History and Philosophy of Science

And the controversy continues…

September 10, 2007
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And the controversy continues…

The New York Times reported today about the controversy surrounding the work of Barnard professor of anthropology Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose 2001 Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society has sparked disputes in and out of academe since its publication. El-Haj’s work is an analysis of archaeological practice in Israel, attempting to explain the complicated interplay of politics and science in the Middle East and the ongoing role that archeology plays in defining the past, present, and future of Palestine and Israel. El-Haj is currently up for tenure at Barnard, but due to the controversial nature of her work, she has some powerful opponents who claim that her own findings have been influenced by political interests. From the New York Times: It is Dr. Abu El-Haj’s book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, that has made her a lightning rod, setting off warring petitions opposing and supporting her candidacy, and producing charges of shoddy scholarship and countercharges of an ideological witch hunt.… The Middle East Studies Association, an organization of scholars who focus on the region, chose her book in 2002 as one of the year’s two best books . . .

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

September 5, 2007
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Review: Kemp, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

Martin Kemp’s soon-to-be-published The Human Animal in Western Art and Science was given a noteworthy review in today’s New York Sun. Praising the book for its exploration of the many fascinating intersections between man and beast in western culture, reviewer Eric Ormsby writes for the Sun: is based on the Louise Smith Bross Lectures that Mr. Kemp gave at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 2000 and that he has revised and expanded, supplementing his witty and erudite text with some 185 marvelous illustrations. His theme is “humanized animals and animalized humans” and he ranges widely to explore it. Beginning with a lucid (and rather gruesomely illustrated) discussion of the four humours, which humans and animals were thought to share, Mr. Kemp moves through the centuries. Dürer, Cranach, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt may occupy pride of place, and rightly so, but many fascinating, lesser known figures appear as well. These include the brilliant Charles Le Brun in 17th-century France, whose drawings of human facial expressions from despair to astonishment are one of the marvels of the volume, as well as the half-mad Viennese sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, whose contorted portraits of . . .

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Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

August 9, 2007
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Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

Last Sunday the Los Angeles Times ran an interesting review of Pascal Richet’s new book, A Natural History of Time. Applauding some of the many rich details included in this fascinating story of mankind’s endeavors to construct a chronology, Times review editor Sara Lippincott writes: begins with early myths, stories humans told themselves to make sense of their world. These myths were “outside of time,” he writes, “because nature, above all, is governed by cycles” and “neither beginning nor end can be discerned.” The Egyptians, for example, counted years in cycles, starting with each new reign. Speaking of the Egyptians, one of the entrancing nuggets in this nugget-studded book is the information that their hours “varied in duration according to the length of the day.” We owe the stable, 60-minute hour to the Greeks, via “the sexagesimal notation of the Mesopotamians.” From the ancient Egyptian calendar to modern radiometric dating, Richet’s book delivers an eye-opening exploration of the history of man’s quest for time, giving us a chance to truly appreciate how far our knowledge—and our planet—have come. . . .

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Press Release: Richet, A Natural History of Time

July 30, 2007
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Press Release: Richet, A Natural History of Time

As creatures of finite lifespan, capable of both learning about the past and imagining the future, humans are naturally fascinated with the concept of time. Questions of the origins of the earth, the universe, and humanity have been perpetual preoccupations, eliciting some of humanity’s most trenchant thought—and most heated debates. With A Natural History of Time, Pascal Richet tells the fascinating story of attempts over centuries to determine the age of the earth. Featuring such luminaries as Hesiod, Leonardo, Descartes, and Newton, A Natural History of Time marries the pleasures of history to the drama of scientific discovery, giving readers a chance to marvel at just how far our knowledge—and our planet—have come. Read the press release. . . .

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The Human Animal

July 16, 2007
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The Human Animal

Critic Edward Rothstein begins his “Connections” column in today’s New York Times by mentioning Robert Wilson’s recent staging of Fables de La Fontaine at the Lincoln Center Festival. Featuring a cast of masked half-human, half-animal characters, Rothstein describes the stage adaptation of La Fontaine’s work as an unusual reversal of Aesop’s fables: “Aesop’s animals are nearly human,” writes Rothstein, “La Fontaine’s humans are nearly animals.” But though they might contrast in this respect, both Aesop and Fontaine’s fables seem to agree on the undeniable similarities between human and animal. And in his forthcoming book The Human Animal in Western Art and Science Martin Kemp demonstrates how this blending of the animal with the human is, and has been, a recurring theme throughout western culture. Citing Kemp’s book, Rothstein’s article goes on highlight just how pervasive such depictions of the human-animal really are: We name sports teams after rams or bulls and automobiles after cougars or jaguars. Our language speaks of crocodile tears and fish eyes.…Babies’ rooms, filled with stuffed bears, lions and lambs, are like plush pastoral Edens before the Fall… For adults fables bring the animals and the humans even closer together, with discomforting or startling results, ranging from . . .

