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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There is tea beforehand from 3pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Mary Brazelton and Marta Halina.

28 April Vera Keller (University of Oregon)
The science of wishing: Francis Bacon and the magical optative
Bacon's optative, or a wish for presumedly impossible things in the realm of natural magic, is not his best remembered legacy. Few subsequent readers (besides Robert Boyle) retained the notion, and already in the eighteenth century, Bacon's editor Peter Shaw replaced the strange term 'optative' with a then more familiar Baconian wish, the desideratum. Despite their current obscurity, optatives appear in numerous works throughout Bacon's career and at the very height of his epistemic ambitions. Understanding Bacon's cunning use of optatives will help offer a new interpretation of his significance as a whole – one that does not consist in empiricism or experiment, but in the study of the non-extant and the pursuit of the impossible.
5 May Cathy Gere (University of California, San Diego)
Two sovereign masters: pain, pleasure and utility from Bentham to Skinner
This talk surveys the history of the Anglo-American 'utilitarian self', the idea that human behaviour is governed by pain avoidance and pleasure seeking. This concept of human motivation and purpose brings psychology, physiology, economics, political science and ethics together in one seamless whole, united under the banner of utility. The origins of the utilitarian self lie in the British reaction to the American and French revolutions, but its life extended into twentieth-century behaviourist psychology. This presentation will sketch a line of intellectual descent connecting Bentham and Malthus in the 1790s, to Alexander Bain, Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer in the Victorian Age, to Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner in twentieth-century America. It will pay particular attention to the period in the mid-nineteenth century when the political, historical and ethical assumptions underwriting the utilitarian self were absorbed into evolutionary theory.
12 May C. Kenneth Waters (University of Calgary)
Why genetics succeeds: an epistemology of scientific practice
What accounts for the spectacular success of contemporary genetics and allied sciences? The usual explanation of scientific success in mature science assumes that investigation is based on a core theory that grasps the fundamentals underlying the domain being investigated. I am developing an alternative explanation that draws attention to concrete descriptive knowledge, procedural knowledge, and research strategies. These elements are integrated with modest theoretical knowledge to form what I call an investigative matrix. According to this practice-centered epistemology, an investigative matrix can be used to systematically investigate phenomena that are not explained, even potentially explained, by the modest theoretical knowledge upon which the research depends.
19 May Twenty-First Annual Hans Rausing Lecture – McCrum Lecture Theatre at 4.30pm
Sherry Turkle (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Reclaiming conversation: our new silent spring in a digital age

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, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn and Mary Brazelton.

28 April Daniel Cardoso Llach (Carnegie Mellon University/Cambridge)
Builders of the vision
Modes of design structured by digital media such as simulations, numerically controlled machines and digital networks elicit increasingly collective, digitally mediated and distributed processes. Daniel Cardoso Llach will situate this contemporary condition by offering an intellectual genealogy of twentieth century computational design systems linking postwar anxieties and cybernetic utopias with contemporary discourses about design in architecture and other fields. Reflecting on the material and social histories of the US Air Force-funded numerical control and Computer-Aided Design projects at MIT, the lecture will shed light onto present design technologies, casting them critically as cultural infrastructures – not merely tools – shaping new forms of representing, organizing and imagining the built environment.
12 May Serge Reubi (Humboldt University, Berlin/Cambridge)
Unveiling the world? Aerial photographs and the social sciences in interwar France
Aerial photography is almost as old as photography itself. However, unlike photography, it was only scarcely used as a scientific tool before 1914. In the limited field of social sciences and humanities, it was not used at all except in archaeology or cartography. A decade later, the picture has changed: not only have scholars of most disciplines started to experiment with it, but the uses of aerial photographs have changed and raise new issues. What was until then used mainly for illustrating purposes (or sometimes to accelerate the process of sketching), is now believed to be a means to unveil essential but hidden features of the observed world.

To examine this 'rhetoric of unveiling', my paper will focus on the uses of aerial photography by French social scientists of the interwar period. There are valuable reasons for this. After World War I, in France more than in any other European country, social scientists were extremely interested by this new tool: while elsewhere the uses of air photography were limited to one or two disciplines, generally archaeology and geography, in France most disciplines tried at one point or another to make use of this tool. The curiosity it raised was broad, and spread relatively fast. This all makes of French social scientists uses of air photograph a compact but diversified object.

