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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Research Seminars

Reading Groups

Language Groups

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.

4 May Heather Douglas (University of Waterloo)
The materials for trust-building in expertise
The need for expertise is undisputed in today's complex society, but what expertise is, how to identify it, and how to build trust in it is hotly contested. Some philosophers presume that experts should be trusted and provide cursory means of assessment. Other philosophers argue that only experts can identify other experts, and thus we can do nothing but trust experts and hope for the best. Still other philosophers rightly point out that experts have failed some groups of people (and been part of past injustices), so trust is something that must be earned. This debate takes place against a backdrop of an increasing rejection of expertise in Western democracies, and thus addressing these issues takes on some urgency. In this talk, I will argue that expertise consists of a fluency of judgement in a complex terrain. While such fluency cannot be transferred to non-experts quickly or easily (we cannot all become experts in everything), expertise can and should be assessed by non-experts. I will articulate plausible bases for assessment experts by non-experts, and argue that crucial trust-building materials are to be found among them.
11 May Twenty-Second Annual Hans Rausing Lecture
Lissa Roberts (University of Twente)
The history of failure: a chronicle of losers or key to success?
McCrum Lecture Theatre, Bene't Street, at 4.30pm
18 May Henry Cowles (Yale University)
Scientific habits circa 1900
In the decades around 1900, habits were scientific. Psychologists saw mental habits as the intersection of an evolutionary past and an experimental future, while neurologists thought that habit signaled the mind's bodily roots. This talk explores the consequences of this attention to habit in the emerging human sciences, including the idea that science itself was (or could be) habitual. The sciences of habit helped recast the scope of scientific thinking and the reach of moral judgement, as issues of choice, willpower and belonging were naturalized in new ways.
25 May Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech)
Frogs in space: physiological research into metric relationships and laws of nature
A surprising amount of research into theories of space and time in the nineteenth century involved experiments done on frogs' reactions to stimuli. William James and Hugo Munsterberg performed classic such experiments, but there was a much broader group involved. Those who cited the research and used it in their discussions of spatial relationships, and of the relationship between physiological and metric space, include Henri Poincaré and Ernst Mach. Hermann von Helmholtz used experiments on frogs to establish a number of his most important results, including the claim that sensations are not propagated instantaneously but take time to propagate along a nerve. Helmholtz used other experiments on frogs to argue against the existence of a vital force, a key element of his proof of the conservation of force (energy), and a turning point in nineteenth-century physiology and medicine. Frogs mediated between the physiological and the metric: in theories of space and movement, and in theories of metabolism, energy and sensation. The formulation of well-known scientific laws during this time sprang from physiological as well as physical reasoning, and the domain of application of those laws extended to living bodies as well as to inert physical masses. Philosophers who argued that spatiotemporal relationships are fundamental to all sciences, like Cassirer and arguably Poincaré, were drawing on this history in part. The history of amphibious research forms part of the background to accounts of scientific law, like Wigner's and Mach's, that draw on evolution, perception and consciousness, including Wigner's controversial argument that consciousness collapses the wave function.

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.

4 May Lena Springer (Needham Research Institute)
Shifting formats, changing priorities in the modern Chinese materia medica genre: from Zhao Yuhuang's single items to drugs in acupuncture channels
Materia medica are a written genre which has a long cultural history in Chinese. It has continuously integrated vernacular names for medicinal materials and drugs from orally transmitted practice. Furthermore, in the twentieth century, a fundamental shift occurred in modern science when 'old' and 'new' studies were combined in China to list single items of materia medica as an esteemed contribution to world science. Journal articles and early reference works serve as material in Lena Springer's talk to demonstrate how broad the range of options for selected content in the scientific entries was during the Republican period until the 1930s. A second change took place when the craze for particularly Chinese medicine drugs in the 1950s added another layer to the political claims and meanings attached to the materia medica entries: now scientists and historians regarded the well-tried Chinese drugs as a promising model for world revolution. As a model for ethnic development anywhere, the previously disregarded Chinese theory, of acupuncture channels for instance, returned into the scientific literature.
11 May Ruth Wainman (University of Kent)
Listening to scientists' stories: using the British Library's 'An Oral History of British Science' archive
The British Library's 'An Oral History of British Science' (OHBS) was created in 2009 to address the dearth of oral history archives dedicated to capturing the personal experiences of British scientists. This paper examines the implications of using an oral history archive to write about scientists' identities during my doctoral research and for historians of science more generally. The advantages of using life history interviews from the archive to explore scientists' narratives are situated within the longer historiographical trajectories of the 'history from below' approach of oral history and the 'great men' foundations of history of science. In addition, this article reflects on the process of using a recent oral history archive that has not only allowed for an almost unprecedented access into the personal and working lives of recent scientists but also afforded a greater insight into the creation and aims of the OHBS itself.

