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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


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 in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Free School Lane, Cambridge, and online over Zoom.

It is no longer necessary to book in person attendance, but please follow the Department's general guidance for the safety of all participants. To join online, no booking will be required. Zoom links will be circulated beforehand.

Details about the Fungus Hunt and the re-enactment session will be circulated closer to the date.

Organised by Silvia M. Marchiori (smm218).

Michaelmas Term 2022

10 October

Annika Windahl-Pontén (Uppsala University)
The household of Carl Linnaeus: organisation and performative practices

In her PhD thesis, Annika Windahl-Pontén studies identity and materiality in the household of Carl Linnaeus. Using a combination of innovative sources like clothes, textiles, portraits, taxation lists, and more 'traditional' texts, such as dissertations, lectures notes, and letters, Windahl-Pontén has been able to explore the formation of Linnaeus' scientific persona. Here, she will shortly present Linnaeus' household and its organisation, and she will give some examples of performative practices occurring both in lectures about dietetics and in the everyday life of the household.

17 October

Eleanor Myerson (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
'Oute of araby cometh the best': imported jewels, Arabic science and crusading nostalgia in medieval English lapidary traditions

In this talk, Eleanor Myerson will show how imported jewels were received in medieval England as geological witnesses of the Christian nature of the Holy Land, both inviting and evading possession. The late medieval jewel trade bore the legacies of crusading trade: the European fashion for pearls has been linked to cross-cultural contact in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with Acre being a high-status pearl market. The geological origins of Syrian jewels implicated claims to their ownership in notions of the Holy Land as physical, possessable territory. The God-given natural agency of jewels became the basis for their widespread use in medicine – in combination with translated Arabic science. In medieval lapidaries, the catalogues of jewels in Exodus 28 and Revelation 21 are intertwined with economic and medicinal understandings of stones, in complex and contradictory ways.

24 October

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. In this presentation, Hasok Chang distinguishes different types of historical experiments (historical replication, physical replication, and extension), and discusses the different purposes that they serve. And then he will discuss his own line of work, which he calls 'complementary experiments', which seeks to recover lost scientific knowledge and further extend what has been recovered. The discussion will be illustrated with his own experience with the anomalous boiling of water, and experiments in 'galvanism' from the early 19th century. Chang will close by considering the functions of historical experiments for history of science, for science education, and for citizen science.

31 October

Nick Jardine (HPS, Cambridge)
Annual Fungus Hunt

No introduction needed.

7 November: online only

Fabrizio Baldassarri (Ca' Foscari University in Venice)
Descartes's history of nature: method and experiments in the study of particular bodies

After having described the principles of his philosophy in Parts 1 and 2 of the Principia philosophiae (1644), Descartes investigated nature through a short history of natural phenomena in Parts 3 and 4. By means of this original natural history, he attempted to combine a universal, demonstrative science – whose method is a mathesis universalis – with the study of particular bodies. Not an easy task indeed. Descartes buttressed this enterprise by means of observations and experiments, as well as through the exchanges and collaborations with his peers. His correspondence testifies to Descartes's engagement with particular objects at large, from floating and magic stones to brutes and diverse kind of animals. In this paper, Fabrizio Baldassarri will explore the ways Descartes dealt with such a various, rare, and curios whole of natural bodies, which attracted the attention of his contemporary and the curiosity of patrons. While challenging the disordered curiosity of scholars, Descartes reduced these bodies within the rational order of his method, aiming at encompassing the whole nature within a geometrico-mathematical pattern as he did with the rainbow. In particular, Baldassarri will focus on some specific case studies, the sensitive herb, the Bologna stone, fossils, and various animals. Although Descartes failed to provide a complete mechanization and mathematization of nature, he however engaged with the curiosities of his time that composed the cabinets des curiosités from a scientific perspective and proving the universal ability of his method to order nature and attain certainty.

14 November

Elisabeth Moreau (HPS, Cambridge)
From Gilead to Peru: balsam in late Renaissance medicine and alchemy

In late Renaissance pharmacology, physicians discussed the properties and provenance of simple drugs in reference to the ancient sources of materia medica. In this paper, Elisabeth Moreau will examine the case of balsam, which could designate an exotic vegetal ingredient, a fine oil obtained by distillation, or the Paracelsian notion of vital principle. To do so, Elisabeth will envisage a series of medical and alchemical texts that aimed to clarify the nature of balsam and its location in the East and West. As will be argued, these debates shed light on the issues of drug adulteration and alternative methods of pharmaceutical production, as well as the emergence of alchemical therapy as a 'balsamic' medicine rooted in biblical times.

21 November

Madeline White (University of Oxford)
Rebuilding collections and reconstructing science: using materiality of the du Bois Herbarium to understand early modern botany

The du Bois Herbarium, a collection of nearly 14,000 botanical specimens pristinely preserved within the Oxford University Herbaria, is a unique relic of early 18th-century science. Compiled by English East India Company treasurer Charles du Bois between 1680 and 1740, the Herbarium is closely tied to leading figures of 18th-century British botany, melding early British scientific and colonial histories into a single archive. Despite this rich potential, the Herbarium has remained largely unexplored by scientists and historians alike. In her talk, Madeline White will outline her work to reconstruct the Herbarium's original early modern organisation, and how these efforts help recast this scientific collection as an historical archive. When examined closely, she argues that it becomes clear how Charles du Bois crafted a physical record of the systems of intellectual and material exchange that characterized Britain's earliest botanical and imperial endeavours.

28 November

Lucy Havard (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
Domestic frontispieces and the knowledge of the early modern home, 1600–1750

The 17th century witnessed a huge boom in the publication of household recipe books and domestic manuals. Many of these books contain detailed frontispieces depicting domestic scenes, providing us with a rare glimpse of the 17th-century domestic landscape. As Amanda Herbert advises, the 'study of the impact and intent of early modern prescriptive literature must... include analysis of both the images and the text of these works'. This talk aims to establish what domestic frontispieces can tell us about the knowledge required to manage the early modern home. What can we glean about the nature and extent of this knowledge? How was such knowledge transferred and communicated? Were there clear gender divides in the knowledge possessed by women and men or was there significant overlap? Lucy Havard will argue that managing the early modern home was a complex and skilled undertaking, requiring an extensive knowledge base that is reflected in surviving 17th-century cookery books and domestic manuals today.

5 December

Hasok Chang & Joshua Nall (HPS & Whipple Museum, University of Cambridge)
Re-enactment session at the Whipple Museum

With the support of Joshua Nall, Hasok Chang will perform some experiments (Sulzer's experiment, the making of the Voltaic pile, and the silver tree experiment) with a small group of participants.