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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 beforehand from 3pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Mary Brazelton and Marta Halina.

Michaelmas Term 2017

Show overview

19 October Charu Singh (University of Cambridge)
Genres of prediction: astrology between Sanskrit and Hindi print in colonial north India
Bringing together the histories of science, print, language and empire, this paper examines the circulation of jyotiḥśāstra, the Sanskrit astral sciences, in British India. By the late nineteenth century, jyotiṣa was a widely read and published genre of Sanskrit knowledge in print, appearing in a range of publishing formats in bilingual editions with Hindi translation. The paper reconstructs the social world and knowledge communities of astrology (phalit jyotiṣa) by studying the changing textuality and linguistic practices of Hindi readers, writers, publishers and translators in the burgeoning print culture of colonial north India.
26 October Robin Scheffler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
A contagious cause: the search for cancer viruses and the growth of American biomedicine
Throughout the twentieth century, successive generations of medical, scientific and organizational advances confronted, and were confounded by, the challenge of cancer. Few theories of cancer embodied this cycle of hope and frustration better than the idea that cancer might be caused by an infectious agent, particularly a virus. Following cancer viruses through the twentieth century allows us to understand the political ground upon which biology and medicine merged together to form biomedicine in America, as well as the impact that this new political formation had on the capacity of biologists to reimage the nature of life in molecular terms. In considering this path, I also offer some more general points as to how historians of science and medicine should think about the relationship between experimental and political systems and the relevance that this relationship has for our understanding of 'failed' scientific endeavours.
2 November Sandra Harding (UCLA)
Yet another unity of science? Latin American challenges to history, philosophy and social studies of scientific knowledge
Recently there has appeared an explosion of writings in English focused on perspectives on science, technology and society from Latin America. These have met with varied responses from Northern 'international' history, philosophy and social studies of science and technology. Here I suggest that many of the most positive and welcoming such responses nevertheless tend to replicate the now long discredited Unit of Science program. They do so insofar as they propose, often enthusiastically, to include the Latin American issues and arguments into their existing conceptual frameworks for the history, philosophy or social studies of science. Yet many of the Latin American accounts overtly resist such inclusion. Rather they insist on foregrounding the different worlds assumed by such Latin American work, and, consequently, what they regard as valuably persisting conflicts and tensions between these worlds. They advocate for parochializing Northern history, philosophy and social studies of science, and thus for ontological as well as epistemological pluralism in these fields.
9 November John Brewer (California Institute of Technology)
Reforming Naples/how to use a network: Vesuvius and savants in the two kingdoms of Sicily
This paper shows how an international interest in Vesuvius was exploited by reformist savants in nineteenth-century Naples to promote a modernizing agenda for the Kingdom. It focuses on one key figure, Teodoro Monticelli, secretary of the Royal Scientific Academy, who connected reformers in Naples, concerned with public health, ecology, education and infra-structural development to an international network of scholars (from Brazil to Russia) studying the volcano. Monticelli not only worked in Naples with figures such as Davy, Humboldt, Biot, Babbage, Buckland and Lyell, and put together collections of Vesuvian rocks and minerals for Academies in Europe and the Americas, but with his colleagues used these international connections and recognition to push a reforming agenda within the kingdom itself.
16 November Adrian Currie (University of Cambridge)
A bold hypothesis about pursuit
Many decisions in science are not about how well-confirmed or otherwise some hypothesis is, but about which hypotheses or investigations should be chased up. This is the context of pursuit. I'm developing an account of pursuit which is built around a bold hypothesis: that questions of pursuit best turn on the biproducts rather than the products of scientific investigations. I'll start by motivating my analysis via a discussion of the pursuitworthiness of morphological phylogenetics in paleontology. I'll make a pessimistic bet that the central product of such investigations – knowledge of the ancestral relationships between extinct taxa – are unlikely to be forthcoming. But I'll then argue that a biproduct of such investigations, knowledge of the evolutionary and developmental nature of characters, is forthcoming and underwrites the pursuitworthiness of the practice. With this in place, I'll then provide an account of a practice or investigation's 'products' and 'biproducts' which turns on investigations themselves (as opposed to merely scientists) having aims (I'll co-opt some recent work by Hasok Chang to do this). I'll close by considering some possible arguments in favour of the bold hypothesis, and briefly considering two possible circumstances where the hypothesis might break down: investigations involving inductive risk, and some highly controlled experimental contexts.
23 November Saul Dubow (University of Cambridge)
Before the big bang of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA): 250 years of astronomy in South Africa
South Africa is in the process of building the world's largest radio telescope as part of a major international consortium. When the Square Kilometre Array begins to operate (around 2021) it is envisaged that the telescope, comprising hundreds of linked dishes, will offer exceptional image resolution quality and allow astronomers to catalogue radio sources with unprecedented speed and range. The promoters of the SKA stress the benefits that will accrue to the 'rainbow nation'. In doing so, they rely heavily on South Africa's remarkable history of astronomical activity – a story that goes back to Nicolas-Louis de La Caille's pioneering work in the mid-eighteenth century, as well as the role of the Royal Astronomers at the Cape and the scientific contributions of John Herschel. My own survey of this history seeks to contextualise astronomy more broadly in South African history as part of a contribution to discussions about the developmentalist objectives and political implications of the SKA project and the role of 'big science' in Africa.