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Abstracts for Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There are refreshments after the seminar at 5pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Agnes Bolinska.

Lent Term 2018

Show overview

18 January Charlotte Sleigh (University of Kent)
Making sense of art and science
Historian of science Charlotte Sleigh has been working with science-artists since 2013, and in this talk she presents her reflections on hoped-for and actual relations between the two disciplines. A brief history of the field of A&S (art and science) will highlight the different purposes that art-science hybrids have fulfilled in different contexts, with particular emphasis on the past twenty years in the UK. Key concepts that have been marshalled to mediate between the two fields are subjected to critical analysis.

A second part of the talk draws on Charlotte's particular experience in two A&S projects of her own: Chain Reaction! (2013) and Biological Hermeneutics (2017). In it, she reflects on some of the difficult and even embarrassing realities involved, drawing on Shapin's notion of 'lowering the tone' to help highlight some of the political tensions between art and science. Institutionalisation, money and space emerge amongst the categories in urgent need of more honest appraisal. Finally, related questions of research and critique are raised. There is a failure on the part of many scientists (just as there is amongst the general public) to understand and hence respect the research and critical practice that underpins contemporary art practice. What appears in galleries and elsewhere is the top tenth of the iceberg; research and critical practice are the nine-tenths that lie beneath. A&S collaborations may be improved, Sleigh argues, by an improved communication of this little-appreciated feature of contemporary art. Additionally she suggests that contemporary artists (as well as scientists) may have their research enhanced through an engagement with STS, which may be considered as the 'out-sourced' critical practice element of science.
25 January Casey McCoy (University of Edinburgh)
Modelling at the border of experimental and theoretical practice in physics
In exploratory contexts in contemporary physics, such as the hunt for beyond standard model physics and the search for the nature of dark energy, physicists regularly cite the importance of 'model independence' for guiding experimental design and interpretation. What is model independence, how did it come to be a term of art in physics, and what is it good for? In answering these questions I show, among other things, how epistemic context distinguishes phenomenological modelling from a model independent approach, how this approach produces a means of communication at the border of experimental and theoretical practice in physics, and how model independence creates a target for experimental triangulation.
1 February David Singerman (University of Virginia)
Sugar, science and the history of capitalism
In recent years, the history of capitalism has gained prominence as a powerful framework for understanding the development of the United States and its relationship to the world. But many of the field's claims about commodities, networks and knowledge rest on categories which the history of science has shown to be unstable and contested. This paper takes as its focus the sugar trade of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one of the history of capitalism's canonical cases. Sugar showcases how approaches pioneered by the history of science can reorient our understanding of corruption, monopoly, labour and other problems that remain as crucial to today's Second Gilded Age as they were to the First.
8 February Jack Stilgoe (UCL)
Machine learning, social learning and self-driving cars
Self-driving cars, a quintessentially 'smart' technology, are not born smart. The algorithms that control their movements are learning as the technology emerges. Self-driving cars represent a high-stakes test of the powers of machine learning, as well as a test case for social learning in technology governance. Starting with the successes and failures of social learning around a much-publicized fatal Tesla Model S crash in 2016, I argue that trajectories and rhetorics of machine learning in transport pose a substantial governance challenge. Governing these technologies in the public interest means improving social learning by constructively engaging with the contingencies of machine learning.
15 February John Tresch (University of Pennsylvania)
Barnum, Bache and Poe: the forging of science in the Antebellum US
Two opposed tendencies characterised US public culture around 1840: first, a sharp increase of printed matter in which the sites, audiences, styles and speakers for matters of public concern exploded in number and diversity; second, an elite movement to unify knowledge through centralised institutions. In the domain of science, Barnum's 'American Museum' typified the first, while the US Coast Survey, directed by patrician polymath and West Point graduate Alexander Dallas Bache, exemplified the second. The life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe – who trained at West Point, and wrote constantly about the sciences, even as he struggled to survive as an editor, poet and storyteller – pushed in both directions at once. Poe 'forged' American science and letters in two senses: by crafting believable fakes which fed the uncertainty about authority over knowledge, and by lending aid to projects to restrict the flow of information and establish a unified intellectual infrastructure. His work thus offers uniquely astute, if dramatically conflicted commentary on the relations of science and public in a key phase of national consciousness and industrialisation.
22 February The seminar originally scheduled here will be given on Wednesday 21 February at 1pm as part of the CamPoS series
1 March Thirteenth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine
Alisha Rankin (Tufts University)
Poison trials, panaceas and proof: debates about testing and testimony in early modern European medicine
At the courts of sixteenth-century Europe, a number of princely physicians and surgeons tested promising poison antidotes on condemned criminals. These tests were contrived trials, in which a convict took a deadly poison followed by the antidote. The medics sometimes shared detailed descriptions of their poison trials in printed publications or private correspondence, much as they shared case histories of ill patients. Yet these very same physicians disputed the value of remarkably similar tests on animals conducted by charlatans and empirics in marketplace shows. Sometimes, however, these worlds overlapped directly. In 1583, an empiric named Andreas Berthold published a work in Latin praising the virtues of a marvellous new drug, a clay called 'Silesian terra sigillata'. Berthold presented the drug as a perfect Paracelsian remedy for poison and, like most antidotes, useful against many other illnesses as well. While such lofty claims might easily have been disregarded, Berthold noted that his readers did not have to 'trust me on my bare words'. He concluded his book with three testimonial letters from powerful figures – two German princes and one town mayor – about trials they had conducted on the drug in 1580 and 1581. In all three cases, physicians had given poison to test subjects (two used dogs, one a condemned criminal), followed by the antidote. In every case, the subjects who were given the Silesian terra sigillata survived the poison. These testimonial letters provided official legitimacy to an alchemical empiric, in the form of tests conducted by physicians. Meanwhile, other alchemists began to use a different form of testimony to demonstrate the marvellous effects of their antidote cure-alls: testimonial letters from patients describing their miraculous recoveries, which physicians derided as a perversion of the case history. Some of these alchemists likewise ridiculed the poison trial as a lowly and irrelevant form of proof. This talk examines the overlap between the genres of poison antidote and panacea and the debates these drugs engendered in attempts to 'prove' their efficacy.
8 March Hasok Chang (HPS, Cambridge)
Beyond truth-as-correspondence: realism for realistic people
In this paper I present arguments against the epistemological ideal of 'correspondence', namely the deeply entrenched notion that empirical truth consists in the match between our theories and the world. The correspondence ideal of knowledge is not something we can actually pursue, for two reasons: it is difficult to discern a coherent sense in which statements correspond to language-independent facts, and we do not have the kind of independent access to the 'external world' that would allow us to check the alleged statement–world correspondence. The widespread intuition that correspondence is a pursuable ideal is based on an indefensible kind of externalist referential semantics. The idea that a scientific theory 'represents' or 'corresponds to' the external world is a metaphor grounded in other human epistemic activities that are actually representational. This metaphor constitutes a serious and well-entrenched obstacle in our attempt to understand scientific practices, and overcoming it will require some disciplined thinking and hard work. In real practices of representation correspondence holds between one conceptualised structure and another, not between theory and 'world'. Any real objects we can speak about are already conceptualised entities, not mind-controlled but mind-framed.