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Department of History and Philosophy of Science



Departmental Seminars

Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in the Large Lecture Theatre in the Botany Building on the Downing Site.

Organised by Lewis Bremner.

18 January

Amanda Lanzillo (Brunel University London)
Pious labour: Islam, artisanship, and technology in colonial India

Artisan industrial workers in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century north India faced radical industrial and technological shifts in their trades. To negotiate these changes, many Muslim artisans in trades such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and tailoring asserted distinctive Islamic traditions for their work and technologies of production. In this talk, I argue that Muslim artisans made claims on pious technical knowledge in a context where industrial authority was increasingly associated with the colonial state and Indian middle classes. I likewise explore the archive of Muslim artisans' pious technical knowledge, analysing the emergence of new intersections of embodied and textual knowledge of craft within the Indian print economy.

25 January

PhD Showcase

A showcase of research by current PhD students in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Featured talks include the following:

  • Kim Alexander – The problem with the 'Pope Rule': what past mistakes mean for the history of contraception today
  • Thomas Banbury – The meteorology of the mind: vaporous analogies in medieval thought
  • Leo Chu – Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and other Green Revolutions, 1950–2000
  • Janna Müller – Conceptualising asteroids in the Solar System: the classification of celestial bodies in early 19th century astronomy
  • Niall Roe – Charles Peirce and (early) experimental science
  • Daniela Sclavo – Chile and flavour: the history of chile conservation in Mexico, 1970s–present
  • Timothy Sim – The history of dengue fever in Singapore, 1965–2000
  • Philipp Spillmann – The N = 1 problem in astrobiology
  • Xinyi Wen – The 'Scientific Revolution' and plants that look like us

1 February

Andreas De Block (KU Leuven)
In defense of the medical model of obesity

Is obesity a health problem? While most public health organisations and medical researchers seem to consider the rising obesity rates as a major health crisis, some critics remain unconvinced. They view the pathologisation of body fat as an ideological construct. In this talk (based on joint work with Jonathan Sholl) I aim to defend the current medical models of obesity and the view that obesity is a serious health problem. Moreover, while the critics often see medical models of obesity as an important source of stigma, these models might actually help to combat stigma and to increase empathy.

8 February (Wellcome Lecture)

Pablo F. Gómez (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
Slave trading and the imagination of the quantifiable body in the early modern South Atlantic

This talk examines how the epistemic and material practices of slave trading communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century South Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds were fundamentally related to the emergence of novel ideas about quantifiable human bodies and corporeal facticity. The violent mathematics of early modern slave trading societies reified and institutionalized body quantification and population/group thinking in relation to labor, health, and disease in new ways. By examining the brutal history of corporeal quantification in slave trading societies alongside African diasporic histories of knowledge-making about bodies and medicine, this lecture underscores the fundamental continuity that exists between the enslavement of millions of Africans and the history of modern ideas about corporeality.

15 February

Säde Hormio (University of Helsinki)
Conceptualising climate futures

Climate action is often presented by policymakers as an economic issue: what would strong regulation to curb emissions do to our economies, what are the most cost-efficient switches, and so on. Yet many normative questions without easy answers arise about burden-sharing and values. Although economics face limitations when applied to complex, large-scale societal challenges like climate change, I wish to highlight a potentially important role for economic methodology. This is the need for economists to illustrate the desirability of greater climate action through modelling more innovative, optimistic scenarios, where the emphasis is on what could be, rather than where the current policies are leading us. We should not ignore the big challenges ahead or engage in 'climate dreaming': dismissing the need for urgent mitigation action now in the hope that technological innovations will come to save us. But what gets too little attention is how fast things can sometimes change and how radically some parameters have already changed in the recent years. While ethical values need to be weighed in participatory debates, climate economics can engage in elucidating what is possible and desirable.

22 February

Marion Boulicault (University of Edinburgh)
Risky sex data: precision medicine, big data and the ossification of a sex binary

We are, some say, at the threshold of a medical revolution. Current medical practice – which is based on a crude 'one size fits all' (or 'one size fits most') approach – will be replaced by 'precision medicine': an approach where big data and machine learning are harnessed to offer precisely tailored risk predictions, diagnoses, and treatment plans based on an individual's lifestyle, environment, and genetic make-up. In this talk, I look at the role of sex and gender data categories in the development of precision medicine. I focus specifically on the case of precision medicine research on Alzheimer's, dementia and related disorders, a well-funded, politically powerful, and socially salient field of biomedicine with a history of contentious debate regarding the role of biological and social factors in disease risk and prediction. I identify an assumption that I call the 'default predictive value of sex' and show how this assumption is fuelling calls for the development of sex-specific algorithms and 'pink and blue' machine learning models. In doing so, I show how these approaches to precision medicine risk naturalizing gender disparities and ossifying a binary, essentialized conception of sex in diagnostic and predictive tools.

29 February

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG)
Split and splice: a phenomenology of experimentation

I will present some aspects of my new book Split and Splice (Chicago University Press, 2023). The overall aim of the book is to give a consistent assessment of experimentation as a knowledge-generating procedure by focusing on its practice. In the first part of the book, the different facets of the process of experimentation are dealt with from a microscopic perspective. The second part deals with its macroscopic features. Taken together, they render visible what is usually overlooked with respect to experimentation, either because it remains below the threshold of perception or because it lies beyond it. Experimental systems are taken as a starting point. They are in themselves already complex units of epistemic objects and the apparatus used to investigate them. Different aspects of an experimental setup are examined more closely in the first part of the book: the production of traces and their conversion into data, the construction of models, the ways of making things visible, the forms of grafting new instruments and procedures onto an existing ensemble, and note-taking. These aspects will be juxtaposed and characterized in their peculiarities and interrelations. The second part of the book focuses on the interrelations that experimental systems entertain among themselves. The characteristic temporal, spatial, and narrative dimensions of these articulations will be traced. Concepts that serve as guidelines in the investigation, such as that of experimental culture, will be presented by way of examples, and they will be developed and tested for their usefulness on materials taken from the history of twentieth-century life sciences.