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.

We meet fortnightly on Fridays, 3.30–5.00pm in Seminar Room 2. Further information and reading materials will be distributed through the email list of the group; please contact Marta Halina (mh801) if you would like to be included on the list.

5 May Fumiya Iida (University Lecturer in Mechatronics, Machine Intelligence Laboratory, Cambridge)
Biologically inspired robotics
19 May Alison Gopnik (Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley)
Life history and learning

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.

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

Organised by Edwin Rose (edr24).

1 May Jennifer M. Rampling (Princeton University)
When a stone is not a stone: doing alchemy with plants and animals
The pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets was a popular source of alchemical knowledge in medieval Europe, with its mysterious reference to 'a stone that is not a stone' – a substance which was simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral. Over the centuries, alchemists picked over this trope as they sought to explain how substances from the different kingdoms of nature were able to interact. For instance, ingredients that were apparently incompatible on philosophical grounds – such as gold, eggshells and spirit of wine – might in practice combine to create interesting effects, and to raise alchemical hopes. This talk will trace some attempts to solve theoretical and practical problems in multi-species alchemy, such as how to induce minerals to 'grow' like plants, or how to dissolve gold in vegetable solvents. Above all, how could alchemists persuade patrons to invest in such techniques?
8 May Mark Wormald (Pembroke College, Cambridge)
Poetic electrons: Ted Hughes and the mayfly
In 1981, the artist Leonard Baskin wrote to the poet Ted Hughes with a list of fifteen projected poems about insects that would feature in their next collaboration. It began with 'The Mayfly'. A poem with that title appeared in London Magazine in 1983, but was never collected. The central poem in Flowers and Insects (1986) which Baskin illustrated, 'Saint's Island', incorporates several phrases and insights first used in 'The Mayfly'. And in 1993 Hughes published 'The Mayfly is Frail', in a revised text of his collection River (first published in 1983).

This paper describes Hughes's education in the mayfly. Like its subject, it had a long and hidden larval stage, but took memorable flight in a fishing trip to Ireland in May 1982, which ended at Saint's Island on Lough Ree. Two remarkable prose accounts of this trip are among Hughes' papers in the British Library. Between them they shape a visionary narrative, beginning with an Oxford tutorial in entomology from his son Nicholas, and detailing Hughes's attempts, in the company of a group of fanatical Irish fishermen, to catch lough trout on imitations of its dun, or Green Drake, and spinner, or Spent. The poetry that emerged from this experience is faithful to these circumstances but also transcends them, offering a powerful vision of ecological interconnection not just to lovers of poetry but to all those concerned for the health of our rivers and lakes.

15 May Christina Skott (History, Cambridge)
Clas Fredrik Hornstedt, the 'last Linnaean' in the East Indies, 1783–4
In the early 1780s members of the circle of amateur naturalists in Batavia sometimes referred to as the 'East-Indies Enlightenment' sought to appoint a curator for the collections of the newly founded Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. It was not far-fetched to turn to Sweden, as the society looked for a naturalist trained in Linnaean method and nomenclature. The man eventually sent out to Java was Clas Fredrik Hornstedt, a student of Carl Peter Thunberg, himself one of the most prominent students of Linnaeus. Hornstedt would spend little over a year in Java. Returning to Sweden in 1786 he brought with him vast collections, not only of animals, plants and minerals, but also materia medica, ethnographica and manuscripts, as well as extensive journals and annotations.

