Blog Archives

5 Questions with Alexander Wragge-Morley, author of “Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650–1720”

September 10, 2020
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In his new book, Aesthetic Science, Alexander Wragge-Morley explores scientific representation in the early modern period and shows us how vital the role of subjective experience is to the communication of knowledge about nature. It’s a fascinating, groundbreaking reconsideration of the role of aesthetic experience in the history of the empirical sciences, and we sent him a few questions about it. In Aesthetic Science, you explore the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. What drew you to the topic? What do you like about it? I’d say that there’s a lot to like when you think about the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. To start, the issue is obviously fundamental—and I like fundamental issues. I don’t think you can give a good account of knowledge production unless you think hard about how the senses—with all the feelings they provoke—give us access to the external world. What’s more, that fundamental question allows you to think about the history of science in new ways. By focusing on how the scientists of seventeenth-century England related to sensory experience, I was able to pull a wide range of disciplines together—disciplines that are usually studied separately. In Aesthetic . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Tacit Racism” by Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck

September 8, 2020
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As shown every time we read or watch the news, racism is ubiquitous in America. Yet racism is so insidious that it exists on a more micro, common level as well. Effecting all swaths of culture and society, it permeates aspects of day-to-day life, especially when it is unexpected. In Tacit Racism, Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck illustrate the many ways in which racism is coded into the everyday social expectations of Americans. The following is a slightly altered excerpt from the introduction to Tacit Racism.  Racism Is a Clear and Present Danger If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you. —Lyndon B. Johnson Since the 1670’s, fifty years after the first Africans were sold into slavery at Jamestown in 1619, racism has steadily and relentlessly wormed its way so deeply into the foundations of the American democratic experiment that we typically don’t even notice it. Racism does not usually take an obvious form that we can see and prevent, rather it masquerades as the most ordinary of daily actions: . . .

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Six Questions with Thomas Milan Konda, author of “Conspiracies of Conspiracies”

September 3, 2020
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The viral spread and increasing normalization of incendiary conspiracy theories have been one of the most dismaying and dangerous trends in recent American political life. The QAnon conspiracy is most prominent of today’s Internet-borne fringe theories: its influence has even reached the seats of national governmental power, with at least ten current Republican Congressional candidates expressing support for it. We spoke at length with Thomas Milan Konda, author of Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusional Thinking Has Overrun America—called “the most detailed genealogy of American conspiracy theories yet written” by the American Historical Review—to gain some perspective on our current conspiracy crisis. The QAnon conspiracy is increasingly in the news these days—a formerly fringe phenomena that has now wormed its way into the mainstream. How does its rise fit in with what we know about how conspiracy theories work? How conspiracy theories “work” is really two questions: what is their appeal and how are they spread? Their appeal is always the same, and in this regard QAnon works the same way its predecessors did. Its three-part argument is the one that has always shored up conspiracy theories: (1) An insidious, powerful elite (2) secretly manipulates our various institutions from behind the . . .

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Read Excerpts from “The Province of Affliction” by Ben Mutschler

August 31, 2020
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The following are two excerpts from Ben Mutschler’s recent publication, The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England.  The book explores the place of illness in everyday life—the ways in which it shaped families and households and became bound up in governance at all levels. The passages below draw from the introduction to a chapter on smallpox and the politics of contagion, followed by a small portion of a case study based on the diary of Ashley Bowen.  The sailor, ship rigger, painter, poet, husband, and father chronicled the ravages of smallpox as it burned through his town of Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1773—an event at once terrifying and all-too-common in early New England. Perhaps no other affliction in eighteenth-century New England received the attention given to smallpox. Even the most laconic of diarists noted its presence and charted its approach; others devoted entire journals to its rages. Letters written from infected areas to relatives, friends, and business partners survive despite authors’ pleas to burn such material lest the virulent distemper spread further. Newspapers reported on outbreaks throughout the Atlantic world. Chronologies of significant events compiled at the end of almanacs memorialized serious epidemics. Legislative records reveal extensive . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Blood Ties: A Story of Falconry and Fatherhood” by Ben Crane

August 20, 2020
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Spring and Summer of 2020 have been unlike any in our collective memory. But as we’ve spent these months in relative isolation, socially distanced from our loved ones, many of us have awakened to details of the changing seasons that we seemed somehow to have forgot in our normal daily lives. We’ve noticed the feel of cool, green moss; the hum of bees in city parks; the smell of blooming lindens. In the news, we’ve read about the return of wild boars, goats, fish, and dolphins to city streets, rivers, and ports. Something in this is comforting. Copublished with UK publisher Head of Zeus, Ben Crane’s Blood Ties is a potent reminder that if we open our senses to nature, we are never truly alone. It is also so much more. Both an uncannily brilliant evocation of the falconer’s art and a moving story of a man’s discovery of how to be a father, Blood Ties is a memoir as compelling and feathered with insights into the natural world and human heart as the beloved H Is for Hawk—and yet, it is a story wholly its own. At once deeply personal and soaring across the globe, bringing us eye to . . .

