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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 2019

Show overview

31 October Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
CRISPR gene-drive and the war against malaria – the evolutionary ABCs
CRISPR is a new technology, but it mimics a process in nature that has been known for about 80 years, meiotic drive. In this talk, I'll explain some of the basic evolutionary principles that allows a driving gene to increase in frequency in a population even when it harms the individuals that house it. I'll also discuss two strategies that are now being pursued for using CRISPR gene drives to eradicate malaria. One involves driving to extinction the mosquitoes that spread malaria to humans; the other involves modifying the immune systems of those mosquitoes so that they are less able to spread malaria.
7 November Raffaele Danna (History, Cambridge)
The adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England and Italy, a comparative perspective (13th–16th centuries)
While the first introduction in Europe of Hindu-Arabic numerals has been investigated among scholars, the history of their diffusion across the continent is not well known. On the background of the most detailed reconstruction available of the European tradition of practical arithmetic, the paper offers a comparative perspective on the adoption and social circulation of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England and Italy. The comparative approach is justified by the observation that these two societies adopted Arabic mathematics in strikingly different ways. While in England Arabic mathematics was used in scholarly contexts starting from the 12th century, its practical application was still limited at the end of the 16th century. Despite being an early mover, English society proved rather reluctant in adopting the new numeral system. Italian urban societies, on the contrary, introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals in practical contexts from the late 13th century, and started a progressive adoption which made the new symbols widespread across urban social strata from the 15th century. What were the reasons underlying these different patterns? Relying on a vast set of accounting, practical as well as theoretical sources and studying the wider practices and social contexts in which mathematics was used, the comparative analysis allows to identify a complex convergence of factors that allowed for the appropriation of Arabic mathematics in late medieval Italian society as well as for its recombination within a new framework. The novel possibilities opened up by their adoption made the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals a necessary tool for economic activity, triggering their consolidated spread in practical mathematics. It was a contingent, but not random, appropriation of a foreign form of mathematical knowledge. The spread of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England from the 15th century is understood as a reception of the developments that had started on the other end of the continent, opening a perspective on the varying social roles of mathematics across time and space.
14 November Wesley Buckwalter (University of Manchester)
Science and the approximation account of knowledge
It is widely accepted that knowledge is factive, meaning that only truths can be known. This theory creates a sceptical challenge. Because many scientific beliefs are only approximately true, and therefore false, they do not count as knowledge. I consider several responses to this challenge and propose a new one. I propose easing the truth requirement on knowledge to allow approximately true, practically adequate representations to count as knowledge. In addition to addressing the sceptical challenge, this view also coheres with several previous theoretical proposals in epistemology.
21 November Kärin Nickelsen (LMU Munich)
Cooperative division of cognitive labour: the social epistemology of photosynthesis research
Historians and philosophers of science have long recognised that the generation of scientific knowledge is a social endeavour, and that traditional epistemologies, which focus on individual scientists, are unable to capture its dynamics. Historians have provided rich accounts of research groups and institutions, although more recently, epistemological questions have received less attention. Philosophers of science, on the other hand, have developed formalised models that are difficult to match with actual historical episodes. In this paper, I argue that an integrated HPS perspective helps to better understand the social epistemologies of scientific collectives.

I flesh out this claim by presenting episodes from the history of photosynthesis research in the late 19th to mid-20th century. In this period, photosynthesis became a subject of great interest for researchers from many different disciplines, while the underlying mechanism remained obscure. I claim that, although the researchers were to some extent competing, their mostly cooperative interactions resulted in a division of cognitive labour that was never formally agreed, but in effect ensured the persistence of a plurality of complementary approaches. By this means, individual scientists improved their own chances of success, while also taking part in the success of others.
28 November Cancelled