This paper uses Hornstedt's collecting endeavour in the East-Indies to make observations on the status of science in Sweden in the generation after the death of Linnaeus. It is argued that the Linnaean ambition to record and list everything with boundless scientific detail here was extended to geography, history, literature, thus contributing to the empirical knowledge of eighteenth-century Java and its inhabitants. But Hornstedt has also been seen as the last travelling Linnaean, and the fate of his collections shows that this particular form of knowledge gathering and collecting was increasingly becoming unfashionable in Sweden.

22 May Ken McNamara (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge)
Exploring John Woodward's scientific writing in his catalogues of fossils (1728, 1729)
The 9,600 specimens that form the geological collection of Dr John Woodward (1667–1728) were, in part, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge. Of the four cabinets that housed his collection, the two not bequeathed were purchased by the University from Woodward's executors, thus keeping the collection intact. Woodward was meticulous in detailing the provenance of his specimens, whether collected by himself or donated by others. This he did in a number of hand-written catalogues which are housed today in the Sedgwick Museum's archives. These catalogues, subsequently published in two volumes after Woodward's death, are not merely lists of specimens. They contain many of Woodward's ideas on geology, mineralogy and palaeontology. Although he is best remembered for his contentious An Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth:... published in 1695, the catalogues contain a wealth of observations and interpretations of the geological world by Woodward that were, in many cases, hundreds of years ahead of their time. Along with a discussion of his classification of rocks and minerals, and hierarchical classification of fossilised organic remains, I will examine a number of his insightful interpretations based on his collection, especially in palaeoecology and taphonomy, showing that Woodward deserves to be credited with being one of the first scientific geologists.
Tuesday 30 May Cabinet Trip to the Natural History Museum, London
We will be visiting a selection of historical collections in the Botany Department, Earth Sciences Department, Entomology Department and the Library and Archives. Due to the size of the rooms in the Museum, only a maximum of 20 participants can be accommodated. More details will follow shortly.
5 June James Delbourgo (Rutgers University)
Ten things you always wanted to know about Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum... but were afraid to ask
In 1759 the British Museum opened its doors for the first time – the first free national public museum in the world. But how did it come into being? This talk is based on a new biography of its founder, Hans Sloane, which recounts the story behind the museum's creation. Born in Northern Ireland in 1660, Sloane amassed a fortune as a London society physician, becoming a member of the Whig establishment and president of the Royal Society and Royal College of Physicians. His wealth and contacts enabled him to assemble an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects – the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time. For Sloane, collecting a world of objects meant collecting a world of people. His marriage to a Jamaican sugar heiress gave him access to both planters and African slaves, from whom he collected a variety of objects. He then established a network of agents to supply artifacts from China, India, North America, the Caribbean and beyond: plants and animals, books and manuscripts, a 'shoe made of human skin', the head of an Arctic walrus, slaves' banjos, magical amulets, Buddhist shrines, copies of the Qur'ān and more – nothing was off limits to Sloane's curiosity and fortune. The overlooked story of one of the Enlightenment's most controversial luminaries offers a fresh perspective on the entanglement of scientific discovery and imperialism in the eighteenth century and the heritage of today's global museums.
Friday 16 June Cabinet Garden Party, Finella, Queen's Road
Sujit Sivasundaram (History, Cambridge)
The oils of Empire and the banks of the Irrawaddy


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 Anna Alexandrova.

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

Further details of the composition and activities of CamPoS

3 May Tushar Menon (University of Oxford)
Affine balance: algebraic spacetime functionalism as a guide to identifying spacetime
10 May Catherine Kendig (Michigan State University)
How can we homologize holobionts, and whose lineage matters?
17 May Alison Gopnik (University of California, Berkeley)
The Theory Theory 2.0: Bayesian models, causal inference and cognitive development
24 May Lydia Patton (Virginia Tech)
Listening to the chirps: how do the LIGO results test general relativity?

