into print.  Both are very serious newspapers, both of which maintain a very high standard in their reporting.  (Although Lee's recent post puts even that statement in question.)  But in the editorial pages, it often seems like anything goes.  It does not matter if David Brooks has his facts right, or if his argument follows, because he's David Brooks.

I don't know enough about the history of newspaper publishing, but if anyone does, I'd love to learn about how the distinction between reporting and editorializing came into being.  Given my limited knowledge, my sense is that it's a fairly recent innovation.  As recently as the 19th century, entire newspapers were written in what we would now consider an editorial style.

This suggests an intriguing question: what, exactly, is the relationship (moral, epistemic, professional, and institutional) between the editorial pages and the rest of the paper?  Does the myth of objective, fact-based reporting give newspapers the license to print "poorly argued drivel" in its editorial pages.  And what does that make the editorial pages: the newspaper's id?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Down with epistemological rubrics!

I was struck by this passage in Erik Hmiel's review of Joel Isaac's new book, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn:

And in seeking to combat their marginalization, they sought crucial points of commonality among the human sciences, the most crucial for Isaac being an epistemology grounded in research practices, pedagogy, and communities of inaugurated and qualified inquirers. In reconstructing this moment in the history of the American social sciences, we see how the "practical, 'everyday' aspects of  the theory of the Harvard complex present a salutary contrast to the inflated role often granted to epistemological rubrics like 'positivism and 'interpretivism' in the formation of the human sciences," aspects that cast the “revolutions” of late-twentieth century thought, most notably Kuhn’s Structure, in a new light, and beg further questions about idea of the social sciences itself.

I had a healthy skepticism for "isms" imparted to me in grad school, so this sounds promising. (Also, full disclosure: I have trouble telling some of the isms apart!)