Archive for February, 2012
February 29th, 2012
Scott Berkun gave a lecture a few years ago at Carnegie Mellon University on the subject of innovation: Myths of Innovation (it seems he might have given this lecture a few times after he had written a book by the same title). He opens by recounting a few iconic moments of innovation. Predictably, he invokes scenes of Newton under the apple tree and Archimedes running naked through Syracuse shouting “eureka” and then rightly dismisses them as myths of innovation. These events were not moments of innovation but rather are epiphany stories we tell ourselves. These stories mask the real work goes into any development. He dips liberally into history and the history of science to defend his argument that innovation occurs slowly and only through considerable time, effort, and failure.
One of his more useful points, useful for academics and students, pertains to the habits of “creative people.” Creative people work really hard and regularly and frequently. They make lots of mistakes. Creative people are not particularly attached to any iteration of their work and are willing to jettison a project along the way. Berkun’s claim is not new or innovative, but it is a useful reminder.
A dominate idea among students and, I suspect, among academics holds that writing occurs in epiphanic saltations. We assume that if you sit long enough and think your thoughts will spring forth from your head in a brilliant, fully formed essay, like some academic Athena. Closely related to this is the myth that we do our best work when writing for a deadline. These are powerful and seductive myths. I see my students laboring under them every day. I have suffered from it.
In the end, writing is like innovation. It is the product of hard work, daily. It requires a certain equanimity and detachment with respect to what you write. Good writing only happens at the end of a long process of revision, failure, and misdirection. You don’t write an essay so much as rewrite and revise and rewrite and discard and rewrite [repeat] an essay.
Now if I could just convince students of this fact.
February 28th, 2012
A new article in Weather has been getting considerable attention the last few days. In “How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?” Spanish researchers had the novel idea to look at medieval Islamic texts to see if they could find any climate information. According to the summary, Arabic Manuscripts: It Used to Snow in Baghdad over at Surprising Science, one of the Smithsonian Magazine blogs, the researchers found evidence of snowfall in Baghdad. At this point I have to rely on the summary and abstract because I haven’t yet received a copy of the article itself. If those are accurate, this article reveals once again that scientists and journalists often practice bad history of science (I’m tempted to use the term “pseudohistory of science”).
The title of the post implies that snow was a regular occurrence in medieval Baghdad, but the summary doesn’t quite back up that implication. The researchers looked at 10 texts and found a number of “meteorological citations.” Of these, there were “14 chilly periods” and 2 accounts of snow, a century apart. One example struck the author as noteworthy: “One particularly odd event was in July 920, when it was too cold for people to sleep on their roofs, as they did on most summer nights.”
Without more context, it is difficult to know what to make of these “meteorological citations.” Two examples surely don’t justify the title “It Used to Snow in Baghdad.” And what exactly is a “chilly period?” For some people, particularly those accustomed to hot weather, chilly means something entirely different from those accustomed to cooler climates. Too cold to sleep on the roof? That could mean anything. Despite the authors’ claim that “social and religious content of the documents is probably biased, the historians weren’t likely to fabricate an off-hand mention of a drought, hail storm or solar eclipse,” the term “chilly” is so fraught with subjectivity that a little bias is the least of our worries. And what about a little of that biased social, political, and religious context. It would be nice to know if the “chilly period” corresponded to any significant political, social, or religious events. Maybe these chilly references are metaphorical rather than mimetic.
I fear this article is the meteorological equivalent to retrodiagnosing diseases. A group of modern scientists have treated historical documents as if they conform to our standards, have imposed a conformity on those documents, and then read out of them categories that mean something to us today. The weather, as numerous studies in the history of science have indicated, is not a timeless, natural category. How people observe, record, and understand the weather has varied considerably. Regrettably, they don’t appear to have consulted with a historian of science or any history of science, though I have to reserve any fuller comment until I see the article.
This is precisely what I’ve been worrying about lately. People assume that the history of science (and history in general) has no unique domain of expertise and that anybody with an interest in the past and maybe some grasp on a handful of facts can do history. In fact, often such people do the greatest violence to the past because they enlist it in their present-day agendas.