Rooted in what Ginzburg has coined 'evidential paradigm', the rapid success of mechanically produced images from above also tells us a lot about the way we consider scientists and scientific activities. Indeed, in many writings about aerial photography produced in the 1920s and 1930s, these photographs are believed to unveil the world, and this seems to be possible, partly because the scientist's subjectivity has vanished. It is therefore fruitful to examine this rhetoric of unveiling through the lens of Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's concepts of epistemic virtues and scholar's selves. First, it will be highly profitable to follow how proponents of aerial photographs defend their new tool, through the categories of truth-to-nature, mechanical objectivity, and the trained-eye, in order to understand how they understand legitimate scientific practices and legitimate scientists; second, it will be of some interest to apply Daston's and Galison's framework to the social sciences, which are left behind in their 2007 objectivity in order to test its validity outside of the natural sciences.

To achieve this, I will confront their hypotheses to the ways aerial photographs are mobilized in the French social sciences and will show that the narrative of aerial photographs unveiling the truth thanks to a vanishing scientist is opposed to the practice of a vivid and legitimate subjectivity. Hence my paper will be divided in three parts. First, I briefly expose the quick, wide, and short success of aerial photography in the French social sciences. Second, founding on these examples, I present three variations of these entangled rhetorics of unveiling and objectivity: the palimpsest, the structure, and the reality. Finally, I focus on the writing practices of social scientists and will concentrate on the articulation of pictures and captions to demonstrate how the supposedly expelled subjectivity of the scholar finds its way back in their work.

19 May Aileen Fyfe (University of St Andrews)
The pre-history of peer review: refereeing practices at the Royal Society
Historians of scientific communication routinely assume that, even though the term 'peer review' is a product of the 1960s, the essentials of the practice have been around since the first scientific journal, in 1665. My team's research on the history of the Philosophical Transactions suggests that this origin-myth is obscuring the rather interesting history of how refereeing practices did in fact develop in the nineteenth century. They emerged in the specific context of the learned society, and until the mid-twentieth century, refereeing was not widely used at other journals (which relied on editors to make decisions). I will discuss the variety of forms that early refereeing took, and the surprisingly different purposes it served, and look forward to a discussion about what changed in the twentieth century!

Coffee with Scientists

The aim of this group is to explore and enhance the interface between HPS and science. Though many of us in HPS engage closely with science and scientists, we could benefit from more explicit discussions about the relationship between HPS and science itself, and from more opportunities for HPS-scholars and scientists to help each other's work.

During Easter Term 2016 we will continue to meet on Fridays, 3.30–5.00pm in Seminar Room 2. Listed below are the confirmed events, on which further information and reading materials will be distributed through the email list of the group; please contact Hasok Chang (hc372) if you would like to be included on the list.

22 April Steve Oliver (Professor of Systems Biology and Biochemistry; Director of the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre)
Data-driven versus hypothesis-driven science
29 April Alecia Carter (Research Fellow, Churchill College and Department of Zoology)
How should scientists quantify academic value?
6 May Murray Shanahan (Professor of Cognitive Robotics, Imperial College London)
The technological singularity: superintelligent machines and the future of humanity
13 May Jenni Sidey (Research Associate, Department of Engineering)
How to study fire

Cabinet of Natural History

This research seminar is concerned with all aspects of the history of natural history and the field and environmental sciences. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place over lunch on Mondays. In addition, the Cabinet organises a beginning-of-year fungus hunt and occasional expeditions to sites of historical and natural historical interest, and holds an end-of-year garden party.

Cabinet of Natural History blog

Seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. You are welcome to bring your lunch with you.

Organised by Katrina Maydom.

2 May Leslie Atzmon (Eastern Michigan University)
Intelligible design: the origin and visualization of species
This talk is based on the premise that design thinking was key to Darwin formulating evolutionary theory. Design thinking – the invariably messy and uncontrolled time-based visual ideation process – helped Darwin shape his revolutionary ideas about evolution. Designers don't just make things; they work to formulate outcomes that both embody and communicate abstract ideas. In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, philosopher Donald Schön chronicles how designers work through processes of 'reflection-in-action' in which thinking and making and the environment in which design happens are integrated. Schön describes 'on-the-spot' visual experiments where the materials the designer produces and uses (rough models, sketches, drawings) 'talk back', often in surprising ways, and where the 'naming and framing of the specific problematic or puzzling design situation are important activities'. Schön's portrait of design thinking corresponds to Darwin's thinking that can be followed in his sketches.

