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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 on Zoom. Organised by L. Joanne Green (ljg54).

Michaelmas Term 2020

12 October
Catarina Madruga (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam & University of Lisbon)
Piecing together the 19th-century Lisbon zoological collections through catalogue lists, specimen tags and paper slips

Amidst the permanent scent of alcohol evaporating from glass jars and the surreptitious presence of beady glass-eyes on mounted specimens, a great part of a 19th-century naturalist's work was surrounded by paper. Scientific books and catalogues, journal issues and offprints, specimen tags and notebooks filled with drawings and measurements were but a few of the paper items essential for the work inside a zoology museum.

Paper technologies played a considerable role in the daily routines of museum workers and influenced the organisation of physical specimens in shelves and drawers. On the other hand, writing articles and books, revising, and finally publishing them was supported by an intense use of paper notes, index cards, and constantly updated manuscript catalogues.

This paper will analyse the diversity of the script and printed materials of the zoological museum of Lisbon and exemplify some of the paper tools of the trade behind the publication of catalogues, scientific books, and journal articles. While the 19th-century Lisbon zoological collections no longer exist today, unpublished sources from the historical archive will be used to illustrate the use of paper in a variety of ways.

19 October
Elaine Ayers (New York University)
Death, decay, rot and ashes: the 'discovery' of the corpse flower and the politics of loss in colonial botany

During the summer of 1818 in the mountains of Sumatra, British naturalist Joseph Arnold found himself face to face with what would be called the 'prodigy of the vegetable world': the giant corpse flower, later named Rafflesia arnoldii. Despite his team's attempts at collecting and preserving this flower, whose size, smell, and unusual characteristics upended blurred the lines between plant and animal, the specimen quickly rotted into a pulpy mess, resisting all attempts at 'normal' practices of preservation. Within two months, Joseph Arnold was dead. Indeed, such narratives of loss haunt narratives of the 'discovery' of the corpse flower by colonial naturalists – men perished, collections went up in flames or were consumed by ants, specimens rotted, and, through it all, the 'monstrous' plant remained, resistant to all attempts of scientific control. Tracing the history of this plant in its Sumatran rainforest home, this paper unravels constructions of political and affective loss in tropical colonial botany, arguing for the prevalence and centrality of decay in natural history collecting and collections.

26 October
Dominik Hünniger (University of Hamburg)
Visible labour? Productive forces and imaginaries of participation in European insect studies, ca. 1680–1830

Spatial and material conditions of scholarly labour in 18th-century natural history collections have received growing attention recently, as have the contributions of artisans to the development of natural history. Visual sources have been instrumental in reconstructing and analysing these contributions and conditions. Inspired by recent studies on the visual culture of science as well as the role of labour in natural history, this presentation will analyse the diversity of the 'productive forces' in European insect studies, ca. 1680–1730 and expose the social imaginaries of participation by looking at frontispieces of entomological books and periodicals and their depiction of labour. How did artists present their work? What skills, instruments, tools and spaces were depicted? What do we learn about collaborative practices in natural history knowledge formation? Are there hidden figures who come to the fore when looking closer at and magnifying digitised images? Answers to these questions will provide a richer picture of the production processes and the producers of knowledge on insects in the long 18th century.

2 November
Christopher Preston
Discovery of Britain and Ireland's bryophytes

The bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) have never been as popular with naturalists in Britain and Ireland as birds, butterflies or flowering plants, but they have nevertheless been studied by enthusiasts since the late 17th century. The number of species (as currently defined) has increased from two in Gerard's Herball (1597) to 1069 mapped in the latest Atlas of Bryophytes (2014). We have compiled a database of the details of discovery of each species (date, location, discoverer, place of publication). In the seminar we will look at the history of discovery over the last 400 years, examining the changing patterns of discovery in relation to places where they were found, the characteristics of the bryophytes themselves, the people who found them and the publications in which their finds were published.

9 November
Miles Kempton (HPS, Cambridge)
'Congo' the TV chimpanzee and the 'biology of art' at London Zoo, 1956–62

In April 1956, the Zoological Society of London signed an unlikely contract with Granada TV, Britain's newly established commercial television franchise for the North West. The result, a resident film and TV unit in the grounds of London Zoo, was a world first. The unit is best remembered today for producing Zoo Time (1956–68), the weekly children's show that gave Desmond Morris his big break on television. This paper focuses on a Zoo Time personality – not Morris, but a young chimpanzee dubbed 'Congo' by the programme's audience. Congo became the mainstay of Zoo Time's success in its first years on air, endearing himself to millions and earning an international media following for his remarkable ability to paint and draw. Morris, who first handed Congo pencil and paper, made him the subject of a systematic investigation into the evolutionary basis of art, spawning an academic film, a widely publicised exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and Morris's first academic monograph, The Biology of Art (1962). In this paper, I use the story of Congo to exemplify how the complex media ecosystem of the Granada/ZSL Film and TV Unit could be pressed simultaneously into the service of commercial television, publicity for the world's oldest scientific zoo, and the burgeoning discipline of ethology. I suggest how these domains shaped one another and put this in the context of the dynamics of science communication on British television in the 1950s and 1960s.

16 November
Leonardo Carrio Cataldi (LMU Munich)
A magnetic world: understanding the lodestone in the early modern Iberian empires

There is a well-known historical narrative about magnets that ranges from Petrus Peregrinus's findings (1269) to William Gilbert's earth-magnetic theory (1600). That is, broadly speaking, from one of the first systematic descriptions of the magnet and the magnetic compass to the idea that the Earth itself behaves as a giant magnet, with two opposite poles. In my talk I will propose a different approach to this topic by addressing the question of how the lodestone was understood, used and commercialized in the early modern Iberian empires. Drawing upon sources from different domains (natural history, literature, legal disputes) my aim will be to discuss how the global expansion of Iberian empires challenged the understanding of the magnet and its uses. A more general question might arise from this discussion: what would a new social and intellectual history of such a key 'stone' look like, seen from the perspective of early modern Iberian empires?

23 November
Max Long (Faculty of History, Cambridge)
Tuning into nature in interwar Britain: biology and natural history on the BBC

The history of science in the mass media of early 20th-century Britain remains relatively unexplored. In particular, the place of radio within a broader assemblage of mass media technologies, including print and film, deserves closer attention. Science broadcasts were fundamental to the BBC's commitment to 'public service broadcasting', and programmes about natural history, biology and agriculture appeared frequently on the BBC's schedule practically from its inception.

Natural history broadcasts were an ideal vehicle for education and were often the focus of children's programmes and School Broadcasts. Of these, David Seth-Smith's 'Zoo Man' features were perhaps the most popular. The BBC's output during this time also included adult talks about the life sciences by Julian Huxley, J. Arthur Thompson, Charles Elton and E. Kay Robinson, among many others. On some occasions, these broadcasts sought to experiment with the possibilities offered by new technologies, such as Ludwig Koch's birdsong recordings, or the cellist Beatrice Harrison's famous nightingale broadcasts.

This paper argues that these broadcasts, which reached millions of listeners every week, were an indispensable feature of the cultural space occupied by the life sciences in interwar Britain. Situating scientific knowledge as an indispensable characteristic of modern citizenship, they helped to shore up late-imperial Britain's self-styled scientific hegemony. By selecting representative examples of natural history and biology broadcasts from interwar Britain, this paper will explore how scientific knowledge was produced and circulated on radio at this time.