History and Philosophy of Science

Microbes from Hell!

May 1, 2017
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Microbes from Hell!

From “Fungi to be with,” a recent joint review of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes  and Patrick Forterre’s Microbes from Hell in the TLS: Yong takes his readers to the forefront of microbial science by interviewing the relevant researchers, one of whom could have been Patrick Forterrre of the Institut Pasteur. The fact that Yong didn’t make it to Paris makes Forterre’s memoir, Microbes from Hell, read as a clean take on some of the same material, in particular the micro-organisms that have adapted to live in extreme environments. These “extremophiles” can cope with the high temperatures of hot springs and deep sea thermal vents, which are often also highly acidic or abound with sulphur. Others thrive in intensely salty places, or with amounts of radiation that were long thought to be inimical to life. Their adaptations and coexistence with their own viruses have much to tell us about life on earth and its history. To read more about Microbes from Hell, click here. . . .

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Cognitive Fireworks: Synthetic in Science

April 17, 2017
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Cognitive Fireworks: Synthetic in Science

Don’t miss this clip from a glowing review in the latest Science for Sophia Roosth’s Synthetic: How Life Got Made. *** It is at times hard to distill that which unites the people and projects that travel under the name ‘synthetic biology,’” Sophia Roosth notes in this new ethnography, but that doesn’t stop her from following the field in flux, tracking “brave new organisms” (and those who make them) through classrooms and industrial laboratories from Boston to the Bay Area and from neighborhood bars to far-flung conferences. A chimera of anthropology bred with a dash of history, Synthetic reads synthetic biology’s constructs both as “materialized theories” and as “postcards from a particular cultural moment.” Navigating the shimmering categories of the natural, unnatural, supernatural, and postnatural, Roosth plays with traditional ethnographic conventions of the anthropologists’ toolkit—religion, kinship, economy and property, labor, household, and origin tales—to show how “the form and function of life-forms have … oftentimes paralleled social, historical, and political forms of life.” . . . “There is no there there,” Roosth ultimately concludes, channeling Gertrude Stein’s method of wreaking worlds with words. “What counts as ‘real’ or ‘original’ no longer makes any genetic, genealogical, ontological, or historical sense.” But at this point . . .

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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

February 23, 2017
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Touch Press sale: Gems and Jewels app

Gems and Jewels is an app and the product of a unique collaboration between the University of Chicago Press and the Grainger Hall of Gems at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (along with the Field Museum’s senior vice-president and curator of gems and gemstones, Lance Grande), published by the digital mavens at Touch Press. Crystals, crystals, crystals—also Etruscan gold necklaces, insects paralyzed in Baltic amber, and a 16th-century Aztec opal made in the image of the Sun God—all in 360-degree rotation, along with detailed captions and scientific data from Wolfram|Alpha, including classification, group, hardness scale, and chemical compound. Accompanying text unfolds from the upper left corner of each page and explores the roles of particular gems in human culture, explains geographic origins, and recounts the extraordinary histories of particular jeweled pieces. Starting today and for the next week, all Touch Press apps are 50 percent off at the iTunes store, including Gems and Jewels. You can check out the sale here. If you’ve never had a look at the app before, the video below should give you an indication of what you’re missing: To read more about Gems and Jewels, click here. . . .

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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

February 3, 2017
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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

From a recent review of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by George Scialabba at Inference: According to the delightful science fiction romance film, Her, artificial intelligences also socialize, or will before long. I imagine them asking one another at parties, “Are you an agent?” They will not, of course, be asking about literary representation, but about the psychological or emotional or moral capacity we commonly call agency. They’ll be looking to find out whether the AI they’re meeting answers ultimately to itself or to someone else, whether it can set and change its own goals, whether it can surprise itself and others. Beings possessed of agency are autonomous, spontaneous, capable of initiative, and moved by internal as well as external forces or drives. According to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, agency is everywhere, or at least far more widespread than is dreamt of in modern philosophy of science. If agency is “an intrinsic capacity to act in the world,” then science is not having any of it. It is “a founding principle of modern science … that a scientific explanation must not attribute will or agency to natural phenomena.” This ban on agency is . . .

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Steven Shapin on Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock at LRB

December 8, 2016
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Steven Shapin on Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock at LRB

Though it’s behind a paywall, here’s a teaser from a recent review by Steven Shapin of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, at the LRB. *** When you consider the difference between a human being and a machine, you start with some idea about what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a machine. Some people now celebrate the technological advances that can make it hard to tell the difference; others view that difficulty with anxiety. They are concerned when machines do what we want to do; and they have species-self-doubt when machines do things that once defined what it was to be uniquely human. The worst worry is that the machines will refuse our orders, that they may acquire a will of their own, and want free agency. You start out with some matter-of-fact presumptions about what each sort of entity really is. If you’re reading this piece, you’re almost certainly a person, and you assume that its other readers are too. you might be reading it on a machine, just as I wrote it on a machine, and it was typeset on a machine. I didn’t have . . .

