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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.

Organised by Lewis Bremner.

Lent Term 2024

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.