History and Philosophy of Science

Review: Owen, On the Nature of Limbs

February 12, 2008
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Review: Owen, On the Nature of Limbs

This month’s issue of the journal Nature is running a nice review of Richard Owen’s nineteenth century treatise on biological forms On the Nature of Limbs—one of the foundational works contributing to the development of modern evolutionary theory—newly reprinted in a facsimile edition edited by Ronald Amundson. Michael Coates writes for Nature: A decade before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Owen very nearly sketched a theory of evolutionary transformation, fragments of which appear here. However, as Padian describes, such were the sociopolitical and philosophical strains on Owen’s position that he stalled at the final intellectual leap. Owen’s patrons were of the Oxbridge-educated establishment—adherents to the natural theology of the ‘argument from design’ (for the existence of God) as advocated most influentially by William Paley (now sadly repackaged with a molecular gloss by the proponents of ‘intelligent design’).… But it remains an excellent source for those interested in how we identify and interpret pattern in nature. A dissertation on similarity, conservation and variability in form, it addresses issues of enduring interest to systematic biologists as well as to the revitalized field of evolutionary developmental biology.… Read the rest of the review on the Nature website. . . .

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Review: Akerman and Karrow, Maps

January 29, 2008
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Review: Akerman and Karrow, Maps

James R. Akerman and Robert W. Karrow Jr.’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World has been given quite a positive review in this month’s issue of the British science and technology magazine, BBC Focus. Praising the book for its thoughtful exploration of maps and the many divergent purposes they have served throughout human history, reviewer Nick Smith writes: If you though maps were merely aerial drawings of places that help us get from point A to B, you will be astonished by the depth and breadth of this book. The editors have cleverly set out the book’s structure in terms of what function maps perform, instead of ranging from continent to continent as with traditional atlases. There is macro-mapping throughout the ages and maps portraying land use, as well as those concerned with commerce, art, advertising, entertainment and national identity. There is plant distribution, cartographic analysis of the geology of the US and even the “distribution of the slave population of the Southern States.…” Fascinating stuff. See a collection of unusual maps from the book. . . .

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Advances and abberations in earth science

January 16, 2008
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Advances and abberations in earth science

In the January 9 issue of the Times Literary Supplement reviewer Richard A. Fortey takes note of Pascal Richet’s new book, A Natural History of Time for its fascinating tale of the scientific quest to discover the age of the earth. Fortey writes: Pascal Richet is a geophysicist, and well able to explain the complexities of the discoveries that led from Crooke’s tube through to those of Pierre and Marie Curie, and on to the discovery of isotopes of lead and uranium. Richet never short-changes the reader on the science, and his grasp of more than a thousand years of speculation about our origins is unfailingly impressive.… My own pleasure, and this may be perverse, was in discovering some of the forgotten figures, like M Le Bon and his black light, or Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who thought that “there was nothing strange in assuming that rocks had semen.” In a curious way, the doomed aberrations of science mark out the changes in zeitgeist more effectively than the triumphs of the famous names. Newton’s obsession with chronology is as informative of the times in which he lived as his triumphs in mathematical physics.… I cannot imagine a better attempt at . . .

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Two books in Nature

January 10, 2008
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Two books in Nature

Nature magazine is currently running a review of two recent historical accounts of popular science in the Victorian period, Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences and Ralph O’Connor’s The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856. Writing for Nature, historian Frank A. L. James notes how both books make important contributions to our understanding of how science has influenced the western public and perhaps some insights into current debates about public education and engagement with the sciences. James writes: The popularization of science has become a growth area for historical study. It is a natural continuation of the historian’s quest to understand the social and cultural context and impact of science, and a consequence of scientists’ admonitions over the past 20 years that the public should be better informed. Implied is that the efforts of earlier generations of scientists fell short of making their work accessible to the public. But Lightman’s and O’Connor’s books paint a very different picture, at least with respect to the nineteenth century. Lightman maps the careers of some 30 popularizers, many sparsely covered before, who derived their income from writing science books.… O’Connor shows that promoting . . .

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Science and money

December 14, 2007
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Science and money

An interesting review of Daniel S. Greenberg’s Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism is currently running in the January-February issue of the American Scientist. Reviewer Robert L. Geiger praises Greenberg’s book for its lucid and balanced look at the influence of corporate funding on American academic institutions: Science for Sale, ventures outside the Beltway to scrutinize the state of academic science and its supposed burgeoning ties with the corporate world. Although the somewhat fraught title would seem to place this work with an abundance of books condemning university ties with industry, Greenberg has provided a more nuanced analysis and offers some different conclusions.… He begins with an iconoclastic portrayal of corporate-sponsored research. Far from dominating or corrupting universities, it has been a marginal and (since 2000) shrinking portion of the research they conduct. Academic research has great value for industry, but companies prefer to let the government pay for it. “Not many corporations are besieging universities to take their money,” Greenberg says. “Eagerness for even more business is strongest on the university side of the relationship.” Moreover, he sees little scope for industry to take advantage of this hunger: “In the current era . . .

