History and Philosophy of Science

Jonathan Silvertown’s The Long and the Short of It

November 8, 2013
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Jonathan Silvertown’s The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging explores the study of longevity from the perspective of natural history and considers the cases for aging, heredity, and decay via stories about the senescence of potatoes, water fleas, dragonflies, men, women, bacteria, poets, and kings. Along the way, Silvertown addresses key concerns, such as: What causes again, and what determines the length of an individual life? If the lifespan of our species is increasing so dramatically, why haven’t we evolved to become immortal? The below excerpt introduces the foundation of his argument (here, both literal and figurative), beginning with a rumination on the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey: *** Sooner or later, everyone ponders their mortality. It is the privilege of youth to be oblivious to death, but the fate of old age to contemplate oblivion. Each person searches for answers in his or her own way, but eventually all ask the same questions: How long might I live, and why must I die? What rhyme or reason is there in aging or mortality? Long before science offered reasons, art sought a rhyme that would give meaning to the mysteries of life and . . .

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Alexander von Humboldt’s new world

September 26, 2013
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Alexander von Humboldt’s new world

Alexander von Humboldt was a biogeographical maximalist, if that makes any sense. The Prussian-born von Humboldt had traveled through much of Latin America by the time he was 40, where he scientifically documented many of its surface features for the first time, and forwarded research that developed the burgeoning fields of meteorology and physical geography. His approach was holistic—by the end of the nineteenth century, “Humboldtian science” was the term generated for the combination of scientific empiricism, precise instrumentation, and the pursuit of the interconnectedness of all things von Humboldt found in his approach to the natural world. A recent profile in Nature Conservancy magazine, “Humboldt’s New World,” takes on the explorer-scientist and his encounters in Latin America, many of which involve terrain protected by the Conservancy. Of his journey, Julian Smith writes: The Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was midway through a five-year, 6,000 mile voyage of scientific discovery through Latin America that would revolutionize thinking in fields form astronomy to zoology. Charles Darwin himself called Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived,” and when Darwin set off on his own journey aboard the Beagle three decades later, he took a copy of von Humboldt’s seven-volume . . .

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Excerpt: The Triumph of Human Empire

September 24, 2013
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Excerpt: The Triumph of Human Empire

Excerpt from The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World by Rosalind Williams *** NEW ATLANTIS The phrase human empire comes from a haunting tale by Sir Francis Bacon titled New Atlantis (Latin 1624, English 1627), in which he imagines a storm-tossed European ship lost in the South Seas, “in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world.” The vessel providentially washes up on an uncharted island, where the ship’s company discovers descendents of survivors of the lost city of Atlantis, a superior race that has established there a great research foundation, Salomon’s House. Most of the fable recounts the “Preparations and Instruments” they use. First, however, Salomon, the “Father of the House” who oversees its activities, explains its purpose in a single sentence: The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible. There is no article “the” before “human empire.” It is not like the Roman Empire or any other territory-based empire that wields power by extracting tribute from the ruled. Human empire is limited in territory . . .

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Excerpt: The Gaia Hypothesis

September 20, 2013
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Excerpt: The Gaia Hypothesis

An excerpt from the Introduction to The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet by Michael Ruse To fill out the picture, the 1960s was the decade when this uneasy face-off between the established power of the older generation, backed by and enthusiastic about science and technology, and the rebellious doubt of the younger generation regarding the course of the nation and its authorities’ enthusiasms led more and more people to explore new ways of making sense of existence, new dimensions of thought and action. Matters are rarely as simple and straightforward as the surface suggests. Overnight, the advent of birth-control pills changed sexual attitudes and behaviors as women were suddenly freed form the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Yet obviously, in its way, “the pill” was a triumph of the very technology that was being berated. One work that became standard reading for every teenager, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (fifteen thousand copies were sold in the United States in 1960 and more than half a million in 1962) is deeply rooted in the venerable doctrine of original sin. There was continuity and there was change. We see this very clearly in questions to do with ultimate meaning and . . .

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The Idea of Nature, the Nature of Ideas

July 17, 2013
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The Idea of Nature, the Nature of Ideas

Guest blogger: Ryo Yamaguchi It is hard to imagine the world—or ourselves for that matter —without DNA, but for most of our intellectual history we knew nothing about those slender molecules. The modern microscope was invented near the beginning of the seventeenth century, with Friedrich Miescher isolating DNA in the late nineteenth, and between those times theories regarding biological formation and reproduction were explored by Enlightenment thinkers and scientists such as John Locke, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Carl Linnaeus, and Comte de Buffon. We overlook it now as common knowledge, but biological reproduction was something these people had to think through, to explain without DNA, and the debates between concepts such as God, mechanics, fermentation, homunculi—and how they could inform life’s larger lineages, of the differences between species, of a natural history as a whole—abounded. Enter Immanuel Kant. Many of us do not think of Kant as a biologist, but he was deeply interested in natural history throughout his career, an interest that Jennifer Mensch takes up in Kant’s Organicism, published last month. Situating Kant among the above thinkers, she shows not only that Kant had theories of his own on the generation of life but that he applied these theories . . .

