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Abstracts for Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There is tea and coffee before the seminar at 3pm in Seminar Room 1, and there are refreshments afterwards at 5pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Agnes Bolinska.

Easter Term 2019

Show overview

25 April Milena Ivanova (University of Cambridge)
How atoms became real
This paper revisits the debate on the reality of atoms. At the turn of the 20th century, many physicists treated the atomic hypothesis with scepticism, claiming that atoms were fictional entities. While many, such as Ostwald and Poincare, changed their minds after the publication of Thompson's and Perrin's experiments, some, such as Mach and Duhem, continued to oppose the reality of atoms despite the experimental support. I argue that at the heart of this debate are methodological arguments that influenced physicists' stances both before and after experimental evidence in favour of the reality of atoms. Ostwald and Poincare were able to accept the reality of atoms since the atomic hypothesis became scientific on their terms in light of being experimentally testable, with the multiple ways of calculating the number of atoms in a volume being particularly convincing. Conversely, Duhem and Mach continued to reject the reality of atoms since they held that science should offer explanations that do not go beyond the observable. I evaluate the arguments on both sides and reflect on how philosophical stances impacted on what scientists were willing to accept as genuine scientific evidence.
2 May Henrice Altink (University of York)
Linking the global and the local: the double burden of child malnutrition in Jamaica, c. 1960–2018
Following independence in 1962, successive governments in Jamaica tried to reduce the high rate of child malnutrition. Malnutrition was the result of a lack of protein and calories, also called PCM – Protein Calorie Malnutrition – and was a leading cause of death. Since the 1990s, however, the island has witnessed a nutrition transition with child malnutrition declining and child obesity increasing. Based on, amongst others, medical journals, newspaper reports, ministry papers, and reports of international agencies, this paper first of all explores how child malnutrition was measured and analysed; the various proposals put forward and implemented to reduce it; and the success rate of these policies. It will show that over time child malnutrition and the solutions proposed became increasingly localised; that is, greater attention was paid to the socio-economic and cultural context of pre-school children and their families and there was less reliance on outside agencies to reduce PCM. The paper will then move on to trace the rise in child obesity levels and show that contrary to the UK, US and many other western countries, child obesity in Jamaica is largely associated with higher income groups. Although child obesity has rapidly increased – in 2017 some 10.3% of children were obese – very few attempts have so far been made to localise the problem. The paper will explain why only recently campaigns – both government and NGO funded – have been started to address child obesity.
9 May Liam Kofi Bright (London School of Economics)
Du Bois' plan for scientific inquiry
Social epistemologists are increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of planning out a schedule of inquiry. How we decide what will be investigated, by who and on what schedule, are hugely influential on what we are capable of coming to know or reliably conclude. Presently one prominent social technology we have for allocating resources to projects of inquiry is the peer reviewed grant competition. In this talk I will review a number of critiques of this social technology, motivate an alternative grounded in the historical practice of W.E.B. Du Bois, and point to some relative advantages of the latter course. I end by calling for an integrated HPS project that might help us explore the social epistemic properties of Du Boisian scientific resource allocation.
16 May Twenty-Fourth Annual Hans Rausing Lecture
Ruth Oldenziel (Eindhoven University of Technology)
Whose history of technology? Path dependencies, contested modernities, and pockets of persistence
McCrum Lecture Theatre, Bene't Street, at 4.30pm
6 June Ofer Gal (University of Sydney)
From Kepler's optics to Spinoza's politics: Descartes' turn to the passions
In 1604 Kepler published his Optical Part of Astronomy, dramatically changing the role of optics and the fundamental concept of vision. Instead of a window through which visual rays informed reason about its surrounding objects, the eye became a screen on which light painted images of no inherent cognitive value. The naturalization of the senses required a corresponding naturalization of the mind, which Descartes attempted to offer with a theory of the passions. Kepler's optics turned sensations into purely causal effects, but the passions, indicators of benefit and damage to the individual, could provide them with meaning. This was a reversal of the traditional epistemological responsibilities of reason and the passions, and for Spinoza this demanded a reversal of their ethical and political roles. 'Desire is the very essence of man' he stated, and concluded: 'society can be established ... not by reason ... but by threats.'