7 March

Emma Tobin (University College London)
Biotechnological artefacts and the in vivo/in vitro problem

Biochemical approaches to macromolecules are characteristically reductionist, in that they seek to explain biomolecules in terms of underlying chemical processes and structures. Antireductionist accounts are sceptical of reductionist research strategies because they underestimate the biological context and the role of biochemical function. The in vivo-in vitro problem is one reason for this scepticism; namely it is impossible to perform a chemical investigation in vivo. In vitro biochemical explanations are highly idealised resulting from analyses of pure compounds under artificial experimental conditions.

This paper argues that the in vivo/in vitro distinction is further problematized in emerging biotechnologies. As biomolecules are developed and engineered and as they evolve the clear distinction that we might make between naturally occurring complex macromolecules and those that are the result of biotechnological innovations is difficult to maintain. Emerging biotechnologies often involve man-made or manipulated artefacts designed with a desired biological function. I will use the case of viruses to explore the distinction between natural phenomena as opposed to biotechnologically designed phenomena such as bacteriophages and mRNA vaccines. These cases make the prospects for a purely chemical account of biotechnological molecules look unpromising. Focusing on chemical explanations of biological phenomena downplays the contexts of biological phenomena; because the contexts of production, innovation, and evolution in the case of biotechnological artifacts are not properly considered.


Coffee with Scientists

The aim of this group is to explore and enhance the interface between HPS and science. Although many of us in HPS engage closely with scientists and their practices, 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 on Fridays, 3.30–5.00pm in the Board Room. Further information, any reading materials, and links for online meetings will be distributed through the email list of the group. Please contact Hasok Chang (hc372) or Marta Halina (mh801) if you would like to be included on the list.

9 February

Gillian Fraser (Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge) and Milena Ivanova (Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge)
The beauty and wonder of science

16 February

James DiFrisco (Francis Crick Institute)
Homology and evolutionary novelty


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 2 unless otherwise stated.

For further details about upcoming events, or to be added to the mailing list for the Cabinet of Natural History, please contact Thomas Banbury (tjb98).

22 January

Guillermo Willis (Warburg Institute)
Pierre Gassendi and monocular vision

In 1637, the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) sought to console Galileo Galilei, who had recently lost sight in one eye, by proposing an unconventional idea: that distinct visual perception arises solely from the retinal image of a single eye. Between the 1630s and 1650s, Gassendi drew upon Epicurus's theory of matter to erect a natural philosophical framework that explained sensorial qualities only in terms of atoms and the void. This presentation delves into Gassendi's account of the causes of our perception of two visual qualities, magnitude and distance, as affected by monocular vision. I examine two of his propositions: first, that the left and right eyes possess dissimilar powers in the apprehension of visual species; and second, contrary to conventional knowledge, that the visual axes of both eyes run parallel through the visual field rather than converging at a focal point.

By analysing Gassendi's correspondence with Galileo Galilei and Fortunio Liceti, along with the portrayal of visual qualities that the French philosopher delivered in his later works, this talk explores the humanistic foundations of these stances on monocular vision and explains their significance towards validating visual perception in the seventeenth century, amidst the epistemological challenges resulting from the contemporary astronomical advances and the emergence of Cartesian optics.

29 January

Alex Aylward (University of Oxford)
A backwards book? Authorship, eugenics, and the evolution of R.A. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection

R.A. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, first published by Oxford's Clarendon Press in 1930, has a mixed legacy. Its opening chapters, analysing various evolutionary scenarios from a combined Darwinian-Mendelian perspective, are widely celebrated today for their role in laying the theoretical foundations of the so-called 'modern synthesis'. Its closing chapters, meanwhile, are notorious. Across more than one hundred pages, Fisher provides an extended meditation on eugenics, in which he attempts to explain the collapse of 'great' civilisations, past and present, in terms of the overzealous breeding of the 'undesirable' lower classes. In this talk I will examine how such a book of 'two halves' came to be. Drawing upon previously unstudied archival evidence, I will reconstruct the authorship of this now classic scientific text, overturning long-held ideas about the timing and order of the book's composition. Doing so not only reveals new insights about the writing and reading of evolutionary science between the Wars; it also recasts a decades-long scholarly dispute regarding the relationship between Fisher's eugenical commitments and his scientific contributions, at a moment when his legacies are being actively debated once more.

Wednesday 31 January

Hasok Chang (HPS, Cambridge)
Re-enacting past experiments: how and why

In recent decades 're-enactment' has become an accepted, even fashionable, mode of historical work. Building on the talk he gave in the Cabinet of Natural History series last year, Hasok Chang will consider different purposes that are served by different types of historical experiments (historical replication, physical replication, and extension). And then he will discuss his own line of work, which he calls 'complementary experiments', which seeks to recover lost scientific knowledge from the past and further extend what has been recovered. The discussion will be illustrated with cases from his current work on the history of 'battery science' in the 19th century. He will invite reflections from the audience on the functions of historical experiments for history of science, for science education, and for citizen science. (If there is demand, a follow-up hands-on workshop may be organised in the Easter Term.)