[Reposted from “Scientists Practicing Bad History at PACHS”.]
February 27th, 2012
Monday I am taking my astrolabe and my ePamphlet on astrolabes to a local grammar school where I will talk to 4th-graders about astrolabes, explain to them how to use it, let them fiddle with one, and talk about science and scientific instruments. It should be fun. This is one way I think about public outreach, about bringing history of science to non-experts. These excursions—this is not the first time I’ve headed to a local grammar school—are, I suppose, what Lynn Nyhart calls thinking expansively about history of science, about becoming one of “them,” though I’d rather think this was something all historians of science did as a matter of course.
Lynn Nyhart, the president of the History of Science Society, is calling for historians of science to think of the profession as extending beyond a few “concentric circles centered on a few successful graduate programs.” In her column in the HSS Newsletter, History of Science Unbound, Nyhart points out that despite historians’ of science unique expertise we play little part in public discourse about the history of science:
Yet we are the experts. We are the ones who understand and care most about the nuances of making scientific knowledge. We have studied science’s entanglements with nationalism and hero-worship and have analyzed the shaping of historical narratives that make certain outcomes seem inevitable. We have theorized about the moral ambiguities of science in a culture saturated with conflicting social and economic messages. We know this stuff. But we don’t own it. So what should the history of science, as a profession, do?
Her advice is to consider history of science as a network of united by training [okay, I added “training”] and “our shared commitment to advancing our subject.” This would allow us to consider as meaningful both centers of graduate education as well as “other kinds of history of science-related institutions,” including museums, K-12 education, and policy development. She encourages us to reach a broader public through writing for that public and by translating scholarly work into forms accessible to that public.
Nyhart echoes a discussion that has been taking place in the newsletters of the AHA, at Inside Higher Education, and blogs at The Chronicle for Higher Education. In No More Plan B Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman wrote compellingly about how the history profession needs to redefine success to include careers outside R1 universities. They followed with Plan C, in which they called for graduate departments and faculty to embrace the legitimacy of multiple career paths, singling out public history. In his Historians at Work, Grafton concluded with a case study of a successful, early career historian working in public history, in this case in the Museum of the City of New York Together, these articles call on faculty and programs to stop denigrating non-R1 careers, to broaden the curricular offerings and graduate training to ensure students have the chance to acquire skills and confidence that will allow them to get jobs outside academia, show some of the real challenges historians have faced when trying to move beyond the walls of the academy, and indicate that success and rewarding careers do await historians who choose public history. These articles have elicited considerable response both praising the authors for drawing attention to the problem and criticizing them for not going far enough. See, for example, History and Politics of Scholarly Collaboration and ‘No More Plan B’.
The point here is that Nyhart’s column joins a growing chorus of voices calling for some sort of reform, to enlarge the definition of successful to include “careers” without the qualifying “alternative.” More, however, needs to be done if we are going to transcend or reject the implicit professional hierarchy that divides the profession into us and them. It is too easy to map this division onto an “us” that works in centers of graduate education and produces original scholarship and a “them” that works in K-12 or in museums and translates that scholarship into forms accessible to a broader public. Only by taking Nyhart seriously can we begin to participate in and contribute to the public discourse about the history of science, the place of science in society, and science policy, or to write for that elusive, interested public.
[Reposted from Rejecting “Alternative” over at PACHS.]
February 26th, 2012
Digital humanities is a term that risks losing all useful meaning as scholars apply it to an ever increasing range of projects. Many of these projects are “digital” only insofar as they put material online, often without providing any tools that facilitate the study of that material. A collection of on-line texts, for example, is not a robust digital humanities project, as far as I am concerned.
I find myself thinking a lot about opportunities offered by digital projects. Right now, that thinking takes place in the context of my course on plagues and epidemics. I think there is an opportunity for students to work collaboratively on a project that would make early modern plague texts available online and would allow people to study these texts beyond what can be done through Early English Books Online (EEBO). Such study would include textual analysis for words, mapping the texts geographically and chronologically, comparing texts, and collating both symptoms and treatments.
