skip to content

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 and coffee before the seminar at 3pm in Seminar Room 1, and there are refreshments afterwards at 5pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Agnes Bolinska.

26 April Remco Heesen (Philosophy, Cambridge)
Statistical biases in peer review
Various biases are known to affect the peer review system, which is used to judge journal articles for their suitability for publication and grant proposals for their suitability for funding. These biases are generally attributed to cognitive biases held by individual peer reviewers. For example, gender bias in peer review is explained by the (explicit or implicit) gender bias of individual peer reviewers, as evidenced by the generally lower scores given to submissions authored by women. Here I introduce the notion of 'purely statistical biases': biases in peer review that arise even when individual peer reviewers are unbiased. This notion suggests that certain social groups or research programs may be disadvantaged by the peer review system even in the absence of cognitive biases. I use formal models to identify three possible mechanisms for purely statistical biases. The first mechanism relies on differences in information about authors available to decision makers. The second mechanism relies on differences in the underlying distributions of the 'quality' of submissions. Finally, the third mechanism comes into play when reviewers judge submissions on multiple criteria: aggregating these judgments into a final decision leads to a third possible source of bias.
3 May Wendy S. Parker (Durham University)
Explaining the recent 'hiatus' in global warming: models, measurement and media
In both scientific journals and the blogosphere, there has been much discussion of a recent 'hiatus' or 'pause' in global warming. Climate skeptics have characterized the hiatus as a major problem for climate change science. In response, climate scientists have invested significant time and energy investigating the hiatus and have developed explanations of it that require no revision to existing theory or models. This talk will provide an overview of these efforts, in order to illustrate some striking features of explanatory practice in climate science. It will focus in particular on the important contributions of computer simulation models, as well as some of the challenges and limitations associated with their use. The analysis will suggest that quantitative 'how-plausibly' explanations are the best that can be hoped for in the case of the recent hiatus.
10 May Erika Milam (Princeton University)
Creatures of Cain: the hunt for human nature in Cold War America
After the Second World War, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. This talk charts the rise and precipitous fall of a theory that attributed man's evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder amid the tense social climate of Cold War America. The scientists who advanced this 'killer ape' vision of humanity capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity's problems, even answer fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, however, scientists were sharply divided. Then, in the 1970s, the theory unravelled altogether when primatologists discovered that chimpanzees also kill members of their own species. This discovery brought an end to definitions of human exceptionalism marked by violence. Some evolutionists reacted by arguing for a shared chimpanzee-human history of aggression even as other scientists discredited all such theories as sloppy popularizations. The legacy of the killer ape persists today in Americans' conviction that fundamental questions of human nature are resolvable through science.
17 May Twenty-Third Annual Hans Rausing Lecture
Andreas Malm (Lund University)
Steamroll all the brutes: coal, steam and British Imperialism in mid-nineteenth century Levant and West Africa
McCrum Lecture Theatre, Bene't Street, at 4.30pm

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 fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton, Joseph Martin and Richard Staley.

3 May Siva Arumugam (Cambridge)
Number, probability and community: the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern data model, Monte Carlo simulations and counterfactual futures in cricket
The Duckworth-Lewis-Stern model of cricket, used to set targets in weather-shortened matches, is framed around two distinct concerns — fairness and prediction. These two concerns are somewhat at odds with one another. I will argue that the fact that this is a data model raises issues surrounding number, probability and community. The relationship between this model, subsequent Monte Carlo models, and cricket is worth examining because it both stands in for and performs a way in which 'data governmentality' might be constructed for society at large. Data models are being used to, for example, determine job applications, college entry, insurance rates, access to credit, voter persuasion, and to monitor health. In this paper, I argue that Monte Carlo models work on and through us by forming new kinds of rule-driven, probabilistic communities oriented towards counterfactual futures.
17 May Renny Thomas (University of Delhi)
Science, scientific method and rationality: Nehru's engagement with Ayurveda
This paper, through detailed archival work looks at Nehru's engagement with Indian knowledge systems. It looks at various ways in which Nehru tried imposing the identity of tradition/religion/superstition to knowledge systems such as Ayurveda. He makes a clear distinction between tradition and modernity, wherein western medicine is seen as modern, and Indian as traditional.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was a spokesperson of modern science and technology and saw elements of emancipation in it. For him, scientific method through laboratory work was the only way to 'validate' any systems of knowledge. The massive institutionalization of modern science and technology invited anger from some politicians and leaders as these projects had totally ignored Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Unani. To become 'modern' the existing knowledge systems were asked to prove their scientificity. There were politicians who thought Nehru lacked an understanding of the 'Indian knowledge system'. Nehru responded to the advocates of Indian systems of knowledge by saying that the Government will not support non-scientific, religious and superstitious beliefs and practices. Indian systems such as Ayurveda was perceived as religious by Nehru, wherein he clearly made a distinction between science and religion; western system as rational and scientific, and Indian systems of knowledge as religious. While one must be conscious of the right-wing Hindutva version of Indian systems of knowledge, one needs to also look critically the way in which modern science and medicine was used to marginalize Indian systems such as Ayurveda during Nehru's time.