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5 Questions with Matthew H. Rafalow, author of “Digital Divisions”

August 18, 2020
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It seems that the effects of COVID-19 persist in each and every arena of our lives. With its emergence, the unjust systemic stratifications of resources, distribution, and access became more apparent than ever. One such area is education. With back to school season upon us again, we must think critically about the divides driving education and schools. In his new book, Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew H. Rafalow explores how different student body demographics receive starkly contrasting responses to their interests and implementations of technology. What lead to you this subject? Were there any particular elements that you were drawn to learning more about? I have always been fascinated by how schools work. Since my parents worked in education, dinner table conversations centered on stories about students. But they were also big supporters of my interests in computers, even though a lot of my peers saw it as rather geeky. As an adult, I watched as the world adopted all sorts of new digital technologies. I wondered if kids’ experiences with technology today were similar or different from my own. I also was curious about what school would be like if everyone liked using . . .

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Scott L. Montgomery on the Importance of Communicating Science Today

August 14, 2020
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Scott L. Montgomery, author of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, is widely known for his writings on energy matters, intellectual history, language and translation, and history of science. In light of the disparate messaging surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we invited him to share his thoughts with us. Communicating science is more essential today than it has ever been. This means not only among scientists themselves but a range of non-scientific audiences. Such may sound like an opinion donning the mask of fact (forgive the simile). But I wager almost every scientist and a great many others agree with it.   There are several reasons for me to say this. One, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic. In this case, communicating the science and doing so accurately counts as both an ethical and moral act, as well as a political necessity, due to the near-bacterial spread of misinformation, conspiracy ideas, and outright denials of the disease. Internet technology provides pathways for anti-science to mobilize and proliferate, and it is this same technology (social media) that needs to be employed as a counter such intellectual toxins. Thankfully, a good bit of this is happening. It needs to continue and expand in both relentless and eloquent fashion to counter and contain the appeals it . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Crusade for Justice” by Ida B. Wells, Born on This Day in 1862

July 16, 2020
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Read an Excerpt from “Crusade for Justice” by Ida B. Wells, Born on This Day in 1862

Today marks the 158th birthday of journalist, activist, and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells-Barnett, born into slavery in Missouri on July 16, 1862. Wells, posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching,” left a legacy that endures today alongside the continued fight for racial justice. Nearly a century after her death, her work, rather than echoing the past, holds a mirror to contemporary society. She continues to teach us about the hard work of social change and the long road that still lies ahead. As Eve L. Ewing writes in the foreword: “Generations after the passing of Ida B. Wells, her battle continues. We still fight in defense of Black people’s basic humanity, our right to a fair application of the laws of the land, and our right to not be brutally murdered in public. In light of this continued struggle, maybe we don’t need more moving oratory or another inspirational fable about mythological people. Maybe we just need the whole truth.” Today, in celebration of her birthday, we offer “The Tide of Hatred,” an excerpt from Crusade for . . .

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Remembering Cosmas Magaya (1953–2020)

July 15, 2020
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The Press was sad to learn of the passing of Chicago author and master musician Cosmas Magaya this week of COVID-19. Below, ethnomusicologist Paul F. Berliner offers a remembrance of his coauthor, longtime collaborator, and friend. On July 10th, 2020, coronavirus took the life of one of the world’s great musicians, mentors, and cultural ambassadors, Zimbabwean mbira master Cosmas Magaya. In North America, Europe, and Africa where he performed, he was universally loved by his following not only for his inspired virtuosity and expressivity, but for his generosity of spirit. A virtuoso from an early age, Cosmas was a key player in the renowned mbira ensemble, Mhuri yekwaRwizi, led by singer Hakurotwi Mude. He performed both for Shona religious ceremonies and for the concert stage. Initially sponsored to the USA by the Kutsinhira Cultural Arts Center (Eugene, OR) in the 1990s, Cosmas subsequently traveled widely and regularly to perform and teach. Countless students and musicians had the privilege of learning from him in university classrooms, at mbira camps and workshops, and in private lessons. His talents were first showcased internationally in the 1970s on the recordings The Soul of Mbira and Shona Mbira Music, and subsequently, on the independently produced . . .

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Can We Fill Our Empty Streets?: Brian Ladd on the Role of Streets in City Life

July 9, 2020
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Can We Fill Our Empty Streets?: Brian Ladd on the Role of Streets in City Life

With social distancing protocols in place and many businesses temporarily closed, the current pandemic has drastically changed the public lives of our cities. Eerie videos of cities like New York show a world with fewer cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, while many of us wonder how and when public interactions might resume. Brian Ladd, author of The Streets of Europe, considers not only our current state of lockdown, but also the history and future of city streets, looking at the ways they have changed from pedestrian hubs to high-speed thoroughfares and how we might reconsider their role in city life. In our coronavirus quarantines, many of us miss not only particular people, but also people in general. Pictures of empty streets remind us that we cannot, like the French poet Charles Baudelaire, “melt into the crowd” to “take a bath of multitude” with its “feverish ecstasies.” Will our current feelings of deprivation renew an enthusiasm for the daily throng? Only if we don’t succumb to fear of city life. This pandemic does make it easy to believe that the proximity of other people is primarily a threat. When will it be safe to gather in public again? Never, say pundits who . . .

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