Friday, November 30, 2012

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at the University of Chicago

I just arrived in Chicago where I will be attending a conference on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at the University of Chicago beginning tomorrow. The event is jointly sponsored by the University of Chicago Press, the Fishbein Center for the History of Science, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. I have rarely seen a conference with a more promising line up (the program is here), and I'm really looking forward to it. (There's also a rumor that a certain other member of this blog, who happens to be a postdoc at Northwestern University, might also be there tomorrow. I hope he is!!)

I'll be live-tweeting at least portions of the event. Follow me at @STS_News. And look for a summary of the event soon here on American Science.

Friday, November 23, 2012

After Construction/Between Loops and Kinds: Alexander's The Mantra of Efficiency

My favorite thing about this blog is that it sticks things deeply in my craw, and I cannot pull them out, so now my craw is full. Today, I'd like to return to a discussion we were having several months ago about ontology (here, here, here, and here). It's never let me go. I'd like to return to it by considering Jennifer Karns Alexander's 2008 book, The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control

The Mantra of Efficiency won the Society for the History of Technology's Edelstein Prize, for "an outstanding scholarly book in the history of technology published during the preceding three years." Like all Edelstein-winning books, Mantra was the subject of a special conference session, this one at SHOT's 2010 meeting in Takoma, WA, which included commentators like Bill Storey, Wiebe Bijker, and Tom Misa. At one point, the discussion took an unexpected turn. Misa said that Alexander's account of efficiency pointed to a post-constructionist history of sci/tech. This excited Misa (and me!). Bijker pushed back, standing up for the continuing relevance of constructionism, which he did again this year when he accepted the DaVinci (lifetime achievement) medal at SHOT's 2012 meeting in Copenhagen. Alexander, I think, did not want to wade into these dangerous waters and, as I recall, was hesitant to say that her book meant to go there. But I agree with Misa: Mantra does go there—or at least it points one way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Other 2012 Prophecy

I asked Joseph November, Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, to share this techno-prophesy with our audience. He was kind enough to oblige me. Enjoy! (If you want to read more, check out his new book):

Closing in on December 21, 2012, there are few credible signs of the prophesied apocalypse. However, there’s another set of 2012 predictions, one pertaining to the use of electronics in medicine that just might be worthy of your notice.
Lusted's 1962 Paper, as reprinted in 2000
In “Bio-Medical Electronics-2012 A.D” [pay-wall], Lee B. Lusted, M.D. imagined he was writing a letter to his 1962 Proceedings of the IRE audience from fifty years in the future. In his short but captivating essay, Lusted, a radar engineer-turned-radiologist who at the time headed the National Institutes of Health’s first effort to computerize biology and medicine, set forth his vision of what medicine would be like in the future he was helping to build.

Besides offering fascinating benchmarks for both providers and consumers of medical care, Lusted’s speculations provide us with a window into the thinking of one of the most influential, though seldom-discussed, shapers of today’s medicine.

Writing to 1962 from his envisioned 2012, Lusted made the following observations:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 3 of 4)

This is the third installment of a four-part series on the cultural context of contemporary popular science writing. Part I is here, Part II is here, and Part IV will appear next week. 

The first decade of the new millenium put the big—as in big money—in "Big Ideas." From The Tipping Point (2000) to Freakonomics (2005) to Ted Talks (which started streaming in 2006), an intellectual economy emerged that put a premium (and a price) on counterintuitive conclusions.


In many ways, this was what I called "the house that Gladwell built" in my first post. However, my second post suggested a more structural explanation for the sort of popular science peddled by Malcolm Gladwell and what one source has called "the Gladwell clones and wannabes who specialize in writing counterintuitive books that explain the world."

Let's flesh this out a bit further. When people "copy Malcolm Gladwell," what exactly are they copying? Is it different if the person in question is a journalist, a scientist, an academic, or none of the above? With specific reference to Jonah Lehrer, is there something about his position vis-a-vis Gladwell (e.g. in the image above, or as heir apparent) that set him up for the fall that spurred these posts?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I'm flying out tomorrow morning for the History of Science Society's Annual Meeting in San Diego. The philosophers of science will be there too, and the whole thing kicks off (of course) with more talking about Kuhn!

I hope all our readers at the conference will turn out for the Forum for the History of Science in America's business meeting and distinguished lecture. During the meeting we will announce the winner of the FHSA prize for the best book on the history of science in America published in 2009-2011 (look for an interview with the author soon thereafter). If you'd like to get involved in the forum in any capacity, please feel free to drop in.