5 February

Zara Kesterton (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
Fashion in bloom: exploring the presence of artificial flowers in the credit records of an 18th-century French fashion merchant

In recent decades, historians have acknowledged the role that women played in shaping and disseminating scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment. Current scholarship also suggests that fashion was a means through which haptic, economic, and practical knowledge was shared among women. This paper focuses on one particular fashion accessory – the artificial flower – to explore its contribution to our understanding of women's knowledge of botany in 18th-century France. An analysis of the receipts preserved in the credit records of France's most famous fashion merchant, Marie-Jeanne [Rose] Bertin (1747–1813), demonstrates high levels of specificity in the flowers that women chose to adorn their outfits. Seventy-five different types of flowers are mentioned using their vernacular names, suggesting that knowledge about a wide variety of flowers was exchanged between fashion merchants and their clients during conversations about clothing. This paper therefore casts the fashion merchant's shop as a site of botanical knowledge generation and exchange.

12 February

Amelia Hutchinson (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
The Pomeranian Cabinet of Philipp Hainhofer

In 1617, the prolific Augsburg merchant, art agent, and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer wrote to his longstanding patron, Duke Philipp II of Pomerania-Stettin. He was reporting great news. The duke's vast and ornately furnished cabinet of curiosities was finally finished after seven years. But now Hainhofer faced the unenviable task of explaining the high costs and lengthy production time. The eloquent, art-loving broker was unerring. He had succeeded in making 'something princely and prestigious for such an art-savvy and art-loving prince', to which other princely cabinets were 'of no comparison'. Covered in cosmic iconography, filled with affective, powerful materials, and housing a distinct pharmaceutical section, the cabinet was intimately linked to the body: the body of its eventual owners; of the artisans who made it; and of the merchant who compiled it.

This paper focuses on the art cabinets produced by Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647), whose ingenious and rare creations for princely clientele helped foster his reputation as an important cultural broker and diplomat during the first half of the seventeenth century. By examining notions of the macrocosmic and microcosmic universe and the perceived active properties of materials, this paper explores how bodily entanglements with materials influenced decision-making in the space of the cabinet. It argues that Hainhofer's own experience of corporeal health shaped the ways in which his cabinets came into being, connecting the bodies of geographically, socially and confessionally disparate actors. By directing attention towards health, sensation, and medicine, the material basis of the Pomeranian Cabinet is brought into sharp relief.

19 February

Mathias Grote (Universität Greifswald)
Planetary microbes: Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, the agency and the politics of microbes, 1840s–1850s

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795–1876) researched living and fossil microbes (infusoria) from air, sediment or food samples. His discovery around 1840 that infusoria thriving in the Berlin underground would damage buildings caused an early microbe scare in public. Around 1848, Ehrenberg devoted his attention to 'blood' prodigies associated with the cholera, the basis of which he identified as an innocuous red microbe. Both cases allow us to grasp the goals of Ehrenberg's natural history of microbes: following up on Alexander von Humboldt, he aimed at a full picture of microbes' place in nature, such as in biological and geological processes, as well as for humans. What is more, understanding the context of his investigations in a time of political instability reveals a dimension of this story beyond historiography of microbiology: Ehrenberg's conservative-reformist perspective on materialism, religion and the state sheds new light on the relationship of science and politics in Prussia around 1848. Not least, Ehrenberg's mid-19th century arguments about the omnipresence and impact of microscopic life resonates with contemporary ecological debates about microbes' effects on geology or the climate.

26 February

Edwin Rose (HPS, Cambridge)
Empire, indigenous knowledge and the practice of recording and classifying the plants of New Zealand, 1769–1838

Understanding the natural history of the islands of the Pacific became a central feature of European voyages of exploration from the 1760s. Concentrating on successive botanical explorations of Aotearoa New Zealand from the activities of Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and their team of field assistants in 1769 through to Allan Cunningham, the King's Botanist of New South Wales, who visited Aotearoa New Zealand in 1826 and 1838, this talk explores the practices of integrating Māori knowledge when cataloguing and classifying species. This includes details of the physical characters of plants, their use in contemporary society and information on broader groupings of species that are systematically integrated into a diverse collection of manuscripts ranging from field notebooks to paper slips, interleaved books, polished manuscripts and publications. As such, this talk analyses the practices through which Māori knowledge on the plants of Aotearoa New Zealand was integrated into the advanced assemblages of paper technologies developed to keep these records in the field. It also shows how other information relating to the geographical distribution of species, the use of particular plants by the Māori and their approaches to classifying species became integrated with European classification systems, contributing to the breakdown of the Linnaean system and the emergence of so-called 'natural systems' of classification by the early nineteenth century.

4 March

Mika Hyman (HPS, Cambridge)
Opening the box of chocolates: a tasting introduction to the histories of chocolate

Histories of chocolate and Theobroma cacao (cacao) can be traced through reading paper documents and exploring archives, but samples of chocolate and cacao beans also can tell important stories about changes in manufacturing practices and farming techniques. Taking the form of a guided chocolate tasting, and integrating recent findings from fieldwork conducted in Belize, I will touch on some major issues related to the histories of cacao cultivation and chocolate production.

