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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in Arts School Lecture Theatre A, New Museums Site.

Organised by Lewis Bremner.

Michaelmas Term 2023

19 October

David Arnold (University of Warwick)
Photography and the art of science in nineteenth-century India

What is the function and effect of photography in relation to science and technology in a colonial situation like that of India in the 19th century? This presentation considers the part played by photography in the making and dissemination of scientific knowledge and the sited rationality of empire – from monumentality to microscopy, from hydraulic engineering and bovine photography to biology and medicine. It assesses the limitations of photography relative to other forms of visual (and non-visual) representation and the creative role of both European and Indian artists.

26 October

John Dupré (University of Exeter)
Lineages as evolving processes

In this talk I shall consider some implications of a process philosophy for our theory of evolution. Starting with the entities in which evolution most commonly occurs, lineages, I explain what these are and why they should be seen as long-lasting processes. I then use this insight as a perspective to look at various factors in evolution, touching on the current debate between defenders of the now traditional modern synthesis and the extended evolutionary synthesis. I shall also consider before concluding with some reflections on some unique features of the human lineage.

2 November (McConnell Lecture)

Catherine Eagleton (University of St Andrews)
If technology was the answer, what was the question? Digitisation and digital engagement with scientific collections

Digital access to collections is transforming the ways people access and use our galleries, libraries, archives and museums. New technologies and tools are opening up new possibilities for access to scientific collections by the people for whom we steward them, but we need to make choices about which technologies to use, and for what purposes.

This lecture draws on examples from recent research and digital engagement projects, and on material in Whipple collections and elsewhere. It will argue that we need better to understand who the audiences are for digitised collections, and what they want to do with them, if we are to maximise their potential while avoiding replicating and reinforcing the limitations and inequities of the past.

9 November

Jingyi Wu (London School of Economics)
Where inattention pays

(Joint work with Liam Kofi Bright)
It is easier to be mediocre when you are in the mainstream. This, at least, would be true if it were the case that mainstream academics have a preference for engaging with work from their own research traditions, while marginalized academics have to engage with mainstream work for career survival. Using computer simulations, we explore how under such attention asymmetry, mainstream work becomes over-credited, worse in quality, and over-represented, as compared to marginalized work. Along the way we present empirical evidence of this phenomenon and discuss how it relates to demographic disparities observed in the academy.

16 November

Alistair Isaac (University of Edinburgh)
Lifecycle of a constant: e

(Joint work with George Smith and Teru Miyake)
I trace the changing evidential status of the charge of the electron e during the last 100 years in order to tease out some distinctive features of the epistemology of high-precision measurement. Of special significance is the way functional interlinking between constants allows values of different constants to serve as crosschecks on each other. This holistic process of cross-checking established e as an anchor for other constants during the 1910s and '20s, when recommended values for constants such Avogadro's number and Planck's constant, which could only be directly determined at lower levels of precision, were adjusted to maintain consistency with Millikan's oil drop value for e. With the rise of x-ray diffraction determinations of NA, however, this changed, as these methods could derive values for e significantly more precise than Millikan's direct measurement. The tension between oil-drop and x-ray values for e ultimately exposed systematic error in Millikan's method due to uncertainty in the viscosity of air. After a long period as a derived value, in 2019 the value of e was fixed in order to define the ampere in the new SI. The changing status of e from anchor, to derived, to fixed illustrates three unique features of evidential reasoning in physical measurement. First, precision is given epistemic significance, and taken as a corollary to accuracy. Second, inconsistencies between high precision values of physical constants expose systematic error. Finally, fixing constants such as e as exact ensures that units are not a source of systematic error, thereby enabling progress on measurements at the forefront of new physics, such as that of the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon. I conclude with some controversial speculations of a realist bent.

23 November

Peder Roberts (University of Stavanger)
The dream of orderly development: selling the importance of science in Arctic North America after 1945

Towards the end of the Second World War, individuals in Canada and the United States saw environmental information collected by the US military as a resource for the economic and social development of Arctic North America. From this agitation arose the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA), a private US-Canadian organization founded in 1944 to encourage and direct northern research within a broader framework of 'orderly development'. The term presumed a dichotomy not between development and its absence, but between more or less application of knowledge to optimise development. My aim is to explore how AINA asserted the importance of orderly development within the context of expanded state funding for science – but also anxieties (particularly in the Canadian government) toward the value of academic research for state administration, and continued US power over Canadian spaces. Wider debates over the importance of curiosity-driven over mission-oriented research met more local debates over who (and what) constituted a socially and politically appropriate source of expertise. Not uniquely, orderly development guided by science increasingly became a justification for maintaining spending on northern research projects as an end in itself. I conclude with reflections on how its apostles scrambled to retain authority in the late 1960s when environmental concerns grew, and when the Prudhoe Bay oil strike sparked massive interest in the North American Arctic – despite rather than because of science-backed planning.