Darwin sketched 'tree-of-life' diagrams to help him determine the nature of evolutionary processes. He used sketching, information visualization, and graphic representation as mechanisms for both externalizing his thoughts while he refined them and for communicating his ideas to the public. In this talk, I analyze how Darwin used rough 'thinking' sketches as a brainstorming method. I then discuss the diagram he published in The Origin of Species as an evolutionary infographic whose communicative effectiveness was delimited by his visual vocabulary of 19th-century tree diagrams. I next discuss how Darwin's ideas presaged new information structures that were established in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I investigate how contemporary evolutionary infographics, which developed from Darwin's ideas, have changed in response to new information in the field of molecular evolution.

Binder, Thomas, Giorgio de De Michelis, Pelle Ehn, Giulio Jacucci, Per Linde, and Ina Wagner. 2011. Design Things. Cambridge: MIT Press.

9 May Sebestian Kroupa (HPS, Cambridge)
Georg Joseph Kamel (1661–1706): a Jesuit pharmacist in Manila at the borderlines of erudition and empiricism
When sent as a pharmacist to the Philippines in 1688, the Bohemian Jesuit Georg Joseph Kamel turned to the local nature to identify resources which he could use in his practice. Due to his growing expertise, Kamel soon entered into correspondence with European intellectuals, namely two members of the Royal Society: the apothecary James Petiver and the naturalist John Ray. Involvement within this network allowed Kamel to deliver his reports of Philippine nature to Europe, where – thanks to his English friends – these accounts appeared in print. In this paper, I will discuss these texts and consider Kamel's strategies and ambitions in writing his works. Unlike other Jesuit apothecaries, who typically produced easy-to-follow medical handbooks for local use, Kamel's approach to classification and description of plants clearly points to his scholarly ambitions and his efforts to enter into contemporary European intellectual circles. In presenting his findings and convincing his audience of the credibility of his accounts, then, Kamel drew on both erudite and empirical knowledge. I will suggest that this attitude stemmed directly from his Jesuit training which, on the one hand, was rooted in textual traditions and canonical texts accepted by the Church, but on the other, fostered active, practical and empirical methods in conjunction with the high esteem for mundane labour, utility and individual initiative. These aspects of Kamel's work, strikingly in accord with Baconian philosophy adopted by the Royal Society, must have facilitated his exchange with its members.
16 May Chris Hunt (University of Warwick)
Antiquities, past, and present: the Tradescant Collection and its rarities
My paper will explore the phenomena of early modern collecting, focusing on the Cabinet of Curiosities owned by the Tradescant family now housed in the Ashmolean Museum. Paying attention to the antiquities in the collection, this paper explores early modern ways of seeing in relation to these artefacts, as well as how these objects influenced ideas of identity. Beyond this, the paper will touch on the relationship between antiquities and relics; they share common qualities and could be seen as similar objects despite the differing historic and religious properties of each, and as such were often viewed in lights.

The paper uses the collection of the Tradescant family, as well as its inventory produced by John Tradescant the Younger in the 17th century to explore ideas of antiquity, past, and present, and how these artefacts from the past actively shaped ideas of English identity in the period. This paper does not use grand narratives of nation building or a comprehensive, shared idea of England, but aims to reconstruct views of heritage and nature in view of objects from the distant past. The nature of Wunderkammern will be discussed here, with the order of things they possessed relating to the ordering of early modern cosmology and ideas of the world.

Attention will be given to ideas of history in the 16th and 17th centuries, Cabinets of Curiosities and collections more widely, and the Tradescant collection in particular to discuss how antiquities and artefacts interacted with texts to form ideas of English identity and heritage in the 17th century.

23 May Viktoria von Hoffmann (University of Liège / University of Cambridge)
The anatomy of touch: nature, knowledge and technologies of touch in the Renaissance
In the last few decades, promising new approaches to the study of the senses and to the body have shed new light on how people in the past experienced their lives, as much as on the ways in which knowledge about self and the world was being shaped, negotiated and transformed. Although all the senses could contribute to these discussions, scholars have predominantly focused on sight and visual cultures, leaving other potentially fruitful avenues unexplored. Touch, especially, has received little attention in historical research, where it has been reduced to a history of sexuality, leaving its other dimensions unexamined. Yet this sense, considered the defining sense of human nature, raises important questions regarding the part played by the lower senses in knowledge production, as well as in society and culture at large.