Wed 30 May Sonja Amadae (MIT)
Before Trump: the neoliberal–illiberal alliance of the IMF and WTO with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
5.00–6.30pm (note unusual day and time)
Western commentators scratch their heads over the new phenomenon of illiberalism that has recently gained ground in Europe and North America. This trend toward illiberalism has been identified as a particular feature of developmental progress of states without sufficient constitutional safeguards to offer institutional defenses against illiberal tendencies (Zakaria 1997). Yet we now can see that even fully developed constitutional democracies, most prominently the US, have taken this turn. This paper hypothesizes that neoliberalism, specifically in the form promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, forms an ideological and practical alliance with illiberal developmental trends in Eurasia characterized by the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation.

While Western institutions tend to at least pay lip service to democratic governance, in fact the IMF and WTO sponsor policies that do not recognize the value of grass roots participation in the organization of politics and civil society. Whereas the WTO and IMF stand in opposing spheres of interest from the SCO, none of these organizations sponsors the celebrated twentieth-century marriage of free markets under the duly constituted rule of law sustained by democratic politics. Thus, perhaps the global trend towards illiberal regimes with various forms of authoritarian rule should not be surprising given the lack of contemporary robust practical and theoretical defense of open and democratic institutions. This paper closes with a preliminary exploration of modes of institutional organization that may support collective socio-technical imaginaries conducive to legitimate participatory governance. It hypothesizes that the price paid for neglecting inclusive public will formation may be deference to authoritarian forms of leadership that resonate with traditional imaginaries of collective purpose and meaning.

[Fareed Zakaria, (1997) 'The Rise of Illiberal Democracy', Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22–43.]

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.

Generally we meet 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 Hasok Chang (hc372) if you would like to be included on the list.

11 May Julie-Anne Gandier (Bioproducts Laboratory, Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto), hosted by Agnes Bolinska
Regenerating nature's smart fabric: identification, characterization and engineering of non-catalytic proteins for the development of environmentally responsive plant-derived textiles materials
25 May Nick Hopwood, Stephen Eglen, Patricia Fara and Richard Smith
Scientific publishing

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.

All seminars are held on Mondays at 1pm in Seminar Room 1. Please feel free to bring your lunch.

Organised by Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).

