History and Philosophy of Science

Excerpt: Elena Conis’s Vaccine Nation

February 4, 2015
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Excerpt: Elena Conis’s Vaccine Nation

An excerpt from Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization by Elena Conis (recent pieces featuring the book at the Washington Post and Bloomberg News) *** “Mumps in Wartime” Between 1963 and 1969, the nation‘s flourishing pharmaceutical industry launched several vaccines against measles, a vaccine against mumps, and a vaccine against rubella in rapid succession. The measles vaccine became the focus of the federally sponsored eradication campaign described in the previous chapter; the rubella vaccine prevented birth defects and became entwined with the intensifying abortion politics of the time. Both vaccines overshadowed the debut of the vaccine against mumps, a disease of relatively little concern to most Americans in the late 1960s. Mumps was never an object of public dread, as polio had been, and its vaccine was never anxiously awaited, like the Salk polio vaccine had been. Nor was mumps ever singled out for a high–profile immunization campaign or for eradication, as measles had been. All of which made it quite remarkable that, within a few years of its debut, the mumps vaccine would be administered to millions of American children with little fanfare or resistance. The mumps vaccine first brought to market in 1968 was developed by Maurice Hilleman, . . .

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Free e-book for February: Floating Gold

February 2, 2015
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Free e-book for February: Floating Gold

Our free e-book for February is Christopher Kemp’s idiosyncratic exegesis on the backstory of whale poop, Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. *** “Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris. A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely, it might as well appear nowhere. Kemp’s journey begins with an encounter on a New Zealand beach with a . . .

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Free e-book for November: Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

November 3, 2014
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Free e-book for November: Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose

  Lee Alan Dugatkin’s Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, our free e-book for November, reconsiders the crucial supporting role played by a moose carcass in Jeffersonian democracy. *** Thomas Jefferson—author of the Declaration of Independence, US president, and ardent naturalist—spent years countering the French conception of American degeneracy. His Notes on Virginia systematically and scientifically dismantled Buffon’s case through a series of tables and equally compelling writing on the nature of his home state. But the book did little to counter the arrogance of the French and hardly satisfied Jefferson’s quest to demonstrate that his young nation was every bit the equal of a well-established Europe. Enter the giant moose. The American moose, which Jefferson claimed was so enormous a European reindeer could walk under it, became the cornerstone of his defense. Convinced that the sight of such a magnificent beast would cause Buffon to revise his claims, Jefferson had the remains of a seven-foot ungulate shipped first class from New Hampshire to Paris. Unfortunately, Buffon died before he could make any revisions to his Histoire Naturelle, but the legend of the moose makes for a fascinating tale about Jefferson’s passion to prove that American nature deserved prestige. In . . .

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Excerpt: Packaged Pleasures

October 22, 2014
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Excerpt: Packaged Pleasures

An Excerpt from Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor  *** “The Carrot and the Candy Bar” Our topic is a revolution—as significant as anything that has tossed the world over the past two hundred years. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space. Our vulnerability to such a transformation traces back hundreds of thousands of years, but the revolution itself did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century, following a series of technological changes altering our ability to compress, distribute, and commercialize a vast range of pleasures. Strangely, historians have neglected this transformation. Indeed, behind this astonishing lapse lies a common myth—that there was an age of production that somehow gave rise to an age of consumption, with historians of the former exploring industrial technology, while historians of the latter stress . . .

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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

September 15, 2014
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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

  This past week, Rachel Sussman’s colossal photography project—and its associated book—The Oldest Living Things in the World, which documents her attempts to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older, was profiled by the New Yorker: To find the oldest living thing in New York City, set out from Staten Island’s West Shore Plaza mall (Chuck E. Cheese’s, Burlington Coat Factory, D.M.V.). Take a right, pass Industry Road, go left. The urban bleakness will fade into a litter-strewn route that bisects a nature preserve called Saw Mill Creek Marsh. Check the tides, and wear rubber boots; trudging through the muddy wetlands is necessary. The other day, directions in hand, Rachel Sussman, a photographer from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, went looking for the city’s most antiquated resident: a colony of Spartina alterniflora or Spartina patens cordgrass which, she suspects, has been cloning and re-cloning itself for millennia. Not simply the story of a cordgrass selfie, Sussman’s pursuit becomes contextualized by the lives—and deaths—of our fragile ecological forbearers, and her desire to document their existence while they are still of the earth. In support of the project, Sussman has a series of upcoming events surrounding The Oldest Living Things in the World. You can . . .

