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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in the Large Lecture Theatre in the Botany Building on the Downing Site, except for the Rausing Lecture on 30 May, which will take place at 4pm in the Frankopan Hall in Jesus College.

Organised by Lewis Bremner.

Easter Term 2024

25 April


2 May

Clive Oppenheimer (Geography, Cambridge)
Volcanoes and their lovers: a brief and biased history of volcanology

In this presentation (based on research for a book published last year: Mountains of Fire, Hodder and Stoughton/University of Chicago Press), I will explore the roots of volcanology via a selection of my favourite historical figures.

9 May

Lisa Onaga (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)
Cocoon cultures: the (dis)entangling of silk and biology in Japan

Sericultural practices in Japan underwent a scientization process during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within this context, nineteenth-century silk cocoon cultivators endeavoured to control indoor climates to better direct insect development; they also formed new strategies to prevent the spread of disease from one generation to the next. As sericulture gained popularity, various political, economic, and scientific interests converged as experts, bureaucrats, and industry leaders confronted a need to organize a multiplying number of cocoon-spinners strains. I trace how sericulturists and scientists sought to 'improve' cocoons used to manufacture silk threads, and relatedly, how they made practical use of cocoon spinners' hereditary information discerned through scientific breeding experiments. I focus upon the cultivation of cocoons to show how efforts to coax greater uniformity among these objects had been especially encouraged by government and industry and led to standardizing practices and national sericultural infrastructure. This analytic perspective anchored to the cocoon additionally clarifies how improvement activities helped spur research opportunities for university-based genetic researchers distanced from industry. Scientific interest in mutations of these metamorphosing insects during the 1920s and 1930s became dually oriented toward a growing international field of genetics and Japanese sericulture. Subsequently, efforts to raise awareness about the need for organizing, exchanging, and preserving the genetic matter and information contained in mutants paved a new path that invited scientists to view cocoon-spinners as a resource for biological research.

16 May

Mateja Kovacic (Hong Kong Baptist University)
Opening the West with Japanese mermaid mummies: ningyo in the making of the theory of evolution

Mateja Kovacic discusses how knowledge in the form of ningyo mummies 'caught' around Japan shaped the scientific and public debate about the theory of evolution and the origin of species in the Euro-American context. During the Edo period, various mermaid creatures – ningyo – were a popular and scientific topic, studied by well-known scholars including Ōtsuki Gentaku and Itō Keisuke, as well as by amateur naturalists like the Edo greengrocer Okukura Tatsuyuki. First housed as religious artifacts in temples and shrines, mermaid mummies (ningyo no miira) were unique gender-fluid hybrids made of monkey, fish, and dog parts combined with wood and papier-mâché. From the second half of the eighteenth century, they became important actors in scientific knowledge production. They were a part of daily life in the form of visual novels, medicines, leaflets, protective amulets against epidemics, dishware, decorative artifacts, misemono, temple displays, and products in curio stores. They were also a subject of empirical scientific inquiry that reveals the epistemological multiplicity of the times, as well as the ways that epistemological systems were being challenged and their boundaries pushed further.

23 May

Nick Jardine (HPS, Cambridge) and Angela Breitenbach (Philosophy, Cambridge)
Gerd Buchdahl, Kantian philosopher of science

Following a brief account of his career, Nick Jardine will sketch Gerd Buchdahl's philosophy of science or, in his terms, 'transcendental methodology of science'. This is outlined in his Tarner Lectures of 1973 (typescript in Whipple Library), which, despite many revisions, remained incomplete and unpublished. Particular attention will be paid to aspects of Buchdahl's transcendental methodology that seem of particular current interest: his pluralist view of sciences, with their various empirical, structural and explanatory components often having distinct historical trajectories; and his emphasis on the roles of imagery in all forms of inquiry, as shown in his motto 'argument be damned, it's the picture that counts'.

Angela Breitenbach will then elaborate on the second of these aspects in her discussion of Buchdahl's legacy in Kantian philosophy of science. She will show how his interpretation of Kant was instrumental in giving regulative principles centre stage and will discuss some of the lasting challenges his reading raises regarding the role of reason, judgment and imagination in science.

30 May: Twenty-Eighth Annual Hans Rausing Lecture

4pm in the Frankopan Hall, Jesus College

Suzanne Moon (University of Oklahoma)
Technology and interconnection in Southeast Asia's longue durée

Southeast Asian societies over the longue durée were characterised by the co-construction of technology and the shifting patterns of social and political interconnection. The same technologies used to achieve everyday, practical goals also worked to reinforce or disrupt social solidarity, define or challenge social hierarchies, and inform relations of conflict or cooperation with distant peoples. As a destination that consistently attracted migrants, traders, entrepreneurs and aspiring colonizers, its characteristic forms of technological dynamism served the political, social, and economic ambitions of peoples from China to the Indian Ocean world and from the Middle East to Europe. It is thus also a story of changing global interdependencies, seen from the technological ground of Southeast Asia.