11 March

Linda Andersson Burnett (Uppsala University)
Instructions for race-making: skull collecting at Edinburgh University's Natural History Museum

Eighteenth and 19th-century European empires abounded with natural-history instructions for travellers and colonial settlers on how best to organise travels, gather information, and collect and preserve specimens and artefacts. My presentation will focus on a set of instructions penned in 1817 by Professor Robert Jameson at the University of Edinburgh. The instructions were designed to encourage Britons overseas to collect for the university's natural history museum. Their contents ranged from technical guidance on how to preserve insects to recommendations about what to collect, such as the 'warlike instruments of different Nations and Tribes'. For Jameson, and many contemporaries, the study of mankind was an important part of the natural historian's remit. Jameson urged people to collect human remains and skulls in particular. During his museum stewardship a large number of skulls arrived from across the globe. Through an analysis of Jameson's instructions and his network of collectors, which encompassed a wide range of colonial actors, I will discuss the co-construction of 'race' during the first half of the 19th century.


History of Medicine

Seminars, supported by Wellcome, are on Tuesdays from 5.00 to 6.30pm in Seminar Room 1. All welcome!

Early Science and Medicine

Organised by Dániel Margócsy and Philippa Carter.

30 January

Gabrielle Robilliard-Witt (Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg)
Food, drink and bodies in-between in the colonial space: culinary (re-)encounters at the Pietist Protestant Mission in Tranquebar, c.1700–1730

13 February

Katarzyna Pękacka-Falkowska (Uniwersytet Medyczny im. Karola Marcinkowskiego w Poznaniu)
Cultures of curiosity in Polish/Royal Prussia, 1650–1760

12 March

Montserrat Cabré (Universidad de Cantabria)
Women's medical books in the Crown of Aragon, 1300–1500

History of Modern Medicine and Biology

Organised by Salim Al-Gailani, Mary Brazelton, Staffan Müller-Wille and Dmitriy Myelnikov.

6 February

Ana Carolina Vimieiro (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil)
Skin colour assessment in the age of biological diversity

20 February

The value of fieldwork in History of Science and Medicine
Members of the HPS Department will share their experiences with the opportunities and challenges that fieldwork offers to their research

5 March

Daniel Navon (University of California, San Diego)
A postgenomic quilt: how endophenotypes came to revolutionize the meaning of genetic difference

Generation to Reproduction

Organised by Salim Al-Gailani and Dániel Margócsy.

23 January

Heini Hakosalo (University of Oulu, Finland)
How the fetal period became part of the life course: birth cohort studies and prenatal development from the 1960s to the present

27 February

Catherine Rider (University of Exeter)
Whose problem? Gendering infertility in medieval thought, c.1150–1350



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. In the 2023–24 year, CamPoS is being organised by Anna Alexandrova (HPS) and Neil Dewar (Philosophy).

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

31 January

Michael Diamond-Hunter (HPS, Cambridge)
When the data cannot speak clearly: Covid-19 and minoritised groups

The ramifications of Covid-19 on vulnerable populations across the globe continues to be documented. With respect to diverse, socially-salient populations, however, the efforts to do so are fragmented. This is due to a number of reasons – metaphysical commitments regarding socially-salient concepts; methodological and ethical considerations for capturing information regarding minoritised groups and their members; and epistemological concerns regarding the quality and inter-translatability of the evidence gained (and the schema used) for categorisation of these groups. How, exactly, should we proceed with attempting to deal with understanding and mitigating racialised population disparities due to Covid-19 when both the methodology and conceptual underpinnings are lacklustre at best? In this paper, I will outline an approach for dealing with the aforementioned multiple concerns, and will utilise the UK as a case-study for proof of concept. I will offer a solution to the issue that relies on an instrumentalist understanding of race, which provides a number of positives in comparison to other contemporary ontological accounts. Finally, I will offer a some closing remarks on how philosophical work aimed at clarifying socially-salient concepts can be practically helpful for future philosophical projects (metaphysics, philosophy of language) and empirical research projects.

14 February

Miklós Rédei (LSE)
Limit objects and emergence

The talk discusses the role and some features of limit objects in physical theories. The talk recalls the concept of limit object understood in the sense of (mathematical) category theory, and defines the notion of emergent property of a limit object. Examples of limit objects and emergent properties are given, and it is argued that limit objects in physical theories display a tension between two norms of theory construction in physics: one norm dictates that one should have physical theories describing all the phenomena in a certain domain. The other norm intends to restrict the entities featuring in physical theories to those that have a counterpart in the physical world, thereby not allowing imaginary objects that cannot be interpreted realistically. The tension is illustrated by how the infinite Ising model describes phase transition and a suggestion is made about how to tolerate the tension.

28 February

Milena Ivanova (Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, Cambridge)
Is AI generated art really art?

After 'Théâtre D'opéra Spatial' (2022) won a prize in the Colorado State Fair's annual art competition there was a very strong outcry in the media that this signified the 'end of art'. Allen himself was quoted in the New York Times saying 'Art is dead, dude. It's over. AI won. Humans lost.' I start my analysis with the status question and the existential threat question, turning then to the value question and creativity question surrounding generated art. I will argue that far from posing a threat to artists or not qualifying as deserving art status, we should be focusing on what value generated images can have, and how they are transforming the creative process.

13 March

Helene Scott-Fordsmand (HPS, Cambridge)
Inferring from negative analogies: lessons on analogical reasoning from clinical medical practice (joint work with Mauricio Suárez)

One of Mary Hesse's major contributions to the philosophy of science is her work on analogical reasoning. Since the publication of Models and Analogies in Science (1966), her schematization of the problem has become the disciplinary standard. In this paper we want to bring attention to an element of the schematization which has been left remarkably underexplored, namely the negative analogies. We will argue that there is a host of functions for negative analogies in reasoning, and that, importantly, they have a 'positive' inferential potential. We map out three well-known relation-establishing functions of negative analogies – 'crucial', irrelevant, and required negative analogies (Bartha 2010, Pero & Suárez 2016, Boesch 2021) – as well as a potentially problematic kind of negative analogy which we term 'scope-fixing negative analogies' (from Bailer-Jones 2002). We end by drawing on a case study from clinical practice – the use of the Neer Classification schema for the classification of shoulder fractures. Exploring the ways clinicians reason with this schema, we suggest there are two ways in which negative analogies can serve an inferential function in reasoning, and hence, can be seen as having a positive epistemic potential.


