Category: Speaking

Philadelphia Science Festival

Next month is the second Philadelphia Science Festival. Once again, one of the events will feature a group of historians of science paired with comedians from the Philly Improv Theater. In last year’s show, “Seemed Right at the Time,” historians picked some episode in from the history of science and explained how it was rational and made sense in its historical moment. These included medieval robots, witchcraft, Mesmerism, yellow fever treatments, and astrology (there is a partial YouTube video here—unfortunately, the mic broke during my section so I’m not in the video). The show was a big success.

Philly Science Festival again features historians of science.

The new show is “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us” on 26 April. This year’s program promises to be great. We’ve spent more time planning and organizing the show. The topics are both fascinating and potentially hilarious: the banana as food & as comedic prop; vibrators & contraception; the undead in the middle ages; monstrous births in early modern Europe.

Title page from a pamphlet describing a monster born in Kent, 1609.

Monstrous births were not unusual in 16th- and 17th-century England. Numerous broadsheets and pamphlets reported strange and wondrous births. I’m talking on one particular case of a monstrous birth that occurred in 1569. Agnes Bowker reportedly gave birth to a dead cat. Proceedings began almost immediately to determine if a crime had been committed. Testimony was taken. A postmortem examination of the cat indicated that it had been alive—they found inside it both bacon and bits of straw. Agnes crafted a number of stories about bestiality and sexual relations with men. Finally, she confessed to having been seduced and violated in a church. For an excellent account of this story, see David Cressy’s Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. For a riotously funny account, attend next month’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us”.

Art History and History of Science

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.

The poster for Elizabeth Kessler’s lecture at Bryn Mawr College<

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