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Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

Pascal Richet’s new book, A Natural History of Time, explores the various ways that human societies have conceptualized the idea of time. By tracing the various attempts throughout the history of western civilization to pinpoint the age of the earth, Richet’s book tells the story of how human societies have progressively built a chronological scale that has made it possible to reconstruct the history of nature itself. As a recent review in the New York Sun notes, Pascal’s book pays special attention to the rise of the scientific method as the dominant paradigm for the creation of this chronology. Adam Kirsch writes for the New York Sun: How old is the Earth? Mr. Richet sets out to explore humanity’s attempts to answer this most perplexing of questions, which acted as a spur and a baffle to human ingenuity for 2,500 years. Before it could be solved, we needed to invent chemistry and geology, astronomy and physics—to isolate the elements, read the sedimentary record, understand the evolution of species, and chart the movement of the stars.… Not only does A Natural History of Time shed light on key advances in the history of science, from the ancient Greeks to the X-ray, . . .

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Press Release: Stafford, Echo Objects

June 22, 2007
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Press Release: Stafford, Echo Objects

Barbara Stafford is at the forefront of a growing movement that calls for the humanities to confront the brain’s material realities. In Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images she argues that humanists should seize upon the exciting neuroscientific discoveries that are illuminating the underpinnings of cultural objects. In turn, she contends, brain scientists could enrich their investigations of mental activity by incorporating phenomenological considerations—particularly the intricate ways that images focus intentional behavior and allow us to feel thought. As precise in her discussions of firing neurons as she is about the coordinating dynamics of image making, Stafford locates these major transdisciplinary issues at the intersection of art, science, philosophy, and technology. Ultimately, she makes an impassioned plea for a common purpose—for the acknowledgment that, at the most basic level, these separate projects belong to a single investigation. Read the press release. . . .

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Press Release: Epstein, Inclusion

June 15, 2007
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Press Release: Epstein, Inclusion

Equal parts medical drama, political chronicle, and ringing polemic, Inclusion tells the story of the movement for a more inclusive approach to medical research, from the struggles of advocacy groups in the 1980s to force researchers to diversify their subject pools to the current model, under which drug companies make bold assertions that group differences in society are encoded in our biology. While Epstein appreciates the hope that more inclusive practices offer to traditionally underserved groups, he argues forcefully that these practices can overshadow far more important social inequities and will only make a real difference if tied to a broad-based effort to address health disparities. Read the press release. . . .

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Impotence in Hot Type

May 31, 2007
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Impotence in Hot Type

The Hot Type column in the June 1 Chronicle of Higher Education discusses Angus McLaren’s new book Impotence: A Cultural History. Peter Monaghan gives a nice overview of McLaren’s project to document the history of male sexual impotence from Renaissance Italy to our modern age of Viagra: Impotence was with us long before Viagra and Cialis. And curing it has never been quite as simple as popping a pill, reports Angus McLaren in Impotence: A Cultural History. … Ancient Mesopotamians chanted spells and ate helpful plants and roots to combat it, but some more-recent salves seemed liable to further unman the man. During the 20th century, the German surgeon Peter Schmidt’s “Steinach operation,” for example, involved cutting the vas deferens and injecting “testicular extracts,” which were drawn from prisoners executed at San Quentin State Prison in California or from goats, rams, boars, and deer. … As for Viagra, its cultural workings are worth pondering, suggests Mr. McLaren. While such medications may work, forgoing the magic pill then becomes “almost a lack of responsibility, and defeatism,” he writes, leaving men no freer than before from trying to live up to masculine ideals. Read a special feature drawn from the book: “Two . . .

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Review: Thorpe, Oppenheimer

May 25, 2007
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Review: Thorpe, Oppenheimer

This week’s edition of Nature has quite a positive review of Charles Thorpe’s new book, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect. Catherine Westphall writes for Nature: Does the world really need yet another book about J. Robert Oppenheimer? … Amazingly, Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer still manages to provide a fascinating new perspective. … What’s new here is a precise and compelling description of how Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos persona was forged by wartime circumstances and the Los Alamos community. To succeed in its grim mission, Los Alamos needed a certain type of leader, and Oppenheimer nimbly fit himself to the role, becoming the intellectual, moral, and social center of gravity for the constellation of scientific and engineering problem-solving. Thorpe argues that just as Oppenheimer created Los Alamos, so Los Alamos created, or at least reconfigured, Oppenheimer. Westphall’s review concludes: “Thorpe’s book provides the best perspective yet for understanding Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos years, which were critical, after all, not only to his life but, for better or worse, the history of mankind.” . . .

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