Month: September 2012

Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision

The 1950 edition of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision that arrived in today’s mail.

Having just read Michael Gordin’s piece on Velikovsky, I was more than a little surprised when I received in the mail today a copy of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision.

For various and sundry reasons, I am one of the “very few people under 50” who not only has heard of Velikovsky but also has read, albeit quickly, his Worlds in Collision. And I was not looking to acquire one.

The copy that arrived today came from a retired academic’s collection. He had been trained as a physicist in the 1950s. Sometime between finishing his Ph.D. in physics and getting a job he decided that he preferred the history of science. This was the late 1950s when it was easier to dscipline swap, so he looked for and got a job teaching in a history department where he spent the next 45+ years teaching the history of science. No, you haven’t heard of him because his magnum opus remains unfinished—in the mid-1960s he had a contract offer if he could trim the manuscript to 900 pages! Between then and when he retired, the manuscript continued to expand. The draft now occupies the better part of a shelf, where it languishes unfinished.

I don’t know exactly what he thought of Velikovsky, but I can say he read his copy carefully. He underlined numerous passages throughout the text.

Some of the many places the previous owner of this book underlined passages.

If I had to guess, I would say he enjoyed and perhaps approved of the book. He was eager to purchase his copy, which according to the inscription on the inside front cover he did shortly after it appeared in 1950. He also cut out and saved George E. Sokolsky’s attack on the scientists who threatened to boycott Macmillan.

A copy of George E. Sokolsky’s editorial attacking the scientists who threatened to boycott Macmillan, from the Desert News (July 1950).

Sokolsky hadn’t read the book but based on his reading of excerpts published in Collier’s Magazine he claimed that Worlds in Collision was a “fantastic book.” In damning prose he condemned the scientists who had bullied Macmillan into transferring the book Doubleday:

So, it appears from what can be learned about it that certain scientists, including leading astronomers, threatened Macmillan with a boycott on their textbooks if they did not rid themselves of Professor Velikovsky’s book. Of course, what the learned and liberal professor wanted really was the total suppression of a book which opposes their dogma. Scientists tend to become dogmatic like theologians, whom they denounce as dogmatic.

He was just getting started. Sokolsky continues: scientists think that “anyone who does not belong to their particular trade union should be silenced.” Moreover, as professors they are hypocrites.

They file petitions and make a terrific clamor if one of their number is kicked out of a university for teaching what most decent folks still regard as lies. But let someone else, outside the American Association of University Professors say something which points up the professors as bluffers, and they, the professors, try suppression. Academic freedom benefits only professors.

Judging by the discolored pages, it seems Sokolsky’s editorial has been there for a number of years.

Less coincidentally but equally interesting, included in the same parcel was a copy of the Phrenological Journal from 1879 that included an article about “Medical Quackery.”

[Posted at PACHS]

Astrology and Morbus Gallicus

An early woodcut of a man suffering from the scabies—or morbus gallicus or, as we like to call it today, syphilis—is attributed to Albrecht Dürer. This woodcut illustrated a poem by the Nürnberg city physician Theodericus Ulsenius, his Vaticinium in epidemicam scabiem.

Dürer’s syphilitic man that illustrated Ulsenius’s poem on the scabies, from wikipedia page on Dürer.

Like most physicians, Ulsenius explained how the disease had been caused by a series of planetary conjunctions. The most important conjunction, a so-called major conjunction because of its rarity—occurred in November 1484, when Saturn and Jupiter met in the sign of Scorpio. A year later, Mars and Saturn conjoined in the same sign. The woodcut indicates this astrological cause clearly in the upper portion, where four planets are shown along with the sun in Scorpio with the date prominently written in the middle.

Detail of Dürer’s woodcut showing the planetary causes for the morbus gallicus.

This astrological explanation was common in the early pamphlets on the morbus gallicus. In the same year Joseph Grünpeck published Latin and German pamphlets on the disease. In both he adopted the exact same model to explain the advent of the disease. Although he accepted that the morbus gallicus was a punishment from God for blasphemous behavior, the material cause were the planetary conjunctions in 1484 and 1485.

The title page from Joseph Grünpeck’s Tractatus de pestilentiali Scorra.

Far from being some sort of quack, irrational superstition, these astrological explanations were incredibly logical. They drew on the characteristics of the zodiacal signs, the natures of the planets, the influences planets and signs held over various parts of the body and different countries, as well as the typical dispositions of people to explain the progress of the disease through Europe, its symptoms, and why sexual intercourse often caused the disease (for more, see this post).

The woodcut from Johannes Stabius’s Pronosticon (1503) illustrated the astrological causes—the planetary conjunctions—that he discussed in the poem

The celestial sphere with its zodiac was commonly used in 15th- and early 16th-century woodcuts to depict the astrological sources of terrestrial events. A few years later, Johannes Stabius composed a poem to celebrate his crowning as imperial poet laureate. His poem discussed the effects of another major conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter as well as other conjunctions that occurred in 1503/1504. His poem was printed as both a broadsheet and a pamphlet and illustrated with a similar woodcut:

In these two cases the woodcuts accurately illustrate the conjunctions discussed in the texts. It would be interesting to survey other such woodcuts and see if the conjunctions and planetary positions discussed in the text are represented in the woodcut or if printers started recycling woodcuts. It would be nice to know if the woodcuts for these ephemeral texts were produced for these texts or were generic illustrations.

Is Rupert Sheldrake a Modern Giordano Bruno?

