History and Philosophy of Science

Review: McLaren, Impotence

May 25, 2007
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Review: McLaren, Impotence

Last Monday Salon.com ran an in-depth review of Angus McLaren’s new book Impotence: A Cultural History. Drawing from McLaren’s work, reviewer Laura Miller walks through several centuries of male sexual failure and the various theories behind its causes and cures to explore its social impact throughout the history of western civilization. But according to Miller, it’s what all this history has to teach us about our attitudes towards impotence today that make McLaren’s book notable. Miller writes: The final chapters of Impotence, covering the last 50 years of sexual liberation, feminism and Viagra, are the most interesting. McLaren’s long historical view lends substance to his argument that our current, “enlightened” take on sex hasn’t necessarily made things easier for the average guy. The idea that manliness consists of being able to sexually satisfy a woman—not merely penetrate and impregnate her—increased the pressure. So did the rise of sex therapy, with its notion of sex as a body of sophisticated techniques requiring planning and practice—sex as work, in effect. A mid-20th-century preoccupation with “simultaneous orgasm” as the pinnacle of marital love and a necessity for any truly happy couple set many couples up for disappointment and insecurity. With the advent of . . .

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Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

May 16, 2007
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Review: Richet, A Natural History of Time

Pascal Richet’s new book, A Natural History of Time tells the fascinating tale of humanity’s quest to pinpoint the age of the Earth. Beginning with ancient mythology and ending with a detailed discussion of modern scientific attempts to date the Earth, Richet’s book chronicles the many ways in which human societies have conceptualized the idea of time throughout the ages. A recent review in Publishers Weekly explains more: For millennia humans relied on mythical or biblical accounts to conjure up a birth date for our planet. Astronomer Edmund Haley used the amount of salt in the oceans as his calendar. The great Newton ventured at writing a chronology that took most of the stories of Greek kings and heroes at face value. But as French geophysicist Pascal Richet tells readers, people didn’t get serious about ascertaining the age of the earth until the Enlightenment, when researchers tried to figure the amount of heat lost by the earth to reckon backwards to its molten youth. But a firm date—4.5 billion years—couldn’t be established until the discovery of radioactive elements to date everything from textiles to stones.… geology and natural history buffs will discover a rich, . . .

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Press Release: Ekeland, The Best of All Possible Worlds

October 16, 2006
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Press Release: Ekeland, The Best of All Possible Worlds

Leading readers on a journey through scientific attempts to envision the best of all possible worlds, from Galileo to superstring theory, Ekeland explores the legacy of the theory of optimization—first proposed by French physicist Maupertius and later expanded on and revised by Leibniz—which holds that any system will always operate in the most efficient means possible. Here Ekeland—an able and masterly distiller of complex mathematics—traces the history of this profound idea and its influence on centuries of intellectual advances, from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Darwin’s natural selection to Einstein’s theory of relativity and John Nash’s game theory. The result is a dazzling display of erudition—The Best of All Possible Worlds will be essential reading for popular science buffs and historians of science alike. Read the press release. . . .

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Edward Rothstein on From Counterculture to Cyberculture

September 25, 2006
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Edward Rothstein on From Counterculture to Cyberculture

The countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies fostered a generation of utopian dreamers and reformers who shared a longing for a new society liberated from the hierarchical structures that dominated the cold war era. But who would have predicted that the internet, a product of the very military-industrial complex against which they rebelled, would assume a major role in those utopian visions? Charting the rich intersection between the worlds of counterculture and cyberculture is the topic of Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Edward Rothstein’s “Connections” column in today’s New York Times shows how Turner traces a common desire for nonhierarchical communities from the romantic ideals of long-haired hippies, to modern “peer-to-peer, collaborative societies, interlinked by invisible currents of energy and information.” “Fred Turner points out in his revealing new book …,” says Rothstein, “there is no way to separate cyberculture from counterculture; indeed, cyberculture grew from its predecessor’s compost. Mr. Turner suggests that Stewart Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog, was the major node in a network of countercultural speculators, promoters, inventors and entrepreneurs who helped change the world in ways quite different from those . . .