Today I stumbled across an ambitious model in Witches in Early Modern England. This website indicates some of the promises that DH offers. In addition to collecting and making available a mass of primary sources, the people behind this project — led by Kirsten C. Uszkalo — have envisioned various tools that will allow people to study these texts in interesting ways. I don’t yet know if these tools merely facilitate research that otherwise would have been possible if laborious or if they enable people to ask new questions. There is surely a spectrum between those two positions—I can think of many projects that would be possible but not feasible without some sort of database-mapping-textual analysis backend. In any event, it looks promising.
Uszkalo’s Witches in Early Modern England is certainly far beyond what I could do with students, at least in a single term, but it does point to some of the ways I can think about a plague project.
February 26th, 2012
[Reposted from History and the Problem of Historical Expertise at PACHS.]
In his recent post, History: The Everyman Discipline?, Paul Lockhart wonders about what makes a person a historian. His characterization of “the public ‘at large,’ if you will” seems accurate both to academic and non-academic publics. This public at large, he suggests, believes:
If you have a deep interest in history, and have memorized a few facts and are able to recite them at will, then you are a historian, since we all know that history is nothing more than memorizing stuff. … So, to them [public at large], a historian is someone who has learned lots of facts about the past and is able to arrange them into some kind of intelligible narrative.
A keen interest in and some knowledge of the past is not sufficient to be historian, any more than knowing some numbers makes a person a mathematician, to borrow Lockhart’s example. Nor is arranging facts into an interesting story adequate to distinguish historians from antiquarians. Collecting, organizing, and presenting facts is not analysis, though it might be propaganda.
What Lockhart seems to be trying to identify and articulate is historical expertise. What constitutes the unique expertise that distinguishes a historian from other, often smart and educated people who have some interest in the past. Lockhart offers the training historians undertake in order to do their research. Or rather, he stresses that historians undertake considerable training: getting a Ph.D., digesting thousands of books, learning research fields, mastering languages and paleography. As Lockhart notes, neither these skills, which I would call mechanical skills, nor the credential, the Ph.D., can distinguish historians from non-historians.
If the mastery of languages, paleography, thousands of books, and research fields (I confess I’m not quite sure what this entails) do not constitute historical expertise, what does? Are there methods that historians employ, e.g., a particular type of close reading, are there questions that historians ask, e.g., source generating questions, are there philosophical and conceptual categories that historians use or avoid, e.g., presentism vs. present-centered, are there theoretical approaches or particular questions and problems perhaps arising from Lockhart’s “research fields” that historians recognize as meaningful?
The unique expertise of a historian stands at the center of the debate between Helen King and Don Shelton in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine). King takes Shelton to task for practicing bad history and, along the way, for lacking the credentials of a professional historian (in her final response she emphasizes that she is not condemning amateur history but bad history). Shelton responds to King’s charges by reasserting his conclusion and invoking a massive number of sources (facts?). For Shelton, familiarity with historical artifacts and a keen interest in the past qualifies him as a historian. For King, the facile and perhaps incorrect interpretation of these sources—promoted by easy access through the internet—and a seeming lack of awareness of less accessible sources and facts disqualifies Shelton and his work from the realm of history. King seems to imply that Shelton lacks a historian’s expertise and, consequently, is practicing bad history.
What both Lockhart and King don’t emphasize is the unique combination of esoteric knowledge and rigorous habits of mind, the attention to methodological issues that come through engagement with historiographic questions, the concern with how and why certain sources were generated and what questions they were created to answer, the worry about how few artifacts from the past remain to be enlisted as evidence in our arguments, the focus on narrative interpretations that reveal how neither the past nor the present are pre-determined but are, instead, the consequence of innumerable choices. Maybe, in the end, historical expertise cannot be reduced to a body of knowledge and a particular methodology, but is a set of questions that reject teleological and developmental narratives for narratives of contingency.
