History and Philosophy of Science

Excerpt: Packaged Pleasures

October 22, 2014
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Excerpt: Packaged Pleasures

An Excerpt from Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor

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“The Carrot and the Candy Bar”

Our topic is a revolution—as significant as anything that has tossed the world over the past two hundred years. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space. Our vulnerability to such a transformation traces back hundreds of thousands of years, but the revolution itself did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century, following a series of technological changes altering our ability to compress, distribute, and commercialize a vast range of pleasures.

Strangely, historians have neglected this transformation. Indeed, behind this astonishing lapse lies a common myth—that there was an age of production that somehow gave rise to an age of consumption, with historians of the former exploring industrial technology, while historians . . .

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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

September 15, 2014
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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

 

This past week, Rachel Sussman’s colossal photography project—and its associated book—The Oldest Living Things in the World, which documents her attempts to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older, was profiled by the New Yorker:

To find the oldest living thing in New York City, set out from Staten Island’s West Shore Plaza mall (Chuck E. Cheese’s, Burlington Coat Factory, D.M.V.). Take a right, pass Industry Road, go left. The urban bleakness will fade into a litter-strewn route that bisects a nature preserve called Saw Mill Creek Marsh. Check the tides, and wear rubber boots; trudging through the muddy wetlands is necessary.

The other day, directions in hand, Rachel Sussman, a photographer from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, went looking for the city’s most antiquated resident: a colony of Spartina alterniflora or Spartina patens cordgrass which, she suspects, has been cloning and re-cloning itself for millennia.

Not simply the story of a cordgrass selfie, Sussman’s pursuit becomes contextualized by the lives—and deaths—of our fragile ecological forbearers, and her desire to document their existence while they are still of the earth. In support of the project, Sussman has a series of upcoming events surrounding The Oldest . . .

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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

August 13, 2014
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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

“Ebola and the ‘new’ epidemic” by Tom Koch

Mindless but intelligent, viruses and bacteria want what we all want: to survive, evolve, and then, to procreate. That’s been their program since before there were humans. From the first influenza outbreak around 2500 BC to the current Ebola epidemic, we have created the conditions for microbial evolution, hosted their survival, and tried to live with the results.

These are early days for the Ebola epidemic, which was for some years constrained to a few isolated African sites, but has now advanced from its natal place to several countries, with outbreaks elsewhere. Since the first days of influenza, this has always been the viral way. Born in a specific locale, the virus hitches itself to a traveler who brings it to a new and fertile field of humans. The “epidemic curve,” as it is called, starts slowly but then, as the virus spreads and travels, spreads and travels, the numbers mount.

Hippocrates provided a fine description of an influenza pandemic in 500 BC, one that reached Greece from Asia. The Black Death that hastened the end of the Middle . . .

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An Orchard Invisible: Our free e-book for April

April 1, 2014
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An Orchard Invisible: Our free e-book for April

Just in time for garden prep, our free e-book for April is Jonathan Silvertown’s An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds.

“I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution. From the tiny sesame that we sprinkle on our bagels to the forty-five-pound double coconut borne by the coco de mer tree, seeds are a perpetual reminder of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. With An Orchard Invisible, Jonathan Silvertown presents the oft-ignored seed with the natural history it deserves, one nearly as varied and surprising as the earth’s flora itself.

Beginning with the evolution of the first seed plant from fernlike ancestors more than 360 million years ago, Silvertown carries his tale through epochs and around the globe. In a clear and engaging style, he delves into the science of seeds: How and why do some lie dormant for years on end? How did seeds evolve? The wide variety of uses that humans have developed for seeds of all sorts also receives a fascinating look, . . .

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University Presses in Space

March 20, 2014
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University Presses in Space

Welcome to the boundless third dimension: university presses—figuratively speaking—in space!

From the website:

“University Presses in Space” showcases a special sampling of the many works that university presses have published about space and space exploration. These books have all the hallmarks of university press publishing—groundbreaking content, editorial excellence, high production values, and striking design. The titles included here were selected by each Press as their strongest works across a variety of space-related topics, from the selling of the Apollo lunar program to the history of the Shuttle program to the future of manned space exploration and many subjects in between.

As part of the “University Presses in Space” program, we were geeked to select Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Space and Time by Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, which takes readers on a clear, concise tour of our current understanding of the nature of time and space—and whether or not we might be able to bend them to our will. Using no math beyond high school algebra, the authors lay out an approachable explanation of Einstein’s special relativity, then move through the fundamental differences between traveling forward and backward . . .