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Review: Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature

September 20, 2006
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Review: Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature

In the modern era one would suppose it is fairly unlikely that a relatively educated, technologically savvy American populace could be accused of confusing physics with metaphysics. However, Peter Dear’s new book The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World employs a detailed historical analysis using the critical terms of intelligibility versus instrumentality to show how they frequently are, and have been conflated. A recent review for Publisher’s Weekly explains: “Cornell historian of science Dear (Revolutionizing the Sciences) here looks at central developments in Western science since the 16th century in terms of intelligibility versus instrumentality. His distinction asks of any given theory: does its success depend on its claims to expressing something about the nature of reality, or on its ability to produce experimental results?” According to Dear, one might be surprised to learn how often we fail to make this vital distinction. The review goes on to praise Dear’s work for applying this insight to “nuanced discussions of, for example, the way Newton’s contemporaries viewed his work on gravity, the early development of the mechanical world view from the Aristotelian perspective, and the fundamental differences between the Copenhagen group’s approach to quantum physics and David . . .

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Google in paperback form

September 15, 2006
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Google in paperback form

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and of Pixar Animation Studios, gave the commencement address to the 2005 class at Stanford. The text of that address has been published in numerous places, online and offline. Toward the end of his address, Jobs said: When I was young, there was an amazing publication called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions. The Whole Earth Catalog as internet search engine? Interestingly, this differs only a bit from one of the chapter titles in Fred Turner’s book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. The title of Turner’s third chapter is “The Whole Earth Catalog as Information Technology.” The Whole Earth Catalog, says Turner, . . .

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Press Release: Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature

August 27, 2006
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Press Release: Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature

“The Intelligibility of Nature is a very impressive and compelling book about the relationship between instrumentalism and realism in the sciences from 1600 to 1950. Peter Dear argues for a fascinating reinterpretation of the Scientific Revolution and its aftermath, showing how between the time of Descarts and that of Lavoisier, natural philosophy and practical techniques merged: that process, this book shows, was decisive for the emergence of modern science. This is a lucid and intelligent history.” —Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge Read the press release. . . .

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Alchemy rediscovered

August 1, 2006
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Alchemy rediscovered

Today’s New York Times carries an article by John Noble Wilford on the revival of academic interest in alchemy. The article was occasioned by a conference late last month, hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and organized by Lawrence M. Principe. The Times article discusses the research presented at the alchemy conference including a paper by William R. Newman. Newman spoke about Issac Newton’s fascination with alchemy: “his notebooks contain thousands of pages on alchemic thoughts and experiments over 30 years,” reports the Times. Chicago has published a number of books that reflect the new interest in alchemy. Principe and Newman collaborated on Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, which argues that many of the principles and practices characteristic of modern chemistry derive from alchemy. They also edited a key alchemical text, the Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence of George Starkey. Newman is the author of the recently published Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, in which he challenges the view that alchemy impeded the development of rational chemistry. Newman also wrote Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, an investigation of the how alchemists . . .

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Press release: Richerson, Not By Genes Alone

May 26, 2006
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Press release: Richerson, Not By Genes Alone

Not by Genes Alone offers a radical interpretation of human evolution. What makes us human, renowned scholars Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd demonstrate, lies in our psychology—more specifically, our unparalleled ability to adapt. Building their case with such fascinating examples as the Amish rumspringa and the gift exchange system of the !Kung San, Not by Genes Alone throws aside the conventional nature-versus-nurture debate and convincingly argues that culture and biology are inextricably linked. Read the press release. Read an excerpt. . . .

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Author event: Timmermans on BBC Radio 4

May 24, 2006
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Author event: Timmermans on BBC Radio 4

Earlier today, Stefan Timmermans, author of Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s "Thinking Allowed" program. You can listen to an audio file of the program on the Thinking Allowed Web site. Postmortem goes deep inside the world of medical examiners to uncover the intricate web of pathological, social, legal, and moral issues in which they operate. Stefan Timmermans spent years in a medical examiner’s office, following cases, interviewing examiners, and watching autopsies. While he relates fascinating cases here, he is also more broadly interested in the cultural authority and responsibilities that come with being a medical examiner. . . .

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