Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Curation and Research in Art and Science

Chicago's Field Museum is making drastic cuts to basic research in order to meet a constrained budget. Lukas has argued that this should be seen as a blow to scientists, historians of science, and members of the public, even while we acknowledge museums' complex roots in the cultural capital of the Gilded Age.

Both Lukas's analysis and poignancy feel spot on, and I take seriously the idea that we can't cleave them apart. Museums don't just conveniently blur analytical binaries (like public and private, internal and external, expert and lay) for historians of science; they're also sites with which people fall in love, and thus a hook for wider audiences.

People who study museums—like Lukas, Jenna Tonn, and others—know this well. But I think one thing the Field Museum episode reveals is that, even within the academy (indeed, even within history of science), there are some widespread misperceptions about today's museum curation—some will be surprised that curators are tenured, for example, and that "curation" is as much original research as preservation and display.

Sure, we "know" this. But I think if a scientific division at a major university—down the road, say, at the University of Chicago—were going through this (collapsing departments, breaking tenure), we'd hear more about it. Does that sound right? If so, why? And why do I get the impression that part of making the case for the Field is convincing people that its staff really does crucial research (rather than, say, simply enabling others to do it)?

Maybe a comparison with art museums will help bring what interests me into focus.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

. . . By Exemplars: Kuhn in Chicago

A few weeks ago, I attended a birthday party at the University of Chicago called "Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." It was a stimulating event, and I left with many thoughts, problems, and puzzles. Below, I try to capture the gestalt of the presentations and discussions there. My post follows a nice summary that Michael Barany gave us of a sister Kuhn event at Princeton.

Tom Kuhn Wants His Theories Back, You Hippie Sociologist!!
If there was one theme that came through during the conference, it was a renewed interest in reasoning by exemplars, and the papers there suggested that a great deal of compelling work is being done on this topic and that a great deal more remains to be explored. At times, discussions of reasoning by exemplar took on the feeling of agenda-setting: some programmatic vision for the history of science being cast on the shores of Lake Michigan. We'll see what it nets. You'll see flashes of this theme throughout the summaries below.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

An Experiment in Teaching Hiroshima to Tomorrow's Engineers

As many of our readers attempt to recover from the semester's end, I'm pleased to present a guest post by David Spanagel, reflecting on a just-completed pedagogical experience.

This past term, I had the rare pleasure of teaching the history of modern American science and Technology survey course at WPI, an institution populated predominantly by engineering and natural sciences majors.  Despite the high opportunity costs involved, I selected just two books to “cover” the twentieth century portion of this course, and both of these featured the role of physicists in developing the atomic bomb during World War II.

A Tale of Two Cities, produced by the War Department in 1946, online thanks to the Prelinger Archives -- and one of Dan's favorite teaching films

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Field Museum Cuts Basic Research

Karl Akeley's famous "Fighting African Elephants" being put on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, ~1905.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is one of the country's oldest, largest, and most respected institutions of its kind. It has played a leading role in the global effort to collect, study, and exhibit remnants of our world's biodiversity for over a century, but it looks as though this legacy may be nearing its end. According to articles in Nature and the Chicago Tribune, the museum's administration recently announced that it would cut spending on basic research by $3 million to help meet its goal of reducing the overall budget by some $5 million next year. Among other things, this decision will almost certainly require breaking tenure to lay off curators.

Last Tuesday, the museum's new president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, announced that all of its academic departments--Geology, Zoology, Anthropology, and Botany--would be eliminated as part of an effort to streamline its organizational structure. As of January the 1st, they will be replaced by a single department for Science and Education.

There are a few reasons I have decided to write about this development, which is extremely unsettling to say the least. One of them is that I have many fond memories of visiting the museum over the years (my father works there as a curator), and I share the sadness and frustration that many have voiced in the wake of this news. Whereas Lariviere reportedly told the Tribune that "if we wrestle these issues to the ground successfully, our future is rosy," others have been less sanguine in their views. James Hanken, the Director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zooology, for example, told Nature that "There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances."

So I urge readers who agree that cutting basic research is a shortsighted move to sign this online petition urging Lariviere and other museum administrators to rethink their fiscal strategy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Change or Die!": The History of an Innovator's Aphorism

I asked Matt Wisnioski to share something with our readers about the history of technological change and innovation in celebration of the release of his book, Engineers for Change. I'm extraordinarily happy to offer this guest post on the unexpectedly fascinating history of a modern slogan. Change or die!

Innovation advertisement from 1970.
Source: "Change or Die!" Electronic Design 18, no. 13 (1970), 64.

A sure sign that an idiom has become a meme is when journalists attract page clicks by speculating on what it would mean to take it literally. That was the opening conceit of Alan Deutschman’s 2005 article “Change or Die” for the magazine Fast Company. Summarizing IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook conference, where “the most farsighted thinkers from around the world” addressed seemingly intractable global problems, he argued that science has shown that in only one time out of nine, when faced with preventable conditions like heart attacks, are people able to change. The lesson translates across all realms of human activity. Confronted with radical changes from outside their walls, businesses find themselves unable to adapt. If they hope to thrive, corporate leaders need a “strategy for continuous mental rejuvenation and new learning,” he quotes neuroscientist and entrepreneur Michael Merzenich. In his article and subsequent monograph of the same title, Deutschman had his finger on a pulse that he simultaneously helped create. A Google search of change or die combined with its parent term innovation generates over two million hits, including “change management” blogs, studies of the cable television industry, and policy analyses of biomedical research.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Should Online Communities Have Rights?

On November 30th, 2012, NCsoft, a South Korea-based video game maker, shutdown one of its digital properties, a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), City of Heroes. Its community of gamers, many of whom had played the game for several years, had earlier reacted with startled indignation when the closure was announced. Indeed, some held in-game protests in front of City Hall in the game's fictional capital; they called it Occupy Paragon City. (You can see video of one of the protests, along with live commentary, here.)

An In-Game Protest in the MMORPG City of Heroes

I never played City of Heroes, nor have I had much interaction with the MMORPG scene, but in this post, I want to consider some of the interesting developments around technology and community in the City of Heroes story. And I want to ask the question: should online communities have rights?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Queues of Disneyland, and other thoughts from HSS

My undergraduate course in discrete mathematics introduced me to some of the paradigmatic problems of the field, including Euler's Seven Bridges of Königsberg or the Gas-Water-Light puzzle (the latter a creation meant, in my experience, to frustrate the solver and make the poser feel smug). Both problems reduce practical or real world situations to fascinating and generalized mathematics. The practical becomes the pure, in other words. At a variety of talks and sessions that I attended at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society (program here), it struck me how flat and unsatisfying a picture of the interactions of science and practice such examples provide us.
Bridges of Königsberg, a map adapted by Bogdan Giuşcă.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 4 of 4)

This post concludes my four-part series on the cultural context of contemporary popular science writing. The preceding three parts are herehere, and here. Though there's more to be said, I hope you enjoyed what I managed to get in here!

This past Monday, there were two public lectures given to packed Princeton auditoriums. Both drew on material from the social sciences, but neither of the speakers—New York Times columnist David Brooks and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein—holds an advanced degree from (or is employed by) a social science department.
Brooks (l) and Sunstein (r) (Sources: and

Academic employment and/or credentials are standard benchmarks for "expertise" in any field, and their absence suggests interesting things about the shifting status of science's relationship to the public. Since that's been one of the main themes of my posts on the fall of Jonah Lehrer, it's a fitting way to start the final post a little closer to home.