February 25th, 2012
As early as Monday Haverford’s Special Collection will have a new book: Claudius Ptolemy, Centum Ptolemaei sententiae ad Syrum fratrem à Pontano è graeco in latinum tralatae, atque expositae. Eiusdem Pontani libri XIIII (Aldine, 1519). For a number of reasons I am excited about this book. Perhaps obviously, my own research interests make this an important book—Ptolemy’s Centiloquium was one of the most widely used texts for teaching and practicing astrology in the early sixteenth century. More broadly this book indicates Haverford’s and the library’s commitment to Special Collections and acquiring new material to facilitate and extend faculty research. In our modern, iPad-Kindle-Nook, deliver-to-desktop, on-line centric world, we can easily loose sight of the wide range of materials that enable scholars to do their research. For me and scholars like me our research would be impossible without collections of books. In this way, to quote a colleague, the library is like the “laboratory for the humanities” and this book is an instrument in our research.
February 24th, 2012
In this case, another quotidian table utensil, the lowly pepper mill, has been extracted from the world of utility and elevated to an objet d’art. For the family, collecting these pepper mills is equivalent to collecting art: “It becomes more about buying an art piece than a functioning piece.”
To read more on this, see my post at PACHS: “On Pepper Mills.” While there, you might peruse my growing collection of posts on collecting: “On Salt Shakers and Chinese Takeout Menus” and “On Collecting and Collectors.”
February 23rd, 2012
[Reposted from A Manifesto at PACHS.]
Recently I have had the opportunity to reflect formally on the functions and uses of the history of science, both in my scholarly activities and in general public discourse. I think historians should more frequently and openly consider such broad questions. I am happy to see a number of recent posts grappling with related questions, e.g., Jacques Revel’s Public Uses of History (and the other essays posted at Transformations of the Public Sphere); Rebekah Higgitt’s On this day: the role of anniversaries; Paul Lockhart’s History: The Everyman Discipline?; the exchange between Helen King and Don Shelton in the latest issue of Social History of Medicine (Thanks to Michael Barton’s tweet for drawing this to my attention).
For me, history of science poses a number of historiographic and philosophical challenges. While some of these challenges affect all forms of history, I think they are particularly acute in the history of science. These include: What is science and in what sense does science have a history? How do we tell that history and why should we bother telling it? These broad questions hint at some deeper intellectual challenges:
- How do we analyze critically an activity that we depend on for such undeniable improvements as contemporary technological conveniences or modern medicine?
- How can we avoid telling triumphalist, teleological histories about an activity inextricably linked to the development of the modern, Western world?
- How can we reorient our understanding of science from one that assumes science asymptotically approaches truth to an understanding of it as a human activity? And what do we gain when we think of science in this way?
History is only superficially about the past. It is, in the end, a profoundly political activity that structures our understanding of the present, justifies current policy choices, and guides our future decisions. The history of science is even more laden with political significance, linked as science often is to traditions of Liberal Democracy and narratives about the triumph of the Western World. Science and past scientific achievements are frequently invoked to defend present ideologies and reassert contemporary hierarchies. Think of how the Galileo Affair is a metonym for our conflicts between science and religion or how the Scientific Revolution is taken evidence for the superiority of our Modern, Western world. My goal in studying the history of science is to disrupt these easy, comfortable assumptions about science and its relationship to society, culture, truth, and nature.
Historians of science need to take a more active role in shaping how the public invokes past science. This was the central issue that animated the recent PACHS event: “What Matters about History of Science and What Do We Do About It?.” We have relinquished too much control to non-historians, people whose training and vested interests ensure that they will do violence to the past in the service of the present.
Paul Lockhart confronts the problem of the non-historian in his recent post, History: The Everyman Discipline?. In a subsequent post I will return to his central question: Do historians possess or acquire a unique expertise? Here I want to focus on his distinction between historians and antiquarians. The antiquarian doesn’t seek to understand the past but, instead, merely to arrange the facts into a story is. By contrast “historians endeavor (not always successfully) to wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past.” As a means of distinguishing antiquarians from historians, this seems reasonable. It does not, to my mind, help distinguish historians from other people who might “wring some meaning or greater significance from their study of the past.”
