History and Philosophy of Science

“Sir Isaac the Alchemist”

October 12, 2010
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“Sir Isaac the Alchemist”

Isaac Newton’s influence on modern science is immeasurable. But Newton was also profoundly invested in the study of alchemy, a notorious pseudoscience that has been often dismissed as either a delusion or a scam. However, this view of alchemy has been under revision in recent years, a process driven by the work of scholar William R. Newman, who has led the investigation into the links between alchemy and the scientific revolution. In a New York Times article exploring Isaac Newton’s interest in and experiences with alchemy, Natalie Angier draws heavily on Newman’s insights into the history of what should be more properly understood as a kind of protochemistry. While the famous quest to turn lead into gold didn’t pan out, Angier notes that the alchemists’ “work yielded a bounty of valuable spinoffs, including new drugs, brighter paints, stronger soaps and better booze. ‘Alchemy was synonymous with chemistry,’ said Dr. Newman, ‘and chemistry was much bigger than transmutation.'” Far from the puzzling pursuit of an otherwise brilliant scientist, alchemy proves to have played an important part in Newton’s legacy as a physicist: Dr. Newman argues that Sir Isaac’s alchemical investigations helped yield one of his fundamental breakthroughs in physics: his discovery . . .

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David L. Hull, 1935-2010

August 13, 2010
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David L. Hull, 1935-2010

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The Discovery of Insulin

July 27, 2010
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The Discovery of Insulin

On this day in 1921, researchers at the University of Toronto announced the discovery of the hormone insulin. In the nearly nine decades since, insulin has transformed diabetes from a death sentence to a manageable condition. But the discovery of this miracle drug was hardly free from controversy. With various researchers staking claims for recognition and prize money, the bizarre clash of scientific personalities threatened to overshadow one of the most significant and contentious medical events of modern times. In the brilliant, definitive book The Discovery of Insulin, award-winning historian Michael Bliss sets the record straight. When F. G. Banting and J. J. R. Macleod won the 1923 Nobel Prize for discovering and isolating insulin, Banting immediately announced that he was dividing his share of the prize with his young associate, C. H. Best. Macleod divided his share with a fourth member of the team, J. B. Collip. For the next sixty years medical opinion was intensely divided over the allotment of credit for the discovery of insulin. In resolving this controversy, Bliss also offers a wealth of new detail on such subjects as the treatment of diabetes before insulin and the life-and-death struggle to manufacture insulin. This now-classic study . . .

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Bigfoot on To the Best of Our Knowledge

July 26, 2010
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Bigfoot on To the Best of Our Knowledge

Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge aired a program last week on the theme of monsters, inviting several authors on the show whose books explore the important role they play in the Western imagination. Among them was Joshua Blu Buhs, author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend. While Buhs doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, as his book demonstrates, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania. Tracing the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster from the early nineteenth-century to the present, Buh’s book offers more than a few interesting insights on what our fascination with this monster says about modern American culture. You can catch the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast on the WPR website or archived at this third party site. Also, find out more about Buhs’ book on our website with this excerpt, and an interview with the author. Or stay right right here at the UCP blog to read our previous post featuring Buhs in dialogue with fellow UCP author Sigrid Schmalzer on Bigfoot and its Chinese analog, the yeren. . . .

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Remembering Scopes, Reading Darwin

July 21, 2010
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Remembering Scopes, Reading Darwin

Eighty-five years ago today, Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined $100 for violating the Butler Act, which made it illegal for school teachers to question or teach against the biblical explanation of the origin of life. Though much has changed in the last nearly nine decades, evolution is still put on trial and Charles Darwin’s theories often subjected to intense scrutiny and debate. But how many people—especially those who disagree with him—have ever taken the time to read Darwin’s work? In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the seminal On the Origin of Species (which was commemorated in 2009), the New York Times launched an innovative interactive feature, which allows users to read samples from the classic text as well as annotations from prominent scientists. Several of our authors are represented. John Thompson, author of The Coevolutionary Process and The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution and editor of our Interspecific Interactions series, contributed his thoughts about Darwin’s description of the natural selection process. William B. Provine, author of The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics and Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, talked about his marked-up copy of On the Origin of Species and how . . .