30 April Kathleen Murphy (California Polytechnic State University)
Beetles in a haystack: collecting insects via the eighteenth‐century British slave trade
In 1766, a British ship captain in the Gabon Estuary, just north of the equator in the Gulf of Guinea, found one of the largest beetles then known floating in the river. The Goliath beetle, as it came to be called, quickly became an object of desire among natural history collectors. This talk traces the efforts of Dru Drury, a British silversmith and entomologist, to acquire a specimen of the Goliath beetle by means of the slave trade. The silversmith's correspondence, account books, museum inventory and remarkable ledger of prospective specimen‐collectors allow us to trace how a naturalist in the mid‐eighteenth century might utilize British commercial and naval circuits to Africa in the pursuit of a particular specimen. The dramatic expansion in British participation in the slave trade by the middle of the century facilitated the efforts of naturalists such as Drury to collect specimens through the same circuits that collected enslaved Africans. Drury believed that Britain's commercial networks would not only enable him to acquire various new African specimens but, in particular, to obtain a Goliath beetle for his own museum. To encourage mariners to become collectors, Drury provided collecting supplies, images of what he desired, directions, and cash payments for each specimen delivered to his London home. In the search for the Goliath beetle, the naturalist repeatedly articulated ways that collecting slaves might lead to collecting specimens.
7 May Marine Bellégo (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris)
Watering plants, drying specimens: the Calcutta Botanical Garden and its fraught relationship with moisture (c.1864–c.1900)
Created at the end of the eighteenth century, the Calcutta Botanical Garden was an important element of the network of imperial gardens that served economic and political enterprises of the Raj. In the nineteenth century, it became a centre where plants were nursed, grew, transited, fell sick and often died. Some plants were dried in order to be incorporated into the herbarium, the place which was considered the most 'scientific' by the British botanists who claimed to run the garden. Growing plants and drying them both implied controlling quantities of water and moisture, a task that was seen as particularly difficult in what the garden's administration called an 'Indian context'. Plants in the ground were subject to drought, plants in pots fell victims to overwatering, and herbarium specimen were never dry enough. Regulating water was all the more necessary as the garden was situated on the bank of the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges, and was frequently subject to floods. I argue that this constant and sometimes obsessional preoccupation with moisture expressed the failure of the imperial claim to reduce 'place' to 'context', especially during the period of 'High Imperialism' that characterised the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
14 May László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest)
Earthquakes, the end of the world, and perspectives on the Last Judgment (1686–1756)
This paper – inspired by the prompt in Bernard de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) that 'suns' may and do become extinguished, and 'worlds' come to an end as a result of ordinary processes of transformation in the universe – investigates an aspect of the imbrication of the 'new science' and religious thought in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Firstly, it explores reports, accounts, interpretations of earthquakes (deliberately not the much discussed contributions of Enlightenment classics, but sources from learned journals, independent essays, treatises, sermons etc.) between those of Jamaica (1692) and Lisbon (1755) to assess the extent to which such calamities invited reflection on their natural causes in combination with a consideration of the possibility that they may prefigure an 'end of the world'. Such reflections were not unusual. Secondly, the paper also attempts to establish whether the possibility of such an end of 'this world' also evoked, in this period, thinking that pointed towards Enlightenment as 'the pursuit of happiness in this world, regardless of what may or may not come in the next one'. In this regard the result is rather negative: in so far as authors were concerned with larger meanings as to the kind of lives human beings are supposed to lead, preoccupation with 'the other world' remained highly resilient.
Friday 18 May Cabinet of Natural History Excursion to Stowe Landscape Gardens
We will be visiting Stowe, where we will receive a guided tour of the Gardens, followed by a picnic lunch and finally some free time to explore at our own leisure.

The entrance fee is £12. The Cabinet will provide transport and lunch. Please feel free to bring food to share. We will depart from the Department of Engineering at 10.30am and return to Cambridge by 5pm. Due to the capacity of the minibuses, the number of participants is limited to 14. Please RSVP to Sebestian Kroupa (sk796).

21 May Déborah Dubald (European University Institute, Florence)
Inventorying the Rhone: the scientific travels of Claude Jourdan collecting for the Natural History Museum of Lyon, 1834–1869
Serving as the director of the Natural History Museum of Lyon from 1834 to 1869, Claude Jourdan managed the museum's collections for nearly a lifetime with determination of his own. The museum's archive and his Journal d'Entrées are particularly representative of the importance of travel in Jourdan's collecting practices, especially of his efforts to assemble a comprehensive collection of minerals and fossils documenting the geology of the Rhone river basin. The respective specimens shed light on locational patterns, as well as pointing to the social dimension of Jourdan's mobility. The web of intermediaries and contacts patiently weaved together over decades provides insights into the collecting strategies developed by Jourdan, but also into the construction of his own persona within the scholarly world.

As an employee of a municipal museum, Jourdan also operated as a servant of the public establishment. Therefore, in addition to gathering specimens for the museum, Jourdan was charged with defining professional competences in the context of a public institution, as well as with negotiations with funding bodies, which were simultaneously local political authorities. Through looking at the prevailing and the peculiar in Jourdan's collecting practices, this paper will emphasise situational and contextual aspects of scientific knowledge production in Lyon. In particular, I seek to expose the construction modalities of the museum authority as a site of scientific knowledge and interrogate the extent to which this was tied to the invention of the director's own authority and persona.

Friday 15 June Cabinet of Natural History Garden Party, Caius Fellows' Garden, 1–3pm
Dániel Margócsy (HPS, Cambridge)
A natural history of satyrs
This talk examines how European natural historians made a connection between Ancient fables and exotic animals from the Renaissance to Darwin's contemporaries, focusing on the identification of the satyr with the orangutan. In recent years, historians have examined how early modern naturalists relied on humanist philology to identify the Greek plants of Dioscorides and Theophrastus with local plants in their environs. Yet the scholarship has ignored how naturalists also consulted myths and fables to make sense of exotic plants and animals. Well into the nineteenth century, natural historians assumed that, poetic licence aside, these sources offered factual evidence about real species. An expertise in natural history included the interpretive skill to tease out the difference between fact and fiction in poetry. This talk examines how European scholars justified their belief in the power of myth by making complex arguments about the age‐old circulation of knowledge between the Far East and Europe.