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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

August 13, 2014
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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

“Ebola and the ‘new’ epidemic” by Tom Koch Mindless but intelligent, viruses and bacteria want what we all want: to survive, evolve, and then, to procreate. That’s been their program since before there were humans. From the first influenza outbreak around 2500 BC to the current Ebola epidemic, we have created the conditions for microbial evolution, hosted their survival, and tried to live with the results. These are early days for the Ebola epidemic, which was for some years constrained to a few isolated African sites, but has now advanced from its natal place to several countries, with outbreaks elsewhere. Since the first days of influenza, this has always been the viral way. Born in a specific locale, the virus hitches itself to a traveler who brings it to a new and fertile field of humans. The “epidemic curve,” as it is called, starts slowly but then, as the virus spreads and travels, spreads and travels, the numbers mount. Hippocrates provided a fine description of an influenza pandemic in 500 BC, one that reached Greece from Asia. The Black Death that hastened the end of the Middle Ages traveled with Crusaders and local traders, infecting the then-known world. Cholera (with . . .

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An Orchard Invisible: Our free e-book for April

April 1, 2014
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An Orchard Invisible: Our free e-book for April

Just in time for garden prep, our free e-book for April is Jonathan Silvertown’s An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds. “I have great faith in a seed,” Thoreau wrote. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution. From the tiny sesame that we sprinkle on our bagels to the forty-five-pound double coconut borne by the coco de mer tree, seeds are a perpetual reminder of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. With An Orchard Invisible, Jonathan Silvertown presents the oft-ignored seed with the natural history it deserves, one nearly as varied and surprising as the earth’s flora itself. Beginning with the evolution of the first seed plant from fernlike ancestors more than 360 million years ago, Silvertown carries his tale through epochs and around the globe. In a clear and engaging style, he delves into the science of seeds: How and why do some lie dormant for years on end? How did seeds evolve? The wide variety of uses that humans have developed for seeds of all sorts also receives a fascinating look, studded with examples, including . . .

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University Presses in Space

March 20, 2014
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University Presses in Space

Welcome to the boundless third dimension: university presses—figuratively speaking—in space! From the website: “University Presses in Space” showcases a special sampling of the many works that university presses have published about space and space exploration. These books have all the hallmarks of university press publishing—groundbreaking content, editorial excellence, high production values, and striking design. The titles included here were selected by each Press as their strongest works across a variety of space-related topics, from the selling of the Apollo lunar program to the history of the Shuttle program to the future of manned space exploration and many subjects in between. As part of the “University Presses in Space” program, we were geeked to select Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Space and Time by Allen Everett and Thomas Roman, which takes readers on a clear, concise tour of our current understanding of the nature of time and space—and whether or not we might be able to bend them to our will. Using no math beyond high school algebra, the authors lay out an approachable explanation of Einstein’s special relativity, then move through the fundamental differences between traveling forward and backward in time and the surprising . . .

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Q & A with Paddy Woodworth

February 18, 2014
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Q & A with Paddy Woodworth

Paddy Woodworth is an investigative reporter and journalist whose most recent book, Our Once and Future Planet, considers the case for environmental restoration. Woodworth recently participated in a Q & A with our promotions director, Levi Stahl; you’ll find the full transcript below: Let’s start with the story of how you came to this subject, because (as I have the advantage of knowing) it’s a good one—and it involves a a couple of other writers. By a happy accident! In 2003, I had recently published Dirty War, Clean Hands, a book on the very different subject of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque conflict. On the back of that book, I was invited onto the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Weary of writing about why people kill each other, I was looking for a happier subject in natural history, but I found myself adrift, ignorant, and lost. Then the great American novelist and naturalist Peter Mathiessen led us on a prairie restoration field trip and discussion. I had never heard this word, ‘restoration’, applied to anything other than houses or paintings. The idea that an ecosystem might be restored, that we could reverse some of the damage . . .

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Bill Gates on The Most Powerful Idea in the World

December 20, 2013
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Bill Gates on The Most Powerful Idea in the World

William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention considers how scientific and intellectual breakthroughs—specifically, the burgeoning field of mechanical engineering and its resultant affect on patent law—ushered in the development of the steam engine, and thus, the Industrial Revolution. In a February 2013 post for his GatesNotes blog, tech impresario and philanthropist–entrepreneur Bill Gates praised the book as, “an entertaining narrative weaving together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind the engines that give birth to our modern world.” In his review, Gates contextualized how the interrelationship between intellectual property and public disclosure became integral to the culture of late nineteenth-century democratic invention: The book’s premise is that the Anglophone world—England, Scotland, Wales, and America—was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution because it “democratized the nature of invention.” Rosen makes a compelling argument that the steam engine is the quintessential example of that democratization at work. I won’t spoil it by telling all the reasons why, but suffice it to say one of the most important was the advent of patent protection. Patents were a holdover of monopolies granted by kings over businesses such as sugar and tobacco, later evolving . . .

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