The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene (Climate Histories) offers alternating sessions in the related fields of climate history and Anthropocene studies. Meetings will involve a mix of invited speakers and reading group sessions, generally held on Thursdays at 1pm–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All are welcome!

Organised by Fiona Amery, Alexis Rider and Richard Staley.

25 January

Writing Workshop

Are you writing a chapter, a paper, a proposal, introduction, review or any other piece of work in progress somehow related to the Anthropocene and climate histories? If you send us your writing by Thursday 18 January we'll develop a circle of writers and readers, asking each participant to read and be ready to discuss one other participants' work.

8 February

Fiona Amery (Emmanuel College, Cambridge)
Conveying the ineffable: the Aurora Borealis at the limits of communicable experience

'No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it, and no words can describe it in all its magnificence.' So wrote Karl Weyprecht, an Austro-Hungarian Polar explorer, of the aurora in 1877, diagnosing the tension at the heart of late nineteenth century auroral science. It could not be extracted or reproduced and therefore knowledge of the phenomenon seemed destined to remain incomplete. To invert Bruno Latour's concept, the aurora appeared here as a 'mutable immobile': an infinitely varying, un-inscribable object, out of reach and intangible in the atmosphere. The phenomenon's apparent indescribability caused problems for the 1881 International Polar Year programme, dependent on written communication and the 'virtual witnessing' of objects situated in an inaccessible area of the globe. What could direct observation yield that studying the traces of the aurora, naturalistic images and schematic reproductions, could not? How was the embodied witnessing experience and the aurora's imaginative potency folded into understandings of the phenomenon? And how did the outdoor space of the field pattern both techniques of observation and the resultant conceptions of the aurora? These are the questions that I will address while surveying attempts to make the aurora knowable through language, hand-drawings, sensory perception and analogue experimentation in the late nineteenth century, before the phenomenon could be captured adequately by photographic technologies.

22 February

Zeynep Oguz (University of Edinburgh)
Colliding grounds: earth politics in Turkey

Conversations around the Anthropocene in the humanities and social sciences have brought geology into the spotlight. From geopower and geohistory, to geontology and political geology, we have been witnessing a proliferation of analytical accounts on how geological forces and formations are entangled with sociopolitical histories and processes. In this talk, I move beyond a diagnosis of geo-political entanglement to think about how, when, and where such relations take place – the particular workings and consequences of geo-politics and geo-social relations as they operate in Turkey's Kurdistan region. Employing the metaphorical lens of tectonic collision, I scrutinize various manifestations of this entanglement, exploring the multifaceted ways in which geological formations such as oil seeps, mountains, and caves become focal points of nationalist territorialization and counter-insurgent weaponization orchestrated by the Turkish state. I also analyse the role of these geological formations in the formation of subjectivities, as people – geologists, workers, Kurdish peasants – collaborate with geological formations to disrupt colonial formations. I conclude with the broader implications of this story for decolonial and postcarbon earth politics.

7 March

Kathryn Yusoff on geosocial formations and the Anthropocene

This reading group session develops our understanding of recent analytic work with diverse geo- perspectives and explores Kathryn Yusoff's contributions to thought on the Anthropocene. We focus in particular on the approach to geosocial strata Yusoff describes in a 2017 special issue of Theory, Culture & Society on 'Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene'. Readers might also find the editors' introduction helpful; and be interested in an earlier article that offers a valuable approach to forms of imagination in responding to climate.


Calculating People

Calculating People is a reading group on current and past social sciences with a special focus on their methodological controversies. All postgraduate researchers are welcome to join, but participants undertake to do the readings ahead of time and endeavour to attend all meetings. The format is in-person with a possibility of a Zoom link if it proves practical.

The meetings take place fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in the Board Room. Organised by Anna Alexandrova.

18 January

Korinek, Anton. (2023) 'Generative AI for Economic Research: Use Cases and Implications for Economists', Journal of Economic Literature.

And if you have time:
Linegar, M., Kocielnik, R., and Alvarez, R.M. (2023) 'Large Language Models and Political Science', Frontiers in Political Science.

1 February

Stevenson, Megan T. (2023) 'Cause, Effect, and the Structure of the Social World', BU Law Review.

15 February

Humphreys, M., and Jacobs, A.M. Integrated Inferences: Causal Models for Qualitative and Mixed-Method Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023 (excerpts, TBD).

29 February

Humphreys and Jacobs continued (we will decide on the exact chapters at the prior meeting).


Measurement Reading Group

Fridays at 2pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Miguel Ohnesorge (mo459) and Cristian Larroulet Philippi (cl792).

9 February

Deborah Coen: 'Introduction' and chapter 4 'The Tongues of Seismology: Switzerland, 1855–1912' from The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter.

16 February

Deborah Coen: chapter 10 'A True Measure of Violence: California, 1906–1935' from The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter.

23 February

Charles F. Richter: 'An instrumental earthquake magnitude scale'. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 1935; 25 (1): 1–32.

1 March

Teru Miyake (2017). 'Magnitude, moment, and measurement: The seismic mechanism controversy and its resolution'. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

8 March

Wald et al (2011). 'USGS "Did You Feel It?" Internet-based macroseismic intensity maps'. Annals of Geophysics 54, 6. Special Section: Citizen Empowered Seismology.