Sources concerning Renaissance anatomy provide a significant lens through which to examine the part played by touch in the early modern study of Nature, as evidenced by the practice of dissections, which engaged the body, the skin and the hand of the anatomists, in their attempt to unveil the truths hidden inside the body. Using theoretical writings (anatomical textbooks) as well as sources more closely linked to daily practices (such as university notes of medical students), this paper seeks to explore the technologies of touch that were displayed in 16th-century anatomical practices and discourses, with the aim of highlighting the epistemological value of the sense of touch in early modern inquiries about Nature and the human body.

Special events

31 May: Excursion to Audley End House and Gardens
Mia Jackson, PhD candidate at Queen Mary and Curator of Collections for Audley End and Wrest Park, will present 'The Natural History Collections at Audley End, Essex' followed by a private viewing of the collections. Departure from Cambridge by coach at 10am and returning that afternoon. Spaces are limited. Please RSVP to Katrina Maydom (km633).

17 June: Annual Garden Party in the Caius Fellows’ Garden (1–3pm)
Charissa Varma, University of Cambridge, will present 'Science in the Garden: Charles Darwin and his Children'.


CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) is a network of academics and students working in the philosophy of science in various parts of the University of Cambridge, including the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and the Faculty of Philosophy. The Wednesday afternoon seminar series features current research by CamPoS members as well as visitors to Cambridge and scholars based in nearby institutions. If you are interested in presenting in the series, please contact Brian Pitts (jbp25). If you have any queries or suggestions for other activities that CamPoS could undertake, please contact Huw Price, Jeremy Butterfield or Hasok Chang.

Further details of the composition and activities of CamPoS

Seminars are held on Wednesdays, 1.00–2.30pm in Seminar Room 2.

27 April David Crawford (HPS, Cambridge)
Hierarchical transition modes of biological systems are evolvable
4 May Daniel Mitchell (HPS, Cambridge)
What's nu? Maxwell's electrical metrology and the electromagnetic theory of light reappraised
11 May Ken Waters (University of Calgary)
No general structure
25 May Alex Blum (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)
The inconsistency of quantum electrodynamics: a history

Cambridge Masterclass in Philosophy of Physics

Saturday 14 May at Trinity College
Speakers: N P Landsman (Nijmegen), Fred Muller (Rotterdam), Owen Maroney (Oxford)
Topic: Measurement, Emergence and the Classical-Quantum Interface
Registration: £5 on the day in cash for beverages

More information

HPS History Workshop

Need help writing a tricky part of your argument? Need some fresh ideas and references? Or simply want to see how your early-career colleagues approach the writing process? The History Workshop is an informal setting to discuss our written works-in-progress on any area of the history of science, technology and medicine, and share feedback. A draft PhD chapter, article or conference paper will be circulated by email before each meeting. We'll then discuss it together over tea and biscuits at 5pm on alternate Wednesdays in Seminar Room 1.

Contact Andreas Sommer and/or Seb Falk if you are interested in sharing your work in this forum, or would like to be added to the mailing list.

HPS Philosophy Workshop

Would you like to get feedback on your work-in-progress in a friendly and supportive atmosphere? Texts will be circulated one week in advance and discussed over tea and biscuits in Seminar Room 1 on alternate Wednesdays, 5–6pm. Share a draft of your MPhil essay, PhD chapter, potential article, or any research-in-progress in the philosophy of science, broadly construed.

Organised by Hardy Schilgen and Stijn Conix.

Philosophy of Psychology Reading Group

We meet on Thursdays, 11am–12noon in Seminar Room 1 (except for the meeting on 5 May, which will be in Seminar Room 2). Organised by Shahar Avin and Marta Halina.

Introductory reading: Tim Urban (2015) 'The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence' Part I and Part II.