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The Restless Clock in the Baffler and TLS

September 19, 2016
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The Restless Clock in the Baffler and TLS

The TLS recently reviewed Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, and though the full review is behind a paywall, its closing moments help to elucidate Riskin’s contribution to how we make sense of reasoning (no pun intended), from both a human and non-human perspective: But Riskin also uses history as a way of thinking about the world, not just as a way of getting facts about the past right. “Historical understanding is integral to scientific understanding,” she claims, as she explores discussions among biologists and philosophers about directed mutation, drawing on work by Lamarck, Darwin, August Weismann and Richard Dawkins. This concern—the lack of humanistic and historical thinking in scientists’ and philosophers’ work—bookends her study. Jessica Riskin shows us the many ways in which scholars have sought to understand those parts of the world that are material, movable and predictable, and those that are characterized by agency, passions, chance, suffering and consciousness, as well as the tricky areas where they overlap. She mobilizes powerful examples from the history of the life sciences of where and how attempts at explaining these areas have succeeded and failed. Her journey takes us everywhere in the . . .

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August excerpt: The Restless Clock

August 22, 2016
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August excerpt: The Restless Clock

“William Harvey’s Restless Clock”* Against this passivity, however, there were those who struggled to hold matter, feeling, and will together: to keep the machinery not just alive but active, life-like. These holdouts accordingly had something very different in mind when they talked about the “animal-machine.” William Harvey, whom we have already seen comparing the heart to a pump or other kind of hydraulic machinery, also invoked automata to describe the process of animal generation. Observing the development of a chick embryo, Harvey noted that a great many things happened in a certain order “in the same way as we see one wheel moving another in automata,and other pieces of mechanism.” But, Harvey wrote, adopting Aristotle’s view, the parts of the mechanism were not moving in the sense of “changing their places,” pushing on another like the gears of a clock set in motion by the clockmaker winding the spring. Rather, the parts were remaining in place, but transforming in qualities, “in hardness, softness, colour, &ce.” It was a mechanism made of changing parts. This was an idea to which Harvey returned regularly. Animals, he surmised, were like automata whose parts were perpetually transforming: expanding and contracting in response to heat and cold, . . .

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Publishers Weekly on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement

August 8, 2016
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Publishers Weekly on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement

Though perhaps best known in the United States for his fiction, Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh has previously published several acclaimed works of non-fiction. His latest book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable tackles an inescapably global theme: the violent wrath global warming will inflict on our civilization and generations to come, and the duty of fiction—as the cultural form most capable of imagining alternative futures and insisting another world is possible—to take action. From a recent starred review in Publishers Weekly: In his first work of long-form nonfiction in over 20 years, celebrated novelist Ghosh (Flood of Fire) addresses “perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture”: how can writers, scholars, and policy makers combat the collective inability to grasp the dangers of today’s climate crisis? Ghosh’s choice of genre is hardly incidental; among the chief sources of the “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” he argues, is the resistance of modern linguistic and narrative traditions—particularly the 20th-century novel—to events so cataclysmic and heretofore improbable that they exceed the purview of serious literary fiction. Ghosh ascribes this “Great Derangement” not only to modernity’s emphasis on this “calculus of probability” but also to notions of . . .

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In Memoriam: Alison Winter (1965–2016)

June 30, 2016
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In Memoriam: Alison Winter (1965–2016)

*** Alison Winter (1965–2016), historian of the mind, as well as professor of history, the conceptual and historical studies of science, and the college at the University of Chicago, passed away last week from complications related to a brain tumor. A formidable scholar, teacher, and friend, Winter counted among her contributions to the history of sciences of mind two books published by the University of Chicago Press, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (2012), winner of the 2014 Gordon J. Laing Prize for a book published in the previous three years by a Chicago faculty member that brings the Press the greatest distinction, and Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (2000). As noted by her colleague, Emilio Kourí, chair of the Department of History: “We will all miss her uncommon intelligence, her boundless curiosity, and her joie de vivre.” From the Department of History at the University of Chicago: The Guggenheim, Andrew W. Mellon, and National Science foundations awarded Winter fellowships to research her second book, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (2012). Memory received a Gordon J. Laing Prize in 2014 for most distinguished book published by the University of Chicago Press. Daniel Kevles of Yale University called the book an “original history of the intertwined . . .

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The Guardian’s #21 Best Nonfiction Book: Kuhn’s The Structure

June 20, 2016
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The Guardian’s #21 Best Nonfiction Book: Kuhn’s The Structure

The Guardian recently began chronicling their “100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time.” Placing 21st on the list and profiled by Robert McCrum, Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions proves not only why it merited a new edition for its fiftieth anniversary in 2012, but also why new generations continue to find relevance in Kuhn’s concept of the “paradigm shift,” and the potential in situating the history of science in a dialectic composed of “normal” and “revolutionary” phases. From the Guardian: Yet, against the odds, Kuhn remains evergreen. His great insight, which owed something to Kant, but was based on his own study of the Copernican revolution, was provocatively at odds with Karl Popper (a later entry in this series). Kuhn’s description of the dialectic of change in science (the making of a paradigm; the recognition of anomalies, with an ensuing crisis; finally, the resolution of the crisis by a new paradigm) still holds true today, albeit in a radically different intellectual environment dominated by information science and biotechnology. Kuhn’s argument for an episodic model of scientific development in which periods of continuity are interrupted by passages of revolutionary science remains disputed by some, but is widely accepted within most circles. He himself has written . . .

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