Hough, S.E., and S.S. Martin (2021). 'Which Earthquake Accounts Matter?' Seismological Research Letters 92, 1069–1084.

Hough, S.E. (2000). 'On the Scientific Value of "Unscientific" Data'. Seismological Research Letters 71, 5.


Teaching Global HPSTM

Following an idea that grew out of the 'Decolonise HPS' reading group that met at the Department from 2019 to 2023, 'Teaching Global HPSTM' will consist of a series of meetings with similar departments around the world to discuss questions of institutional resources, curricula, grand narratives and intellectual traditions underwriting the teaching of History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine (HPSTM). The meetings are driven, in the first place, by our curiosity about how HPSTM is taught elsewhere, but in the longer term we hope to create a more de-centralized network and series of events on traditions in HPSTM around the world, and where to take them in the future.

Meetings will be held bi-weekly on Fridays during Cambridge term times in the academic year 2023–24. We envisage the meetings to be hybrid via video link, but with in-person meetings at either end to facilitate lively discussion. Each meeting is supposed to last for 90 minutes, and colleagues from all career stages, including students and senior colleagues, are welcome to participate.

26 January

Meeting with colleagues in Philadelphia, USA, 2.00–3.30pm UK/9.00–10.30pm Philadelphia

9 February

Meeting with colleagues in Barcelona, Spain, 2.00–3.30pm UK/3.00–4.30pm Barcelona

23 February

Meeting with colleagues in Turkey, 2.00–3.30pm UK/5.00–6.30pm Turkey

7 March

(Please note change of day to Thursday)
Meeting with colleagues in Tokyo, Japan, 9.00–10.30pm UK/6.00–7.30pm Japan


Pragmatism Reading Group

The Pragmatism Reading Group is held on Mondays at 11am–12noon in the Board Room and on Zoom. Organisers: Niall Roe (nrr32), Damon Kutzin (dtk23), Ruward Mulder (ram202).

'The insight at the heart of pragmatism is that any domain of inquiry – science, ethics, mathematics, logic, aestethics – is human inquiry, and our philosophical accounts of truth and knowledge must start with that fact' (Misak 2016, p. iv).

For Lent, the Pragmatism Reading Group will explore Cheryl Misak's Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein (OUP, 2016), which we will interlace with primary sources. This will serve as a crash course to both pragmatist philosophy and its historical lore at this very university (yes, also the other Cambridge, across the Atlantic).

We look only briefly (to our regret) looking at the details of how Peirce's ideas reached Wittgenstein via Ramsey, and the impact of Russell's ambivalence towards James on the history of philosophy, but focus on the third story threading through the book: the story about the tension between James' and Peirce's conceptions of 'truth as usefulness', culminating in the late Wittgenstein and his legacy, persisting through to today.

22 January

Cheryl Misak 'Introduction' (10 pages).
Cheryl Misak 'Chapter 2: James' (21 pages).

29 January

Cheryl Misak 'Chapter 1: Peirce' (27 pages).

5 February

Cheryl Misak 'Chapter 3: Bridges across the Atlantic' (10 pages). [on F.C.S. Schiller, Victoria Welby, C.K. Ogden.]

12 February

William James 'Lecture III: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered' (16 pages).
William James 'Lecture V: Pragmatism and Common Sense' (12 pages).
In Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907). Longmans, Green & Company.

19 February

Charles S. Peirce (1877). 'The Fixation of Belief.' Popular Science Monthly 12 (1) (15 pages).

26 February

Cheryl Misak 'Chapter 7: Wittgenstein Post-Tractatus.' Sections 1–4 (23 pages).

4 March

Cheryl Misak 'Chapter 7: Wittgenstein Post-Tractatus.' Sections 5–8 (27 pages).

11 March

Ludwig Wittgenstein 'On Certainty' (11 pages).
Cheryl Misak 'Conclusion' (8 pages).


Foundations of Physics Reading Group

For physicists, philosophers and all other intellectuals: in this weekly reading group we look at state-of-the-art articles in the foundations of physics, both on philosophical methodology as well as interpretations of particular theories. Think of topics as what a physical theory should be like; how symmetries can be a guide to ontology; what the role of gauge variables is; or how to formulate the presumed underdetermination between different quantum theories. We occasionally invite authors to join the sessions.

We meet every Tuesday at 11.30am–12.30pm (occasionally extended to 1.00pm). The format is hybrid: some will meet physically in the Board Room, others will join online. You'll find the Lent schedule below.

If you are interested in attending, please send an email to: We welcome everyone interested in these topics, regardless of background: see you there!

Organisers: Aditya Jha (akj31), Ruward Mulder (ram202), Neil Dewar (nad42).

For Lent, we'll focus on the foundations of thermodynamics (weeks 1–4) and the foundations of statistical physics (weeks 5–9). We'll investigate the historical foundations of the Carnot Cycle, explore the relationship of this idealised (impossible?) cycle with irreversibility and the arrow of time in the Second Law, related issues in intertheoretic reduction and examine whether thermodynamics is anthropocentric in a way that is different from other physical theories. We then investigate some foundational questions in statistical physics related to fluctuations from equilibrium, the Landauer's principle, Boltzmannian and Gibbsian averaging, and whether statistical physics can be taken up as a foundational project for thermodynamics.

Week 1 (16 January): Historical discussion – Norton on Lazare Carnot and Sadi Carnot

Sec. 1–8 (pp. 1–29), John D. Norton, (2022). 'How analogy helped create the new science of thermodynamics.' Synthese 200, 269.

