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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.

Michaelmas Term 2016

This term we explore a variety of perspectives on global studies and histories of science and technology, and Think Tank presentations will be complemented by readings on related topics in the Twentieth Century Reading Group, which meets on alternate Thursdays.

Show overview

6 October Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)
Images as artefacts: film, photography and repatriation in Kenya
This discussion focuses on the conceptual and methodological issues at play when working with images from the past. Utilising a photographic case study from East Africa, we consider historical context, provenance, and intent. A series of photographs taken or obtained by Canadian psychiatrist Edward L. Margetts in Kenya in the 1950s allow for a broad discussion of what photographs mean; for the photographer, the viewer, and most poignantly, the photographic subjects. We will work through a set of images of the ancient surgical practice of trepanning the skull which was still being performed controversially in the 1950s in one region of Kenya. The traditional practice, often extreme in its medical outcomes, was filmed, photographed and even immortalized in soap stone carvings. The wildly divergent uses and interpretations of one set of images prompts us to ask questions about the use, re-use and misuse of images over time.
Suggested reading: Sloan Mahone, '"Hat-on, Hat-off": Trauma and Trepanation in Kisii, western Kenya', Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2014.
20 October Matei Candea (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)
Comparative uncertainties: comparing comparisons in anthropology and animal behaviour science
Much has been made in recent years of the way in which anthropological confrontations with alterity can generate productive conceptual uncertainty. This methodological device can be thought of as a type of 'frontal' comparison in which a 'them' position is confronted to an 'us' position. This paper contrasts frontal comparison with lateral comparisons, in which different cases are laid side by side. Frontal and lateral comparisons produce different and complementary dynamics of conceptual uncertainty and productive doubt. This anthropological pair is in turn compared with and read through two different ways of managing uncertainty in a different discipline: the study of animal behaviour.
27 October David Munns (John Jay College)
A controlled environment: phytotrons, Cold War life science, and the making of the experimental plant
My talk tells of the quest to gain scientific and technological mastery over the environment in the life sciences. Because living things are a product of their genes and their environments, alongside the famed discovery of genes there was the simultaneous discovery of the biological environment. To experiment on the biological environment plant scientists built wonders of twentieth century life science and environmental engineering: now forgotten laboratories called 'phytotrons'. To create phytotrons, biologists became technologists because to learn about plants and animals meant learning about the technological systems that replicated and monitored their development. In the Cold War they revealed the shape of the environment, the limits of growth and development, and the limits of control over complex systems. There is no better time to remember the science of the biological environment amid the challenge of climate change. When Los Angeles choked on smog in the 1940s, city officials turned to the new phytotron at Caltech for answers. Experiments proved the harmful effects of smog on plants and people which lead to the initial efforts to curb air pollution. Now, a half century later, the phytotron's successors called biotrons and ecotrons are discovering connections between life and a changing environment. I can only hint at the larger history of 'trons' that replicated the worldview of the Cold War era in both phytotrons, biotrons, climatrons, and ecotrons as well as in cyclotrons, cosmotrons, and bevatrons. Indeed, from the algatron to the zootron, the history of science since 1945 is a world of trons.
17 November Shinjini Das (CRASSH, Cambridge)
A science in translation: homoeopathy in colonial Bengal
Over the years, robust and divergent strands of South Asian scholarship have studied the relationship between science, medicine and colonialism. The translation of western medical texts into South Asian vernacular languages under the patronage of the colonial state has received considerable attention. What has not been explored adequately, however, is the participation of Indians themselves in processes of scientific translation. As an instance of a western science that the colonial state attempted to censor, the popular practices of translation around homoeopathy provide a distinct narrative of western science's colonial reception. This paper traces the efforts of some late nineteenth-century Indian pharmaceutical-firms to translate homoeopathy for a vernacular Bengali audience. It explores the domestication and indigenisation of homoeopathy, with its roots in Germany, in Bengal, through such acts of scientific translation. The paper shows that at one level translation reified the power and superiority of western science and language (mostly English) as global and universal categories. Simultaneously, these Bengali translations contested the universal status of western science by reinterpreting homoeopathy as profane, local and indigenous to Bengal.
1 December Hanna Lucia Worliczek (University of Vienna)
Imaging the cytoskeleton – re-defining a biological entity with fluorescent antibodies
This paper traces a substantial visual end epistemic change in cell biology research in the early 1970s, initiated by the adoption of fluorescence microscopy, using antibodies for labelling proteins, from diagnostic research on viral and bacterial pathogens. With the first paper applying this method to cytoskeleton research, published 1974 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, a new kind of visual evidence got established in a field, which until then was dominated by electron microscopy as the most important imaging technique. As I will show, the application and establishment of fluorescence microscopy not only re-defined the cytoskeleton as a biological entity of similar importance as other already well-described organelles like the nucleus, the Golgi apparatus or the endoplasmic reticulum. It furthermore facilitated a new iconography of the cell and a significant epistemic change: it was now possible to stain proteins specifically in fixed cells, allowing the visualization of the molecular architecture of various cell components in situ. Based on manuscripts, published articles and textbooks, editorial archives, papers of the American Society for Cell Biology, as well as interviews with researchers, technology developers and editors, I aim to reconstruct and understand how a new kind of image could be established as central evidence for findings and hypotheses and how the associated visual knowledge shaped the field of cell biology.