After the business meeting, we can all turn our attention to James Fleming, the FHSA distinguished historian lecturer, giving a talk called "At the Cutting Edge: Harry Wexler and the Emergence of Atmospheric Science." See you all there on Friday at noon in the Spinnaker room.

Whether or not you make it to the meeting, please track me down or one our other bloggers (Joanna and Lukas will be there too) and tell us what you'd like to see more of on this blog. We would love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 2 of 4)

This is the second installment of a four-part series on the cultural context of contemporary popular science writing. Part I is here, and Parts III and IV will follow in the next two weeks.

In 2010, Jonah Lehrer wrote a widely-read New Yorker piece called "The Truth Wears Off." It began with a provocative question: "Is there something wrong with the scientific method?"

Lehrer's answer, both in the piece and in follow-ups elsewhere, was "yes." He calls the frightening failure of scientists to reproduce one another's results (or even their own) the "decline effect"—an old phrase for a new fear.

However, it's not just science that's in trouble. In the wake of Lehrer's recent travails, something seems wrong with science writing, too—big, bold claims seem unable to weather scrutiny. In what follows, I'll treat the problems facing science and science writing as parallel stories.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Kuhn Was Right

This past weekend, Princeton hosted a workshop in honor of Thomas Kuhn called "Structure at 50: Assessing and Reassessing Kuhn and his Legacy." What follows is a guest post by Princeton Ph.D. candidate Michael Barany summarizing the days' events. 

Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions turned fifty this year.

Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions had no right to go beyond this first edition
Penned as a contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (and far exceeding its allotted word count), the work scarcely had any right to exist, much less to win a wide readership, much much less to become one of the most influential books ever written.  

This much was abundantly clear from the talks and discussion at a star-studded workshop titled “Structure at 50: Assessing and Reassessing Kuhn and his Legacy” at Princeton University this past Friday and Saturday.  Kuhn and his Structure are two things people love to love and love to hate, often at once, and often without quite being able to articulate why.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Henry David Thoreau: Scientist, Capitalist, Land Surveyor

We have been talking a great deal about the history of capitalism on American Science, particularly focusing on how histories of science, technology, and the environment relate to this recent sub-field. (This post nicely aggregates the discussion.) I want add to this dialogue by considering a topic that also touches on an earlier post on the relationship between literature and science—in this case, I want to examine Henry David Thoreau's work as a land surveyor, and how it might have contributed to his literary vision. 

Henry David Thoreau, a Land Surveyor, Wearing a Beard

My dad is a land surveyor, and I spent a summer working on field crews. Since I began studying the history of technology, I've been thinking about how one could write a history of changes in technologies and practices within that profession. In some ways, surveying is a thoroughly mundane activity. It is often nearly invisible, beyond those times when we occasionally spot a surveying crew out in the field. A number of advanced technologies have contributed to the invisibility of current practice. Yet, surveying, both as an activity and as a social station, was highly conspicuous earlier in US history, when property lines were foggy, when most of the population relied on the land for its living, and when surveyors were the adjudicators of important competing claims. Moreover, many famous people were also famously land surveyors, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown. By chance, I recently discovered Patrick Chura's Thoreau The Land Surveyor, a book that raises interesting questions about scientific, technological, environmental, and literary history in the 19th century.

Here are some things I learned from it.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 1 of 4)

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O [Jonah], thou wast slain in thine high places. 
2 Samuel 1:25 (King James, adapted)*

This summer, the meteoric career of pop-science wunderkind, bestselling author, and recently-appointed New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer reached its Icarian zenith–and abruptly ended. In my next few posts, I'll speculate about what went down, starting today with an outline of events and a glimpse ahead.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sandy Studies 3: A Teachable Moment

Yesterday, my colleague, James McClellan, and I held a discussion group on Hurricane Sandy with students at Hoboken's Stevens Institute of Technology, where James and I are professors. Both of us are members of the College of Arts and Letters' new Program on Science and Technology Studies. We called the event "Sandy Studies: Exploring Science and Technology Through Our Experiences and Difficulties."

Thinking and Sharing During Disaster
The students taught me a great deal.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sandy Studies 2: Darkness

Some years ago, the historian, A. Roger Ekirch, published a book titled, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. In it, he explored the history of night in Western culture. Night was a bad time, full of potential violence, fires, and ghosts, but it also had its blessings–lovemaking, storytelling, family. His work has been on my mind.

My Studio Apartment, Messier Than Usual from My Shambling in the Dark
I made it home to my apartment in Hoboken last night, but in the process, I found real pockets of desperation and the darkest of night.