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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.

Michaelmas Term 2018

Show overview

25 October Robert Iliffe (University of Oxford)
Principia and the air-pump: the social and political roots of Newton's science
Historical accounts both of the genesis of Newton's scientific method and of the varied reception his published work enjoyed in the late 17th century have appealed to his touchy personality and to the relative incompetence of his critics. In offering asymmetric explanations and indulging in simplistic psychologizing, this approach has serious limitations. By contrast, in this talk I examine what Newton's private and public writings say about what he took to be the ideal structure of a truth-seeking scientific community. Unlike more democratic proposals for practising natural philosophy, whose core principles were drawn from natural history, Newton's ideal scientific polity was strongly hierarchical, open only to expert subjects who had undergone rigorous training. I link Newton's comments on the structure of scientific institutions to his prescriptions for maintaining a healthy and productive mind and body, and also to his religious and political views. I conclude by considering the explanatory status of such approaches.
1 November Mat Paskins (London School of Economics)
Material substitutions in historical perspective: the cases of the British Substitutes and Vegetable Drugs Committees during World War Two
In this talk, I discuss two British government committees which were tasked during World War Two with the solution of finding substitutes for materials which had been made scarce by the war: the Substitutes Committee of the Ministry of Supply, and the Vegetable Drugs Committee of the Ministry of Health. I argue that these bodies cast a suggestive light on problems of 20th-century chemical governance in Britain, and the long history of attempts at material substitution by scientific means. The eminent industrialists and academic chemists who made up the Substitutes Committee ended up fighting a war chiefly of quotidian materials, trying to solve problems of degreasing wool, seeking replacements for leather, and worrying over the wide introduction of plastics. At the same time, their committee was tightly integrated into both government and private sector mechanisms of production and supply, and they boasted of being able to coordinate otherwise unrelated substitution efforts. They also speculated on a number of possible novel uses for colonial surpluses. The Vegetable Drugs Committee, meanwhile, was a remarkably diffuse entity which was torn between trying to provide support for voluntary collection of wild British plants, and ambitious schemes for complete self-sufficiency in drug production throughout the British Empire.
8 November Luke Fenton-Glynn (University College London)
Probabilistic actual causation
Actual (token) causation – the sort of causal relation asserted to hold by claims like 'the Chicxulub impact caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event', 'Mr Fairchild's exposure to asbestos caused him to suffer mesothelioma', and 'the H7N9 virus outbreak was caused by poultry farmers becoming simultaneously infected by bird and human 'flu strains' – is of significance to scientists, historians, and tort and criminal lawyers. It also plays a role in theories of various philosophically important concepts, such as action, decision, explanation, knowledge, perception, reference, and moral responsibility. Yet there is little consensus on how actual causation is to be understood, particularly where actual causes work only probabilistically. I use probabilistic causal models, and associated causal graphs, to cast some light on the nature of probabilistic actual causation.
15 November Denis Walsh (University of Toronto)
Being human, being Homo sapiens
Neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism attempts to characterise human moral goodness as a natural phenomenon. It posits a substantive, essentialist, normative concept of human nature as an explanatory primitive. Human nature, according to neo-Aristotelianism, is an instance of a generalised organismal nature. Opponents object that no such concept of organismal nature is sanctioned by best scientific practice. I offer a roundabout defence of the naturalistic status of neo-Aristotelianism. I argue that the concept of an organismal nature required by neo-Aristotelians can be found Aristotle's notion of Bios, a central feature of his theory of the organism. I next argue that something quite like Bios is required in contemporary evolutionary biology in order to explain the fit and diversity of organismal form.
22 November Amanda Rees (University of York)
Creating citizen history of science: science, fiction and the future of the 20th century
If something isn't real, or true – if it's (whisper it) fake – then, other than to debunk it, it can sometimes be hard to see why you should study it. By focusing on the histories of the future, this paper will show how the humanities, and in particular the history of science, can engage with the unreal, the fictional and the imaginary. By doing this, we will show how the idea of 'expertise' and the figure of the 'expert' can be interpreted more broadly, and indicate ways in which non-historians can influence the structure and shape of academic histories. We will begin by exploring these ideas in relation to science fiction, the nature of fictional realities and the impact of the imaginary on academic disciplines, and we will end (we hope) with a game in which players can reconstruct – and sometimes redirect – the history of the 20th century.