Supplementary reading: Preface and Chapter 3 (sections 3.2 and 3.4), 'The Development of Carnot's Mechanics' in Charles Gillispie & Raffaele Pisano (2014). Lazare and Sadi Carnot: A Scientific and Filial Relationship. Springer Netherlands. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Week 2 (23 January): Bluff your way into the Second Law

Sec. 1–6 (pp. 1–38), Jos Uffink, (2001). 'Bluff Your Way into the Second Law.' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Vol. 32, Issue 3, 305–394.

Week 3 (30 January): Emergence and reduction

Sec. 5 (pp. 52–72), 'Intertheoretic reduction' in Patricia Palacios (2022), Emergence and Reduction in Physics. Cambridge University Press.

Week 4 (6 February): Subjectivity?

Katie Robertson & Carina Prunkl (2023). 'Is Thermodynamics Subjective?' Philosophy of Science. 1–11.

Supplementary reading: Mark W.  Zemansky, (1957). 'Fashions in Thermodynamics.' American Journal of Physics, 25, 349–351.

Week 5 (13 February): Statistical foundations?

Orly Shenker (2017). 'Foundation of statistical mechanics: Mechanics by itself.' Philosophy Compass.

Week 6 (20 February): Explaining fluctuations and irreversibility?

Giovanni Valente (2021). 'Taking up statistical thermodynamics: Equilibrium fluctuations and irreversibility.' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Vol 85, 176–184.

Supplementary reading: Lavis, D. (2007). 'Boltzmann, Gibbs and the concept of equilibrium.' Philosophy of Science, 75, 682–696.

Week 7 (27 February): More on irreversibility: Arrow of Time?

Bryan Roberts (forthcoming). 'Does thermodynamics have a reversibility problem?'

Supplementary reading: Bryan Roberts (2022). 'Chapter 6, There is no thermodynamic arrow.' Reversing the Arrow of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Week 8 (5 March): Afanassjewa & Ehrenfest on Gibbs & Boltzmann averaging

Charlotte Werndl & Roman Frigg (2021). 'Ehrenfest and Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa on Why Boltzmannian and Gibbsian Calculations Agree.' In The Legacy of Tatjana Afanassjewa. Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences 7. Springer, Cham. Edited by Uffink, J., Valente, G., Werndl, C., Zuchowski, L.

Week 9 (12 March): Reduction?

David Wallace (2015). 'The quantitative content of statistical mechanics', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Volume 52, 285–293.

...and (perhaps) onwards: Non-equilibrium temperature and alternative approaches

Over term break, we can read the following by dividing the papers in smaller, more manageable chunks:

Casas-Vázquez, J. and Jou, D. (2003). 'Temperature in non-equilibrium states: a review of open problems and current proposals.' Rep. Prog. Phys. 66 1937.

Rugh, Hans H. (1998). 'A geometric, dynamical approach to thermodynamics.' J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 31 7761.

Rugh, Hans H. (1997). 'Dynamical Approach to Temperature.' Phys. Rev. Lett. 78, 772.


Atmospheric Humanities Reading Group

The Atmospheric Humanities Reading Group meets once a fortnight, on Tuesdays at 3pm in the Board Room, to explore aspects of the air, climate, and atmosphere in a variety of disciplinary contexts. Scholars working in HPS, history, philosophy, English, geography, and atmospheric and allied sciences are very welcome to join us to discuss a set of pre-circulated readings. For further information (including readings), or to be added to the mailing list, please contact the co-conveners Dr Fiona Amery (faa28) and Thomas Banbury (tjb98).

23 January

'Approaching the atmosphere' – a general introduction to the interdisciplinary meanings of 'atmosphere', and how we might best approach it from a methodological point of view.

6 February

'Health and the self in the atmosphere', focusing on medicine, wellbeing, and embodied interactions with the atmosphere.

20 February

'The spectral atmosphere', the atmosphere as the site of spiritual, supernatural, or uncanny phenomena.

5 March

'Atmospheres out of place', thinking about atmospheric analogies, subterranean and other dislocated atmospheres, and extraterrestrial atmospheres.


Values in Science Reading Group

We meet on Wednesdays from 11am to 12noon. Organised by Ahmad Elabbar and Cristian Larroulet Philippi.

This term's theme is Ethics of Scientific Advice.

Part I: Scientific advice in the wild: A snapshot of recent STS

Week 2, 31 January, at Gonville and Caius, Senior Parlour
Palmer, J., Owens, S., & Doubleday, R. (2019). 'Perfecting the "Elevator Pitch"? Expert advice as locally-situated boundary work'. Science and Public Policy, 46(2), 244–253.

Week 3, 7 February, at Gonville and Caius, Senior Parlour
Lahn, B. (2021). 'Changing climate change: The carbon budget and the modifying-work of the IPCC'. Social Studies of Science, 51(1), 3–27.

Part II: Let them have credences!

Week 4, 14 February, at Gonville and Caius, Senior Parlour
Morgan, M.G. (2014). 'Use (and abuse) of expert elicitation in support of decision making for public policy'. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7176–7184.

Optional background readings: to be summarised by the conveners:

Week 5, 21 February, at Seminar Room 1, HPS
Blessenohl, S., & Sarikaya, D. (2022). 'Science advice: making credences accurate'. Synthese, 200(2), 174.