28 April Murray Shanahan (2015) Chapters 1 and 4 in The Technological Singularity. Cambridge: MIT Press.
5 May Murray Shanahan (2015) Chapters 5 and 7 in The Technological Singularity. Cambridge: MIT Press.
12 May Steve Grand (2003). Chapters 2–4, Chapter 12 in Growing Up With Lucy: How To Build An Android In Twenty Easy Steps. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
19 May Shane Legg and Marcus Hutter (2007) 'Universal Intelligence: A Definition of Machine Intelligence'.
26 May Clark Glymour, Richard Scheines, Peter Spirtes, and Kevin Kelly (1987) Chapters 1 and 3 in Discovering Causal Structure: Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy of Science, and Statistical Modeling. London: Academic Press.

History and Theory Reading Group

Deleuze: Difference and Repetition, Continued

For this term's History and Theory we will continue to read Gilles Deleuze's foundational philosophical work on time, representation, difference and the virtual: his 1968 doctoral thesis, Difference and Repetition.

The group will proceed 'continental style', working through the book paragraph by paragraph. Doing some reading beforehand could help, but please feel free just to turn up unprepared. If you would like to know which part of the text we are currently on, you can email Matt Drage (mnd24) for details.

We will meet on alternate Fridays in the Board Room at HPS, 11am – 12.30pm.

Gilles Deleuze, Paul Patton tr., Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)

Meeting dates:
Friday 29 April, 11am – 12.30pm
Friday 13 May, 11am – 12.30pm
Friday 27 May, 11am – 12.30pm
Friday 10 June, 11am – 12.30pm

Philosophy and History of Physics Reading Group

Organised by Jeremy Butterfield, Hasok Chang and Daniel Mitchell.

The Philosophy and History of Physics reading group will meet from 4.00pm to 6.00pm in the Board Room on three Tuesdays: 26 April, 3 May and 17 May (we will skip 10 May to enable attendance at Hasok Chang's Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture, at the Royal Society).

The first two meetings will focus on philosophy of physics, to prepare for a one-day conference on the work of Klaas Landsman, on Saturday 14 May at Trinity College. Registration is free, and the details, including the three papers by Landsman, are on the following website:

Cambridge Masterclass in Philosophy of Physics

26 April Jeremy Butterfield will introduce the first two papers by Landsman:
(i) A flea on Schroedinger's Cat
(ii) Spontaneous symmetry-breaking in quantum systems: emergence or reduction?
3 May We will discuss the third paper by Landsman:
(iii) Bohrification: from classical concepts to commutative algebras
17 May Visiting speaker on the history of physics, TBC

Science and Literature Reading Group


The Science and Literature Reading Group returns for Easter Term 2016 with a series of meetings themed around frogs. The four sessions will explore various literary manifestations of frogs from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and from pond-dwelling tadpole to taxidermied specimen.

Fortnightly meetings will take place in the Newnham Grange Seminar Room at Darwin College, on Monday evenings from 7.30–9pm. All are welcome! Organised by Melanie Keene (Homerton) and Charissa Varma (Darwin). For further information please see our blog.

2 May – natural historical frogs

16 May – experimental frogs

30 May – anthropomorphic frogs

13 June – poetic frogs

Optional additional reading

  • Charlotte Sleigh, Frog (2012)

Latin Therapy

Latin Therapy is an informal reading group. All levels of Latin (including beginners) are very welcome. We meet on Fridays, 4.00–5.30pm in the Board Room, to translate and discuss a text from the history of science, technology or medicine. If a primary source is giving you grief, we'd love to help you make sense of it over tea and biscuits! Thus we provide a free translation service for the Department, and a means for members to brush up their skills.

To be added to the mailing list, or to suggest a text, please contact Tillmann Taape or Natalie Lawrence.

Arabic Therapy

The Arabic Therapy group meets every Tuesday, from 3.00 to 4.30pm, in Room P19.

We are an informal group for beginners and more experienced learners who want to improve their Arabic language. Each week we spend a little time discussing some light grammar, before reading through a text together. For more information, or to be added to the mailing list, please contact Seb Falk.

Greek Therapy

Greek Therapy meets every Wednesday during term time in the Board Room from 5.30 to 7pm.

We are an informal group for beginners and for experienced readers of Greek seeking to brush up their skills – all levels are welcome. Sessions usually involve a basic grammar session at the beginning followed by reading through a more advanced text. We will be reading selections from Plato's Symposium this term.

For more information or to be added to the mailing list, please email Liz Smith.