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Q & A with Paddy Woodworth

February 18, 2014
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Q & A with Paddy Woodworth

Paddy Woodworth is an investigative reporter and journalist whose most recent book, Our Once and Future Planet, considers the case for environmental restoration. Woodworth recently participated in a Q & A with our promotions director, Levi Stahl; you’ll find the full transcript below:

Let’s start with the story of how you came to this subject, because (as I have the advantage of knowing) it’s a good one—and it involves a a couple of other writers.

By a happy accident! In 2003, I had recently published Dirty War, Clean Hands, a book on the very different subject of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque conflict. On the back of that book, I was invited onto the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Weary of writing about why people kill each other, I was looking for a happier subject in natural history, but I found myself adrift, ignorant, and lost.

Then the great American novelist and naturalist Peter Mathiessen led us on a prairie restoration field trip and discussion. I had never heard this word, ‘restoration’, applied to anything other than houses or paintings. The idea that an ecosystem might be . . .

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Bill Gates on The Most Powerful Idea in the World

December 20, 2013
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Bill Gates on The Most Powerful Idea in the World

William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention considers how scientific and intellectual breakthroughs—specifically, the burgeoning field of mechanical engineering and its resultant affect on patent law—ushered in the development of the steam engine, and thus, the Industrial Revolution. In a February 2013 post for his GatesNotes blog, tech impresario and philanthropist–entrepreneur Bill Gates praised the book as, “an entertaining narrative weaving together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind the engines that give birth to our modern world.”

In his review, Gates contextualized how the interrelationship between intellectual property and public disclosure became integral to the culture of late nineteenth-century democratic invention:

The book’s premise is that the Anglophone world—England, Scotland, Wales, and America—was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution because it “democratized the nature of invention.” Rosen makes a compelling argument that the steam engine is the quintessential example of that democratization at work.

I won’t spoil it by telling all the reasons why, but suffice it to say one of the most important was the advent of patent protection. Patents were a . . .

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Excerpt: Outsider Scientists

December 3, 2013
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Excerpt: Outsider Scientists

An excerpt from Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology, edited by Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich

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INTRODUCTION

Both intellectually and institutionally, the life sciences occupy a fascinating middle ground between the physical and exact sciences on the one hand, and the social sciences and humanities on the other. If biology were an animal, it would be a duck-billed platypus—something that appears chimeric, yet is fully rooted in its own historical lineage of accumulating adaptations, tinkering, and change.

Like that strange aquatic mammal, “half bird, half beast,” its features point to its origins and ecology. Biology as a science has come into being as a patchwork, assuming its present visage as a consequence of myriad interactions between different traditions of knowledge, method, and philosophy while maintaining an overarching quest for understanding of the natural world. Indeed, historically, many researchers have come from outside biology to ask fundamentally biological questions. These outsiders have played a crucial and defining role in the growth of modern biology; they have brought new skills and ideas to the “inside” and . . .

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Q & A with Henry Gee

November 15, 2013
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Q & A with Henry Gee

As promised, to close out University Press Week, here’s a Q & A with author Henry Gee, whose recent book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution questions the value of concepts like the “missing link” and the Great Chain of Being, positioning them as metaphors that paint a inaccurate portrait of how human evolution really works, and pinning down human exceptionalism as a gross error that continues to infect scientific thought. He also talks about Carl Sagan, Darwin’s vocabulary, and the ubiquity of battered copies of Beowulf in UK bookstores, after the jump.

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UCP: The Accidental Species is a serious work about a serious topic—the subject of how and where we locate our own   (flawed) notion of human exceptionalism—filled with pop-cultural references such as “Lady Marmalade,” sports cars, elephant jokes, The Hobbit, the works of Lewis Carroll, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Could you describe your sensibility as a paleontologist trying to write a trade book accessible for the general reader?

HG: I’m quite sensitive to a possible criticism of didactic books like this—that is, they can get rather preachy. So, rather than gently introducing readers . . .

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Henry Gee on the evolution* of scholarly publishing

November 14, 2013
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Henry Gee on the evolution* of scholarly publishing

Continuing our week-long series of posts for University Press Week, we asked Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature and author of The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, for his unique perspective on university press publishing. Gee has contributed several books to Chicago’s lists in science and anthropology and is, of course, all too familiar with shepherding the work of scholars, reviewers, and critics through its final stage runs prior to publication. What follows below are thoughts on his experiences with the University of Chicago Press (including working with our Editorial Director for the Sciences and Social Sciences Christie Henry). Stay tuned tomorrow for a Q & A with Gee about human exceptionalism, science fiction, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

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Chicago and I go back a long way. The first time I ever went to the United States, it was in Chicago I landed. It was the North American Paleontological Convention, in 1992. To this wide-eyed Brit it felt like I’d walked onto a movie set. I’ve been to Chicago many times since and I love the place—every grimy, shiny, rough, vibrant particle of it. There’s a table at . . .

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