History and Philosophy of Science

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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May 13, 2016
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Publishers Weekly already christened Philip Ball’s Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does as the “Most Beautiful Book of 2016.” In a recent interview he did with Smithsonian Magazine, Ball lets us in on why, exactly we’re so drawn to the idea of patterns and their visual manifestations, as well as what let him to follow that curiosity and write the book. Read an excerpt after the jump. *** What exactly is a pattern? I left it slightly ambiguous in the book, on purpose, because it feels like we know it when we see it. Traditionally, we think of patterns as something that just repeats again and again throughout space in an identical way, sort of like a wallpaper pattern. But many patterns that we see in nature aren’t quite like that. We sense that there is something regular or at least not random about them, but that doesn’t mean that all the elements are identical. I think a very familiar example of that would be the zebra’s stripes. Everyone can recognize that as a pattern, but no stripe is like any other stripe. I think we can make a case for saying that anything that isn’t purely random has . . .

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Jessica Riskin on The Restless Clock

April 21, 2016
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Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick explores the history of a particular principle—that the life sciences should not ascribe agency to natural phenomena—and traces its remarkable history all the way back to the seventeenth century and the automata of early modern Europe. At the same time, the book tells the story of dissenters to this precept, whose own compelling model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines, in an attempt to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to theology’s “divine engineer.” In a recent video trailer for the book (above), Riskin explains the nuances of both sides’ arguments, and accounts for nearly 300 years worth of approaches to nature and design, tracing questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, Darwin, and others. From a review at Times Higher Ed: The Restless Clock is a sweeping survey of the search for answers to the mystery of life. It begins with medieval automata – muttering mechanical Christs, devils rolling their eyes, cherubs “deliberately” aiming water jets at unsuspecting visitors who, in a still-mystical and religious era, half-believe that these contraptions are alive. Then come the Enlightenment android-builders and philosophers, Romantic poet-scientists, evolutionists, . . .

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Michael Riordan on United Technologies

April 13, 2016
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Michael Riordan on United Technologies

Michael Riordan, coauthor of Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Supercollider penned a recent op-ed for the New York Times on United Technologies and their subsidiary, the air-conditioning equipment maker Carrier Corporation, who plans “to transfer its Indianapolis plant’s manufacturing operations and about 1,400 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico.” Read a brief excerpt below, in which the author begins to untangle a web of corporate (mis)behavior, taxpayer investment, government policy, job exports—and their consequences. *** The transfers of domestic manufacturing jobs to Mexico and Asia have benefited Americans by bringing cheaper consumer goods to our shores and stores. But when the victims of these moves can find only lower-wage jobs at Target or Walmart, and residents of these blighted cities have much less money to spend, is that a fair distribution of the savings and costs? Recognizing this complex phenomenon, I can begin to understand the great upwelling of working-class support for Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump — especially for the latter in regions of postindustrial America left behind by these jarring economic dislocations. And as a United Technologies shareholder, I have to admit to a gnawing sense of guilt in unwittingly helping to foster this job exodus. In pursuing . . .

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Patterns in Nature is PW’s Most Beautiful Book of 2016

April 11, 2016
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Patterns in Nature is PW’s Most Beautiful Book of 2016

It might only be April, but there’s already one foregone conclusion: Philip Ball’s Patterns in Nature is “The Most Beautiful Book of 2016” at Publishers Weekly. As Ball writes: The topic is inherently visual, concerned as it is with the sheer splendor of nature’s artistry, from snowflakes to sand dunes to rivers and galaxies. But I was frustrated that my earlier efforts, while delving into the scientific issues in some depth, never secured the resources to do justice to the imagery. This is a science that, heedless of traditional boundaries between physics, chemistry, biology and geology, must be seen to be appreciated. We have probably already sensed the deep pattern of a tree’s branches, of a mackerel sky laced with clouds, of the organized whirlpools in turbulent water. Just by looking carefully at these things, we are halfway to an answer. I am thrilled at last to be able to show here the true riches of nature’s creativity. It is not mere mysticism to perceive profound unity in the repetition of themes that these images display. Richard Feynman, a scientist not given to flights of fancy, expressed it perfectly: “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of . . .

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The Restless Clock at the THE

March 9, 2016
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The Restless Clock at the THE

Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock situates a new dialectic at the center of the life sciences, the role played by agency—simultaneously underscored, dismissed, banned, and advocated—in our relationships to nature and its mechanisms. From a review at the Times Higher Ed: The Restless Clock is a sweeping survey of the search for answers to the mystery of life. It begins with medieval automata – muttering mechanical Christs, devils rolling their eyes, cherubs “deliberately” aiming water jets at unsuspecting visitors who, in a still-mystical and religious era, half-believe that these contraptions are alive. Then come the Enlightenment android-builders and philosophers, Romantic poet-scientists, evolutionists, roboticists, geneticists, molecular biologists and more: a brilliant cast of thousands fills this encyclopedic account of the competing ideas that shaped the sciences of life and artificial intelligence. Riskin writes with clarity and wit, and the breadth of her scholarship is breathtaking. In particular, she explores scientific theories that aimed for some built‑in “agency”, some active principle that allowed matter to move in a way that did not require a predesigned mechanism (which seemed to imply a divine designer). Her goal is to “re-open scientific possibilities” – to show that, while passive mechanism is the “winning” principle in science, the . . .

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