In the latest Lapham’s Quarterly Peter Foges writes about Rupert Sheldrake in The Magician in the Laboratory. He wonders if Sheldrake might end up being as important for science as Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, or burned at the stake as a heretic. Speaking of Giordano Bruno:

This friar maintained not only that the earth revolved around the sun but that the sun was one of millions of identical stars and that around each were solar systems populated by intelligent life. This was not only “magic thinking” by sixteenth century standards but truly revolutionary. The church couldn’t wait to get rid of this dangerous priest, burning him to a crisp in the middle of Rome. In his sweeping intellectual dissent and reckless arrogance, Sheldrake could be said to be Bruno’s heir.

I’m not entirely sure about the “magic thinking” comment but sort of enjoy thinking about a future in which Sheldrake is a science hero.

Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?

The scientific hero has attracted considerable attention lately, prompted it seems by Dr. Roger Highfield’s upcoming Heroes of Science lecture at the Royal Society. Dr. Highfield wants to expand the pantheon of heroes of science:

Science still needs their illuminating stories to engage with the public, even if that does distort the depiction of the way real science is done. Not only should we reinstate the heroes of science, we need other kinds too – heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.

I am not entirely sure what he means by that last bit about “heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.”

In No More Heroes Anymore Thony takes a slightly diffeerent position. Rather than revere these people as heroes, he wants to put flesh and blood back on their bones, to remind us of their arrogance and petty bickering, to portray them as, well, humans.

Responding to Thony’s post, Heroes for the Laity raises an interesting question about the relationship between the individual and the collective:

…the deepest illusion of the scientists is that science is something that individual scientists do and scientific knowledge is something that individual scientists can possess.

Dr. Athene Donald nicely pursues this question of the individual vs. community of scientific practitioners in How many scientists does it take to make a discovery? and further in Heroic Genius or a Distraction from Reality. Dr. Donald argues that regardless of whether or not science ever was produced by the lone genius, the hero figure, today science is a collective endeavor that is unlikely to produce heroes because of both the distributed way scientific knowledge is produced and, to my mind much more interesting issue, the way scientific knowledge is ratified.

It is precisely this process of ratification that, to my mind, suggests the real problem with the science hero model. Whereas Dr. Donald wants to confine the hero to the past—“The heroic genius of popular imagination needs to be consigned to where it belongs, history.”—I would argue that even in the past the lone genius is a fiction. Not because individuals don’t and didn’t do considerable work but because individuals don’t get to decide when a knowledge claim is valid. Individuals don’t get to ratify scientific knowledge. Validating or invalidating a scientific claim is a process. Only after the fact can the community of practitioners—scientists—declare some claim to be valid or invalid, to identify the claim as trivial, as important, as a discovery, or as an error.

Why does the hero continue to hold such power over our imagination—and here I don’t think practicing scientists are any more or less immune to hero worship? If we take Simon Schaffer’s arguments seriously, the figure of the hero along with the importance of discovery developed hand in hand with the evolving disciplinary nature of science in the early 19th century (see Simon Schaffer, “Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy,” Social Studies of Science 16 (1986): 387–420. See Will Thomas’s reflections on this article). Both discoveries and heroes arise from the restrospecive judgement of the discoverer’s community and serves to assert and validate a set of practices and values (see also Simon Schaffer, “Making up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Boston: MIT Press, 1994), 13–51). In other words, heroes and discoveries construct a scientific canon. The canon helps create and maintain identity by selecting a set of shared cultural and intellectual values and establishing markers of inclusion and exclusion. Epistemic consensus—what constitutes a discovery and who is a hero—derives from membership in this community of like-minded practitioners.

Maybe the heroes of science are not for the laity but for the scientists.

In this context it might be interesting to think about two related issues:

  • Just before Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared he published a short article in Science: Thomas Kuhn, “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” Science 136, no. 3518 (1962): 760–64. In that article he remarked that a scientific discovery was the closest thing science had to a property claim.
  • How does Foucault’s “author function” in the construction of literary canons relate to what I will call the “hero function” in the construction of scientific canons.

Ciba Pharmaceuticals and Mid-Century Marketing

A Ciba Symposia pamphlet on Greco-Egyptian Alchemy from 1941.

I know nothing about Ciba Pharmaceutical Products and had never heard of the company until I found this pamphlet in a box of old books.

Apparently, Ciba Pharmaceuticals produced pamphlets on various topics related to pharmaceuticals and chemistry. This one contains a number of articles by William Jerome Wilson, who contributed to a number of Ciba Symposia on alchemy—one on Chinese alchemy in 1940 and one on the mystical developments in alchemy in 1942.

The Ciba Symposia was clearly a vehicle for marketing Ciba pharmaceuticals. Here’s a large ad for Coramine.

These pamphlets were clearly a vehicle for marketing Ciba’s pharmaceutical products. This pamphlet includes three large ads for different medicines: the stimulant Coramine, the steroids Metandren and Perandren, and the antispasmodic Trasentin.

Ciba’s two steroids, Perandren and Metandren.

I can’t help but appreciate the detail and care of the ads in this pamphlet. Everything from the typography to the stylized images conveys both authority, efficacy, and modernity. I am, therefore, intrigued by Ciba’s use of alchemy here as a means of marketing its pharmaceuticals. This wasn’t the first or the last time a Ciba Symposia focused on alchemy. What made alchemy useful in this context?

Anybody interested in pursuing these questions should start at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Not only do they appear to have a number of other Ciba pamphlets, as this search indicates, they have other Ciba materials and, no doubt, boxes and boxes of other mid-century pharmaceutical literature.