Science and Literature Reading Group

In Easter Term our exploration of the four elements reaches the water. Appropriately enough for this most protean of substances, we will engage with several forms of media: a poem, a short story, a play, and two essays. In very different ways, these works comment on the relationships between literature and water: experiencing and analysing, surviving and following, cherishing and chronicling its varied appearances as river, rain, ice, and sea.

We will meet at Darwin College in the ground floor seminar room at 1 Newnham Terrace from 7.30–9pm (last meeting location tbc).

All are welcome to join us, whether new or old members of the group! The group is organised by Melanie Keene and Charissa Varma.

Follow us on Twitter @scilitreadgrp or look at our blog for full news and updates.

8 May – River

22 May – Rain

  • Ray Bradbury, 'Death-By-Rain', Planet Stories (1950). Republished as 'The Long Rain' in several collections of his short stories, or contact MK for a copy.

5 June – Ice

26 June – Sea

  • R.L. Carson, 'Undersea', Atlantic Monthly (1937), 322–325; and 'The Edge of the Sea', address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1953). Republished in Linda Lear (ed.), Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1999), or contact MK for a copy.

Philosophy of Medicine Reading Group

This reading group is dedicated to new and old problems in philosophy of medicine. All are welcome.

Meetings take place on Tuesdays, 1–2pm, in Seminar Room 1.

Conveners: Tim Lewens, Stephen John, Jacob Stegenga, Anna Alexandrova

2 May

Ian Hacking, 2010, 'Pathological withdrawal of refugee children seeking asylum in Sweden', Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

9 May

Stephen John, 'Lies, damn'd lies and statistics: is it possible to communicate risk accurately?' (to be circulated, please email Jacob (jms303) for copy)

16 May

Joseph Wu, 'Health inequalities and cancer screening' (to be circulated, please email Jacob (jms303) for copy)

23 May

Eric Meslin, 'TBD' (to be circulated, please email Jacob (jms303) for copy)

30 May

Kirstin Borgerson, 'Evidence-based alternative medicine?'

6 June

Jeff McMahan, 'The metaphysics of brain death'

13 June

Jeremy Howick, 'The relativity of "placebos": defending a modified version of Grünbaum's definition', Synthese

Casebooks Therapy

Organiser: Leah Astbury
Sponsor and tutor: Lauren Kassell

'Casebooks Therapy' is an informal reading group for those interested in using the manuscripts of Simon Forman and Richard Napier in their research.

The aim of the reading group is the improve the palaeography skills of those who attend, as well as to provide guidance about how to make sense of Forman's and Napier's records. No familiarity with medieval or early modern handwriting is necessary, and the group is open to all. Attendees are invited to suggest a particular page or case from the Casebooks that they have trouble reading to work through collaboratively. Participants should bring a laptop. Please email Leah Astbury (la320) if you are planning to attend.

Meetings are held on Wednesdays, 4.30–6pm in the Department.

Latin Therapy

Latin Therapy is an informal reading group. All levels of Latin 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, with the help of our Latin tutor, Maria Ramandi. This is an opportunity to brush up your Latin by regular practice, and if a primary source is giving you grief, we'd love to help you make sense of it over tea and biscuits!

To be added to the mailing list, or to suggest a text, please contact Tillmann Taape (tt311).

More about Latin Therapy

Manchu Therapy

The Manchu Therapy group meets fortnightly on Tuesdays, from 3.00 to 4.00pm, in Seminar Room 1.

Manchu Therapy is an informal group for beginners and more experienced readers who would like to improve their skills. (See this brief description of the Manchus and the Manchu language.) Every other week, we will meet to discuss grammar and read a short text together.

For more information or to be added to the mailing list, please contact Mary Brazelton.

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 Aristotle's History of Animals and Generation of Animals this term.

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