History and Philosophy of Science

6 Questions with Michael Rossi, author of “The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America”

October 14, 2019
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In Michael Rossi’s compelling new history, The Republic of Color, he shows readers how the control and regulation of color shaped the social contours of modern America—and redefined the way we see the world. We sent Rossi a few questions to learn more about color science and how it affects us today. First, can you give us a quick introduction to the “republic of color”—what does this term describe? As you might know, “the Republic of Color” was not the original title for the book. Credit goes to Prof. Kathleen Belew for coming up with the felicitous wording over dinner after a workshop session. Credit also to numerous other readers, colleagues, and friends who convinced me that my own titular ideas were obtuse and/or confusing. Thank you, all! This said, “the Republic of Color” works so well as a title because it emphasizes that the book is about color and politics. Rather than simply an ideologically neutral fact about the visual world, color perception—and especially scientific research about how human beings see, experience, and talk about color (or not)—was an important part of the project of American statecraft at the turn of the century. Instead of being ancillary to politics, . . .

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Excerpt from “On the Heels of Ignorance” by Owen Whooley

October 10, 2019
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October 10 is #WorldMentalHealthDay, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world. In honor, we’d like to share a short excerpt from the introduction to On the Heels of Ignorance: Psychiatry and the Politics of Not Knowing by Owen Whooley. His well-researched history begins with psychiatry’s formal inception in the 1840s and moves through two centuries of constant struggle to define and redefine mental illness as well as the best ways to treat it. Whooley’s book is no antipsychiatric screed, however; instead, he reveals a field that has muddled through periodic reinventions and conflicting agendas of curiosity, compassion, and professional striving to get to where it is today. The history of American psychiatry is a history of ignorance. Underlying psychiatry’s curious past—its repeated crises and dramatic transformations, its faddish theories and epistemic somersaults, its occasional achievements and egregious abuses—is a stubborn, inconvenient fact. Psychiatrists lack basic knowledge regarding mental illness. Madness evades articulation. Charged with the quixotic, perhaps doomed, mandate to impose reason on madness, psychiatrists have searched for an understanding of the mechanisms that produce mental distress, be they psychological, neurological, genetic, or social. These searches have been in vain. The most fundamental . . .

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5 Questions for Robin Wolfe Scheffler, author of “A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine”

May 16, 2019
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5 Questions for Robin Wolfe Scheffler, author of “A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine”

In his new book, A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine, Robin Wolfe Scheffler explores the United States’s century-long search for a human cancer virus and reveals the ways in which the effort, while ultimately fruitless, profoundly shaped our understanding of life at its most fundamental levels. We sent Scheffler a few questions to learn more about his research, his motivations for writing the book, his recent reads, and more.  How did you wind up in this academic field, and what do you love about it? A British scientist named CP Snow once claimed that the sciences and humanities were two separate cultures, but I’ve never felt that way. I studied history and chemistry as a student at the University of Chicago. I was drawn to these two subjects because they each connected things—chemistry bridged biology and physics, history bridged the humanities and the social sciences. I explored everything from the economic geography of grain elevators to the mathematical modeling of dimerization before a professor suggested to me that studying the history of science might allow me to connect all of my interests. He was right!   Years later I still enjoy working in . . .

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Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

June 28, 2017
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Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

At New Books Network, you’ll find a podcast interview with Sharrona Pearl, author of one of our best-covered (as in images) books of late, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other, a perfect storm of cultural studies and synthetic and biogenetic technologies. A brief description from their post follows below, but here’s the real link: to listen in to the fascinating hour-long talk with Pearl! *** Troubling the indexical relationship between the face and character and reminding us that “he self has always been a set of choices,” Pearl explores face transplantation as it relates to cosmetic surgery and whole-organ transplants, the cinema of the 1960s, television shows, and more. She carefully and sensitively takes us into the debates among surgeons, bioethicists, and journalists that circled the first partial face transplant of Isabelle Dinoire in 2005, and offers a way toward a philosophical approach that brings together Levinas with the kind of (Deleuzian) subjectivity that allows for individuality through constant change and understands the self to be constantly in a process of becoming. The final chapter of the book also situates the analysis within larger contexts of online subjectivities and work with facial and bodily manipulation by artists and performers. . . .

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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

June 14, 2017
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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

Elle Hunt at the Guardian takes on Evelleen Richards’s expansive account of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, perhaps the biologist’s most misunderstood and least explored supposition: Richards argues that, more than natural selection, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was uniquely his own and, perhaps as a result, often misunderstood. His theorizing drew upon a wide range of influences, many of them deeply personal, including his grandfather Erasmus’s radical writings on evolution and his own relationship with his wife. In, On Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, published last month by the University of Chicago Press, Richards explores this confluence of connections Darwin had to make and, just as crucially, the challenges he had to overcome in order to reach his conclusion. Given the conventional understandings of beauty, gender and sexuality of the Victorian era, it is difficult to overstate how radical Darwin’s theory was at the time. It was the culmination of a lifetime of intellectual legwork – and yet he was constantly called upon to validate it until his death in April 1882. “The accepted point of view was that all the beauty that we experience on Earth was created by God for his own and human delight,” says Richards. . . .

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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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