Another non-historian challenge comes in the form of anniversaries, which are rarely chosen by historians and for historically interesting reasons. Becky Higgit’s thoughts in her post on anniversaries, On this day: the role of anniversaries, are echoed by or echo some of the points Jacques Revel makes in his post, Public Uses of History. As both point out, commemorative events continue to assume larger roles in the general public’s understanding and structuring of the past. These anniversaries are chosen because they represent historical precedents that confirm and reinforce present convictions and beliefs. Perhaps more worrisome, these commemorative events exercise considerable influence over the questions and research that historians can pursue because they attract audiences and funding, and find publishers.
Commemorative events are not the only place where non-historians search the past to find support for their current convictions. In a recent post on open access journals, The Future of Science Pubishing, Kevin Bonham depicted 17th-century England and its Royal Society as a sort of postlapsarian, open access paradise. In his characterization, “early scientists mostly communicated amongst themselves in person or in letters or in books. They shared discoveries freely and it was possible for an individual human to be aware of almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Leeuwenhoek’s description of the wee beasties was sent to the Royal Society of London, and quickly disseminated to all interested parties in Britain and the rest of Europe.” Not only were these people not “early scientists,” they did not share their ideas freely. Books cost money, then as they do now. And who was entitled to see these discoveries was itself controlled in all sorts of ways and regulated by codes and norms. Even the participants, as he remarks in passing, were a self-selecting and elite group: “Natural philosophy was pastime for nobility or at least those with considerable disposable income.” For Bonham, the past reinforces his contemporary agenda. Open access journals might or might not be a good thing, but the past is a poor justification them.
What unites these and other non-historian uses of past science is the way they reinforce familiar and comfortable assumptions about our own world and about our own superiority. These uses of the past are like innumerable medieval genealogies that were populated with mythical and historical and even Biblical ancestors. These genealogies served to establish a prince’s authority by constructing a “history” that reinforced the family’s superiority.
In my research, in my courses, and in my broader academic and public life I seek to elevate the level of discourse as it relates to contemporary understandings of science and to challenge our familiar yet deeply problematic assumptions about science and its relationship to society. These are perennial issues, to be sure, but they are particularly acute at the moment. At least in the U.S. we have seen an intensification of the public and political uses of past science. As a historian of science, I feel a moral and ethical obligation to participate in those public and political discussions that invoke the history of science.
February 16th, 2012
An article in the Smithsonian reports on an enormous collection of salt and pepper shakers: “Would You Like Some Salt and Pepper? How About 80,000 Shakers’ Worth?.”
This collection, despite receiving the imprimatur of the Smithsonian, is no better or worse than Harley Spiller’s collection of 10,000 Chinese takeout menus: Inspector Collector: Chinese Menus. In both cases the collectors are exercising authority and establishing expertise by collecting, arranging, and controlling access to their objects.
For more on this, see my post at On Salt Shakers and Chinese Takeout Menus
February 13th, 2012
Elizabeth Kessler spoke recently at Bryn Mawr College on artist appropriations of astronomical photographs. In her talk, titled “Retaking the Universe: Appropriation and Astronomical Artifacts,” she explored the ways three different artists “appropriated” photographs of stars, redeveloping them or cropping them or converting them into pencil drawings. She focused on the work of Linda Connor, Thomas Ruff, and Vija Celmins.
Connor worked through the Lick Observatory photo archives selecting photographs made in the late 19th century by E.E. Barnard. Barnard’s photographs are, like most stellar photographs, emulsions on glass plates. Connor redeveloped the plates, leaving the traces of the edges. Kessler claimed that for Connor, these traces reminded us that what we see depends on practices and technologies. Connor’s approach echoed Barnard’s, who also considered his photographs as the product of a skilled technician and practice. This raises a number of questions: Connor, Kessler claimed, had to deny any authorship to the photos she was reproducing. Yet they were clearly the product of somebody, as Barnard’s very fingerprints and signature revealed.
Read the rest of my summary at Artifacts and Artists: E. Kessler on Astronomical Photos