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Review: Riskin, Genesis Redux

December 11, 2007
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Review: Riskin, Genesis Redux

Jessica Riskin’s Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life was recently given a great review by science fiction writer Greg Bear in Nature. Riskin’s book collects seventeen essays from a conference of distinguished scholars in several fields who bring a historical perspective to this most contemporary of scientific topics. And as Bear notes in his review, the result is a particularly comprehensive treatment of the history of artificial life. Bear writes: The strength of Genesis Redux lies in its scholarship and range of topics. Clockworks, mechanical toys and their influence on biological concepts are presented in fascinating detail. Joan Landes introduces us to the Hoffmanesque works of Jacques de Vaucanson’s feminine flautist and (excreting) duck, and to the flayed, preserved and posed cadavers, the écorchés, of Jean-Honoré Fragonard: there is a dancing fetus and a very naked man staring in horror, jawbone in hand. Landes delivers a lively analysis of our reactions to the abject and uncanny, the frisson so beloved by fans of Dr Frankenstein. The review continues: Genesis Redux takes the time to shed light on areas I would not naturally consider, and thus enlightens and expands the topic. Its cautious perspective—the enthusiasms of . . .

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A. S. Eddington and the intersection of science and religion

December 4, 2007
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A. S. Eddington and the intersection of science and religion

The perceived conflicts between science and religion have dominated the media lately with controversies surrounding everything from intelligent design to stem cell research making headlines almost daily. But nowhere was this apparent contradiction more fully resolved than in the figure of A. S. Eddington (1882—1944), a pioneer in astrophysics, relativity, and the popularization of science, and a devout Quaker. Matthew Stanley’s new book Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington provides an in-depth study of how Eddington successfully incorporated both religious and scientific values into his life and work. In a recent edition of Nature magazine reviewer Owen Gingrich explains: To analyse the relationship between science and society (including religion), Stanley examines the bridging function of what he calls “valence values”. Like the bonding ring of electrons, these values facilitate the interaction between science and culture. Through the lens of these values, Stanley uses Eddington as a test case for exploring the interaction of science and religion in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike the natural theologians of the previous century, Eddington did not seek a harmonization between science and religion. He saw both as processes of seeking. As he reminded his audience at the . . .

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Review: Greenberg, Science for Sale

November 14, 2007
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Review: Greenberg, Science for Sale

Daniel S. Greenberg’s Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism received a positive review in this month’s BBC Focus magazine. Greenberg’s book is a detailed study of the relationship between academia and the commercial sector—a relationship which some critics argue has corrupted the quality of academic inquiry, especially in the sciences. But as reviewer Steve Fuller notes, Greenberg’s penetrating new book reveals that campus capitalism might, in fact, not be as nearly as bad as commonly thought. Fuller writes: Greenberg’s story is framed by the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act by the US Congress in 1980, which allowed universities and other non-profit institutions to seek intellectual property rights without seeking prior government approval.… The nation as a whole would presumably benefit from the commercial availability of such privately protected science. However this ‘neo-liberal’ turn in US science policy has led to a host of allegations. These range from big business trying to buy large biomedical science departments to a breakdown in the peer review process through undetected cases of research fraud. Greenberg’s verdict is that while such cases do exist, their rarity is even more striking. Greenberg provocatively argues that overblown claims about the capitalist corruption . . .

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Press Release: Greenberg, Science for Sale

October 15, 2007
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Press Release: Greenberg, Science for Sale

The media are awash with stories about increasingly close ties between college science departments and multi-million dollar corporations, but is that relationship endangering science? Have universities, bedazzled by visions of huge profits from biotechnology and drug patents, allowed themselves to be fatally compromised by corporate cash? With Science for Sale, journalist Daniel S. Greenberg draws on sources developed through his forty years of reporting to paint a clear and detailed picture of the state of university science. Taking on everything from drug tests to the technology transfer offices that have sprung up at many universities, Greenberg reveals that campus capitalism is more complicated—and less profitable—than media reports would suggest. Read the press release. . . .

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Review: Kemp, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

September 18, 2007
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Review: Kemp, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

Martin Kemp’s new book The Human Animal in Western Art and Science was given an interesting advance review in the September 6 edition of Nature. Reviewer Alison Abbot begins her piece: On waking, Henry Jekyll stared with horror at the metamorphosis of his hand, normally “professional in shape and size… large, firm, white and comely.” Jekyll’s experiment to separate the human and animal sides of himself had been all too successful. He noted further: “The hand which I now saw … lying half shut on the bedclothes was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a smart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.” Thus Martin Kemp ends his treatise The Human Animal in Western Art and Science with this apposite quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel. It epitomizes the dilemma that has fascinated us for millennia. How much of the animal is there within us? Conversely, how much is human in animals? Kemp answers these questions. Science, from Darwin to the latest neuroscience and genomics, has shown that there is no sharp animal-human divide, only a sliding scale. And in guiding us to this conclusion, Kemp’s six chapters deviate through an . . .

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