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The Latest Advances in 17th Century Science

July 16, 2010
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The Latest Advances in 17th Century Science

What’s in your garage? A car? Some bikes and boxes and bins? Boring. We know a guy that’s turning lead into gold in his. Or at least recreating Isaac Newton’s experiments. Meet the proud owner of the world’s only (that we know of) suburban alchemical garage, William R. Newman, professor of the history of science at Indiana University and author of, most recently, Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution. Discover magazine recently visited Bloomington, Indiana, to see Professor Newman’s unusual lab firsthand and noted: “ has recreated 17th Century laboratory conditions and experiments, including a homemade replica of Isaac Newton’s laboratory furnace in his backyard. Newman’s research shows that alchemists were not just tinkering blindly—they produced ‘A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results.'” Intrigued yet? (Boing Boing was. They linked to the story yesterday afternoon.) Want to learn more? Check out all of Professor Newman’s books on the history of alchemy, as well as George Starkey’s Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence, which Newman edited along with Lawrence M. Principe (who teamed up with Newman once before, to produce the award-winning Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate . . .

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Massimo Pigliucci goes to war against public ignorance

June 15, 2010
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Massimo Pigliucci goes to war against public ignorance

Massimo Pigliucci, author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk was recently invited to write for the Washington Post‘s Political Bookworm blog. The blog’s regular author Steven Livingston introduces Pigliucci’s article: analyzes how the belief in bunk science occurs, looking into how scientists work and spread their knowledge and how the culture absorbs it. Here, Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, turns his sights on a related issue: the way ideology worms its way into public education and elbows aside serious scholarship. His case in point: Texas. Continue reading online at the Washington Post‘s Political Bookworm blog. . . .

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Why do people believe bunk?

June 2, 2010
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Why do people believe bunk?

Last week, Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose research suggested a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and autism, was banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. The New York Times reports: “The disciplinary tribunal’s action came after more than a decade of controversy over the links Dr. Wakefield and associates in Britain, as well as supporters among parents of some autistic children in Britain and the United States, have made between autism and a commonly used vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The suggestion of a link caused use of the vaccine in Britain and elsewhere in the world to plummet, a development that critics of Dr. Wakefield said contributed to a sharp rise in measles cases in countries where the vaccine was in use. Most scientific papers have failed to find any links between vaccines and autism.” Though the move was hailed by many as a victory of science over pseudoscience, some wonder if it is too little too late. Opines the Boston Globe: “But sadder still is the possibility that, in the minds of thousands of parents desperately clinging to hopes of finding a cure for autism, Wakefield’s legend might survive untarnished, possibly even exalted.” Why, even . . .

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Science magazine on The Dawn of Green

May 20, 2010
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Science magazine on The Dawn of Green

Environmental conservation and sustainable development are hallmarks of the modern green movement. But few people realize these concepts have been around for centuries. In fact, according to historian Harriet Ritvo, the environmental movement as we know it can be traced back to an unlikely place at an unlikely time: a bucolic reservoir in Victorian Britian. This week’s Science magazine reviews The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism, which “chronicles water-starved, late-19th-century Manchester’s determination to convert tiny Thirlmere … into the world’s largest reservoir.” Ritvo’s history brings to vivid life the colorful and strong-minded characters who populated both sides of the debate, revisiting notions of the natural promulgated by Romantic poets, recreationists, resource managers, and industrial developers to establish Thirlmere as the template for subsequent—and continuing—environmental struggles. Deemed “a penetrating microstudy that mixes environmental, scientific, urban, and political history” by Science, The Dawn of Green investigates Victorian ideas about industry, development, and technology to shows how the lessons learned in the Lake District can inform and guide modern environmental and conservation campaigns. . . .

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On the Nature of Science and Psuedoscience

April 29, 2010
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On the Nature of Science and Psuedoscience

Climate change—and the debate about its causes or validity—is a subject of perpetual interest. Recently, we told you about the chasm between meteorologists—who predict short-term weather patterns and remain skeptical about long-term change—and climatologists—who, as the New York Times reported, “almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change.” (Stephen Colbert also recently covered in conflict with an amusing “Science Catfight” between Joe Bastardi, a weather forcaster, and Brenda Ekwurzel, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.) Now the UK’s Independent has offered an overview of books that “separate global warming fact from fiction.” And Massimo Pigliucci’s Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk get singled out as “entertaining and valuable guide to sorting the scientific grain from the chaff of pseudoscience.” He makes a distinction that clarifies some of our current problems. There are two kinds of bone fide science: one is law-based and experimental, cut-and-dried as a crystal chalice or a perfect intertwined double helix of DNA. Then there are historical sciences such as evolution or climate research that employ “the methods of a crime detective.” .… As Pigliucci points out, what happened happened, and can be deduced . . .

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