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Our Fountains of Youth: An excerpt from The Longevity Seekers

April 25, 2013
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Our Fountains of Youth: An excerpt from The Longevity Seekers

The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth by Ted Anton The tale of the fountain of youth is a mythic encounter that dates back to Herodotus, which has enraptured would-be seekers for two-thousand-years and counting. In The Longevity Seekers, science writer Ted Anton updates the search and takes readers inside a story of contemporary bioscience that began with worms and branched out to snare innovative minds from California to Crete, investments from big biotech, and endorsements from TV personalities like Oprah and Dr. Oz. Below follows an excerpt from the book’s preface, which invites its reader to “explore the relation of a unique science of its time and, in so doing, the relation of any science to any time.” *** The Laboratory of Molecular Biology sat at the end of Hills Road on the southern edge of Cambridge, England. In 1983 the weather had been so miserable that twenty-nine-year-old Cynthia Kenyon taped a yellow sun on her single window overlooking distant hedgerows and a lone traffic light. She was checking her experiments in her tiny three feet of bench space in a room in one of the leading institutions of molecular biology. The room was small and crammed with . . .

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2012 PROSE Awards

February 11, 2013
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2012 PROSE Awards

The 2012 PROSE Awards, announced February 7, 2013, “annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in over 40 categories.” Since 1976, the Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have bestowed the awards on deserving recipients—and among them, we’re delighted to see several University of Chicago Press books acknowledged. Congrats to all the winners and honorable mentions! *** The awards for History of Science, Medicine, and Technology featured a clean sweep by Chicago, led by Daniela Bleichmar’s Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, which traces both the little-known history of scientific expeditions in the Hispanic Enlightenment and the history of visual evidence in both science and administration in the early modern Spanish empire. An Honorable Mention was awarded to Sachiko Kusukawa’s Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany, a consideration of the works three early modern learned authors who dealt with botany and anatomy—Leonhart Fuchs, Conrad Gessner, and Andreas Vesalius—and how their illustrations were integral to producing a visual argument for the scientific study of nature. A . . .

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2012: A Year in Books

December 21, 2012
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2012: A Year in Books

In wrapping of the year’s best-of-2012 lists, we couldn’t help but single out the University of Chicago Press titles that made the cut as reads worth remembering. With that in mind, here’s a list of our books that earned praise as cream of the crop here and abroad, from scholarly journals, literary blogs, metropolitan newspapers, and the like. If you’re looking, might we (and others) recommend—          A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava made the Philadelphia City Paper’s Best of the Year list named one of the best books of the year by the Houston Chronicle included in Bookriot’s list of the five most overlooked books of 2012 picked as the book of the year by a bookseller at the Oxford Blackwell’s: “ feel so evangelical about I want to run around screaming ‘YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK OR YOUR LIFE WILL BE INCOMPLETE,’ in Billy Graham style.” named one of the ten best fiction books of 2012 by the Wall Street Journal named by Wall Street Journal fiction editor Sam Sacks as one of his own favorite fiction books of 2012 named by Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker as one of his top books of . . .

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Frank Oppenheimer: Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens

September 27, 2012
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Frank Oppenheimer: Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens

From Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and His Astonishing Exploratorium by K. C. Cole CODA: LIVING A FRUITFUL LIFE Speech to the 1960 graduating class of Pagosa Springs High School by Frank Oppenheimer I am grateful for the life I have lived. It has certainly not been as full as the lives of some people, and yet it has probably been richer in experience and in a sense of accomplishment than the lives of many. I think that part of the sense of having lived a full and a rich life comes from an inability to continually take things seriously—but not too personally. Of a willingness, even a determination, to become deeply involved in what you are doing, but not obsessed by it. What have you taken seriously? What has involved a lot of your attention, your time and worry: I can mention a tremendous variety of things: your school work, ball games, county fairs, science fairs, plays, concerts, talent shows, to name some of the obvious ones. But also some of you have been involved with a job or with the putting up of hay or doctoring sick animals. you have been concerned with events in your family, . . .

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K U H N F E S T

September 26, 2012
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K U H N F E S T

“One is not one’s own historian, let alone one’s own psychoanalyst.”—Thomas Kuhn, via a 1991 profile in Scientific American  In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, making good on an earlier monograph that ran in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. 50 years later, “paradigm shift” is a ubiquitous reference for pomo and post-structuralist thinkers tinkering at the edges of science and culture, and we get our staid facts straight in deciphering one “Bad Newton” from another. For Kuhn, the drama of the paradigm shift really begins to unfold in times of crisis, when revolutionary science unveils challenging alternatives to then-dominant models, introducing a period of uncertain allegiances until the new paradigm is able to assert itself. The initial publication climate for Kuhn’s signature work was tenuous—the nation was soon-to-be knee-deep in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and had already weathered Federal Marshalls escorting James Meredith to classes at the University of Mississippi. Other soon-to-be cultural memes blotted the radar: the debut of The Incredible Hulk #1 Students for a Democratic Society’s draft of the “Port Huron Statement” John Lennon’s under-the-radar marriage to Cynthia Powell Johnny Carson’s semi-permanent takeover ofThe Tonight Show The Wizard of Oz’s last December telecast . . .

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