AD HOC (Association for the Discussion of the History of Chemistry) is a group dedicated to history of chemistry. While our main focus is historical, we also consider the philosophical, sociological, public and educational dimensions of chemistry. The group meets on Mondays at 5pm in Seminar Room 1. Coordinated by Karoliina Pulkkinen.

14 May Frank James (UCL; The Royal Institution)
Humphry Davy's mineral collecting for the early Royal Institution


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

2 May Natalie Gold (KCL)
Guard against temptation: team reasoning and the role of intentions in exercising willpower
9 May Agnes Bolinska (HPS, Cambridge) and Julie-Anne Gandier (University of Toronto)
Understanding protein function through multiple models of structure: barriers to integration
16 May Mike Stuart (LSE)
A new way to defend the value free ideal for science
23 May Darrell Rowbottom (Lingnan University; Durham University)
What can scientific realists think about scientific method(s)?
30 May Mazviita D. Chirimuuta (University of Pittsburgh)
Constructing the organism in the age of abstraction

The Intersection of Gender, Race and Disability with Philosophy of Science

This new reading group meets on Mondays, 2–3pm, in the Board Room. Organised by Azita Chellappoo (asc63).

Week 1 (30 April)

Jordan-Young, Rebecca & Rumiati, Raffaella I. (2012). Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience. Neuroethics 5 (3):305–315.

Week 2 (7 May)

Carlson, Licia (2016). Feminist Approaches to Cognitive Disability. Philosophy Compass 11 (10):541–553.

Week 3 (14 May)

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell University Press. [Chapter to be circulated]

Week 4 (21 May)

Edwards, Claire (2013). The Anomalous Wellbeing of Disabled People: A Response. Topoi 32 (2):189–196.

Week 5 (28 May)

Gallegos, Sergio A. & Quinn, Carol V. A. (2017). Epistemic injustice and resistance in the Chiapas Highlands: the Zapatista Case. Hypatia 32 (2):247–262.

Week 6 (4 June)

Goldenberg, Maya J. (2013). How can Feminist Theories of Evidence Assist Clinical Reasoning and Decision-Making? Social Epistemology 1–28.

Week 7 (11 June)

McKinnon, Rachel (2015). Trans*formative Experiences. Res Philosophica 92 (2):419–440.

Science and Literature Reading Group

The Science and Literature Reading Group will hold two sessions which were postponed from last term due to industrial action. We first complete our explorations of the aether by looking at the theme of communication, across and beyond the globe. We will then celebrate the end of our elements series with a found poetry workshop using all of the texts we have read and discussed over the previous two academic years.

All are welcome to join in our wide-ranging and friendly conversations, which take place at Darwin College on selected Monday evenings from 7.30–9pm. The group is organised by Melanie Keene and Charissa Varma.

For recaps, further readings, news, and other updates, please follow us on Twitter @scilitreadgrp or visit our blog.

14 May – Communication

4 June – End of year party and Elementary Poetry workshop

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

1 May Jacob Stegenga: 'Bayesian Mechanista'
8 May Hamed Tabatabaei-Ghomi: 'Mirror mirror on the wall: can we decompose them all? What we learn about decomposability by looking into recomposition?'
15 May Raphael Scholl: 'Bridging the gap between populations and individuals by n-of-1 studies'
22 May Tim Lewens: 'Blurring the germline'

Casebooks Therapy

Organiser: 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 to 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 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.

Meetings are held on occasional Wednesdays, 5.00–6.30pm in the Department. If you are interested in attending, please email Lauren Kassell (ltk21).

Latin Therapy

Latin Therapy is an informal reading group. All levels of Latin are very welcome. We meet on Tuesdays, 3.30–5.00pm in Room P19, starting on 1 May, to translate and discuss a text from the history of science, technology or medicine. 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 Boyd Brogan (bb320).

Manchu Therapy

The Manchu Therapy group meets fortnightly on Tuesdays, from 3.00 to 4.00pm, in the Board Room starting on Tuesday 24 April.

Manchu Therapy is an informal group for those who have an interest in the Manchu language, or who are working with Manchu documents, to learn more and improve their reading skills. (See this brief description of the Manchus and the Manchu language.) Every other week, we will meet to read texts together. All are welcome.

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. This term we will be reading selections from Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae.

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