Part III: Workshop on advisory ethics

Week 6, 28 February, at Seminar Room 1, HPS
Henrik Røed Sherling and Benjamin Chin-Yee: 'Clinical Communication: A Model for Scientific Advice?' [draft to be circulated]

Week 7, 6 March, at Seminar Room 1, HPS
Hannah Hilligardt: 'Science as Public Service' [draft to be circulated – guest joining via Zoom from Hannover]

Week 8, 13 March, at Seminar Room 1, HPS
A paper by Stephen John [draft to be circulated]


HPS Workshop

Fridays, 5–6pm in Seminar Room 2
History sessions organised by Zsuzsanna Ihar (zdi20)
Philosophy sessions organised by Phillip Kieval (pzhk2)

HPS Workshop seeks to break the isolation of postgraduate research and encourage collaborative thinking by allowing students to present work in progress in a supportive seminar environment. The workshops will have alternate sessions focusing on Philosophy and History, but interdisciplinary presentations are always welcome.

Students are invited to present on any aspect of their research that they are grappling with or desire feedback on, including:

  • Unpacking complicated sources, concepts, or archives
  • Presenting drafts of chapters, conference papers, or publications
  • Proposing new ideas or strategies towards HPS research

The session is comprised of two parts: 20 minutes where the speaker outlines their work in progress (indicating areas that they would like feedback to be based upon) and 40 minutes of discussion.


Postgraduate Seminars

Jokes in the Sciences

Lent Term 2024: Fri 2pm, weeks 1–8 (8 one-hour seminars) in Seminar Room 2
Edwin Rose, Mika Hyman and Nick Jardine (leaders)

Seriousness is a word we tend to connect with the sciences. But over the ages many have interpreted playfulness as crucial for scientific advancement, while still more have viewed scientists and their activities as humorous. These sessions explore humour in the history and philosophy of science from the sixteenth century to the present, covering a broad range of physical and life sciences ranging from astronomy, natural philosophy and natural history in the early modern period through to early twentieth century geophysics. Understanding humour and 'jokes' in the sciences gives a new perspective on knowledge production in its social context, casting light on a whole range of motivations, interests and influences.

 Jokes in the Sciences on Moodle

Ideologies of Science

Lent Term 2024: Thu 12noon, from week 6 (4 one-hour seminars) in Seminar Room 1
Nick Jardine (leader), with Anna Alexandrova, Stephen John, Sam Phoenix Clarke, Peter Rees

These seminars will explore rival conceptions of the nature of science and of its social and political roles. Ideological conflicts to be considered include: Philip Kitcher and his critics on science, feminism and democracy; the Society for Freedom in Science vs socialist visions of the functions of science; radical agnostic John Stuart Mill vs conservative Anglican William Whewell on the methods of natural science and its proper place in education; liberal Ernst Mach vs conservative Catholic Pierre Duhem on the history and prospects of the sciences; and the 'two cultures' controversy sparked off by C.P. Snow, champion of science education, and F.R. Leavis, champion of literary education.

22 February

Nick Jardine
Science, Policy and Education: Whewell vs Mill; Mach vs Duhem

Following some remarks on the various senses in which histories, philosophies and sociologies of science may be considered as ideological, the seminar will discuss the rival views of  'founding fathers' of HPS concerning the nature of science and its proper roles in social improvement and education:

  • The empiricist philosophy of science of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), liberal individualist, protagonist of utilitarian ethics, promoter of women's rights, educational and social reformer
    The idealist history and philosophy of science of William Whewell (1794–1866), Tory pillar of the Anglican establishment and fierce opponent of such radicals as Mill.
  • The critical empiricism of the Austrian social-democrat Ernst Mach (1838–1916)
    The conventionalism of the French Catholic, nationalist and conservative Pierre Duhem (1861–1916)

29 February

Nick Jardine
The Two Cultures: Huxley vs. Arnold and Snow vs. Leavis

We shall look at two debates about the roles of science and the humanities in our culture, both focussed on educational policy. In the first, 'Darwin's bulldog', T.H. Huxley, and the Schools Inspector and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Matthew Arnold, politely disagree over the extents to which classical and scientific education are conducive to 'a critical and discerning approach to life'. In the second, the scientific administrator and novelist C.P. Snow and the literary critic F.R. Leavis clash intemperately over the cultural status of literary intellectuals ('effete' and 'reactionary' according to Snow) and scientists ('robustly heterosexual' and 'with the future in their bones', again according to Snow).

7 March

Sam Phoenix Clarke and Peter Rees
Freedom and Planning in Science

Mid-twentieth century Britain saw heated confrontation between advocates of governmental control and planning of science and defendants of the freedom and autonomy of the sciences. This seminar will consider the advocacy of planning by the socialists of the Visible College and the defence of autonomy by the Society for Freedom in Science.

14 March

Anna Alexandrova and Stephen John
Science, Democracy and Feminism in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy of Science

In the last twenty years, there has been a resurgence of interest within analytical philosophy in the intersections within politics and science. In this session, we trace two important lines of concern. First, Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth and Democracy, which introduced the influential concept of 'well-ordered science', prompted a reappraisal of the ways in which scientific research should be under social control. Second, insights from feminist epistemology and philosophy have increasingly been used to rethink the ways in which science is gendered. Both of these trends intersect with a third, sprawling literature questioning the (allegedly) once mighty 'value-free ideal' for science. In discussion, we will consider how well Kitcher's proposals stand up in light of the fragility of liberal democracy, and discuss the bold claim put forward by Elizabeth Anderson that scientific research guided by feminist principles may be not just politically but scientifically responsible.

 Ideologies of Science on Moodle


Language Groups

Latin Therapy

Latin Therapy is an informal reading group. All levels of Latin are very welcome. We meet 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 Nick Jardine.

In Lent Term 2024 we will meet weekly on Fridays, 1–2pm in the Board Room.