skip to primary navigationskip to content

Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Richard Staley, Mary Brazelton, Helen Curry and Susanne Schmidt.

Lent Term 2017

This term we will be exploring the interrelations between science and development, in conjunction with readings and discussion of this theme in the Twentieth Century Reading Group, which meets on alternate Thursdays.

Show overview

2 February Simone Turchetti (University of Manchester)
The greening alliance: environment, development and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization
Scholars focussing on 20th century international development programmes have revealed how they often aligned to a diplomacy agenda (especially during the Cold War) and modernist stances underscoring the merits of science and technology in treating under-development. But NATO, the foremost defence alliance in the Western world, has so far been virtually absent from these reflections. This paper considers how, from the late 1960s and following one of its major crises, development and environmental degradation took centre-stage in debates within the alliance. And it documents attempts to mobilize its member-states to either economic assistance or environmental protection schemes. Notably both types of intervention were tied to the promotion of novel scientific research, and especially international collaborative projects. The paper concludes that while eventually NATO opted for an environmental agenda, its 'greening' was actually a political restoration project rather than a true attempt to embrace environmentalism.
9 February Poornima Paidipaty (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
'The Grammar of the Semi-Exact Sciences': Norbert Wiener in India, 1955–1956
From September 1955 until April 1956, the MIT mathematician and father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener spent 7 months as a visiting professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta. According to his biographers Conway and Siegelman, his experiences in India had a profound influence on Wiener's later professional years. Yet little is known about this time period, which followed shortly on the success and acclaim of cybernetics, as a midcentury vision of techno-futurism. Between classroom lectures, Wiener spent much of his time working on a book manuscript, titled 'The Grammar of the Semi-Exact Sciences', on problems of nonlinear prediction. He promised his publisher that the book would serve as a splashy follow-up to his 1948 publication, Cybernetics. Though he never completed or published the book, the manuscript offers an important glimpse of Wiener's work on predictive analysis, especially when set in the context of India's rapid and uncertain postcolonial economic development.
2 March Nayanika Mathur (University of Sussex)
Disappearing big cats and multiplying man-eaters in the Indian Anthropocene
Species extinction as well as increasing levels of human-animal conflict are now widely considered two indicators of anthropic climate change. In this paper, I ethnographically locate and study these two trends in the Indian Himalaya in the context of leopards and tigers in an attempt to elaborate how climate change is experienced in a specific region of India. In the Himalaya there has been a reduction in the number of leopards and tigers over time and, at the same time, there is an ongoing perceived spike in attacks on humans by them. I describe how these two aspects are ascribed to climate change (or what could be understood to be climate change) by a range of actors. These include officials, conservationists, journalists, wildlife biologists, hunters, and villagers in the Upper Himalaya. Climate change discourse has been discussed as 'elitist and exclusive' (Beck 2012) and the absence of a wider acknowledgement of its imminence has been ascribed to a 'failure of the imagination' (Ghosh 2016). Political-psychological studies have argued the sheer enormity of the calamity that awaits us leads to active denialism (see Runciman 2014) while other works have shown the agents that have worked towards manufacturing scepticism or misinformation (e.g. Conway and Oreskes 2012). In lieu of such an approach that bemoans the absences of a deeper environmental and climactic consciousness, I work through an ethnographic engagement with disappearing big cats and multiplying man-eaters to argue that there are, in fact, wide ranging non-elite discussions of climate change and life in the Anthropocene in the everyday. What is needed is a finer attunement to stories and narratives that do not fit either the official, scientific discourses on climate change or the mainstream conservationist/developmental accounts that seek to protect big cats.
9 March Shen Yubin (Georgetown University)
The Anthropocene seen by the Anopheles: fighting malarial mosquitoes with chemicals in modern China, 1910s–1960s
What could the human malaria-vector Anopheles mosquito tell us about the Anthropocene in China? This paper intends to approach the Anthropocene in China by examining the origin, development and aftermath of malarial mosquito controls with chemical pesticides from the 1910s to 1960s. With the spread of germ theory and medical entomology from the West in the 1910s, mosquitoes were transformed from annoying but insignificant blood suckers to dangerous and must-be eliminated disease-carriers. Certain western chemical pesticides were also imported to supplement traditional Chinese measures and organic insecticides. In the Nanjing decade (1928–1937) and the wartime period (1937–1945), several major chemical pesticides were experimented with in government-led campaigns against Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria as part of state medicine and national defense. But it was only after 1945, with the introduction of effective DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), that chemical pesticides began to dominate in mosquito controls. These chemicals were widely used in health campaigns in PR China during the 1950s and 1960s. I will argue the massive usage of chemical pesticides is a useful indicator of the coming of the Anthropocene in China: it not only drastically reduced the distribution and population density of the Anopheles, but also released toxic substances into the environment: for example, DDT residues can still be found in fishes in certain locations. In short, this paper supports the view that the Anthropocene in China began about 1950.