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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Weekly seminars, Michaelmas and Lent Terms 2021–22, Tuesdays at 10am, Seminar Room 2

This series of hour-long seminars presents current research work and collaborative projects conducted by members of staff in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Several involve postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers. Each seminar includes a fifteen-minute summary of the research project followed by time for discussion with seminar members.

Michaelmas Term 2021

12 October
Anna Alexandrova: Definitions of social science and why they matter

I report on joint work with a sociologist Federico Brandmayr on the history and the contemporary life of the category 'social science'. We ask what becomes of the older tradition of thinking about social science as special and distinctive, in our age of interdisciplinarity.

19 October
Jacob Stegenga: The science of sexual desire

Sexual desire is the subject of numerous sciences. These sciences deploy a fantastic range of empirical methods and formulate numerous theories about its subject. However, critics – from constructivists to conservatives – claim that these sciences cannot teach us about the real nature of sexual desire. In my current research, I attempt to develop a philosophical lens through which we can respect the lessons of these critics, yet still learn from the sciences of sexual desire.

26 October
Rob Ralley & Philippa Carter: The Casebooks project

In the decades around 1600, the astrologers Simon Forman and Richard Napier produced one of the largest surviving sets of private medical records in history. The Casebooks Project transformed this paper archive into a digital archive. Along the way, we confronted challenges in medical history and digital humanities, and worked with numerous people, including animators, artists, and video game developers. We will talk about the challenges and opportunities of this kind of work.


2 November
Hasok Chang: Philosophy of active scientific knowledge

I aim to make a philosophy of science that can give a full and appropriate account of scientific practices. This involves understanding knowledge as an ability, and crafting pragmatist notions of truth and reality.

9 November
Marta Halina: Major Transitions in Cognitive Evolution

As we come to appreciate the wealth and diversity of intelligences, the challenge becomes how to make sense of this complexity. How can we comprehend it in a systematic way? We argue that one important piece of the puzzle involves treating the evolution of cognition as series of major transitions. Each transition involved a qualitative change in information flow within nervous systems. Each transition opened up new cognitive capacities, while transforming the power and scope of existing cognitive functions. Our project uses tools from computational and comparative neuroscience and philosophy. We explore transitions in terms of the capacities enabled by each transition, and the consequences of transitions for our understanding of different kinds of intelligence. Our outcome will be a framework within which to comprehend cognitive evolution. It will provide a common ground to relate intelligences of radically different types – animal, artificial, or otherwise.

16 November
Jim Secord and project members: Darwin's Networks of Correspondence

Like many engaged in the sciences in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin depended a vast range of correspondents from across the world. A team of researchers has been editing and publishing all the letters to and from Darwin, over 15,000 in all. This session will explore these networks of correspondence and at what has been involved in making them
publicly accessible.

Darwin Correspondence Project

23 November
Stephen John: Expertise – COVID and Climate

This project, undertaken jointly with colleagues in Hannover and Berlin, compares the role of scientific experts in debates over climate change and over COVID-19. The cases share important similarities – for example, in concerns over the 'politicisation' of expertise – but also disanalogies – for example, in terms of our understanding of relevant mechanisms. By comparing the cases, we hope to uncover the nature, value and communication of uncertain knowledge.

30 November
Staffan Müller-Wille: Diagrammatics of relatedness

I am engaged in interdisciplinary project dedicated to the bewildering variety of diagrams that have been used to conceptualize, determine, and produce kinship and affinity in the life sciences since the Late Medieval Period. Together, we analyse diagrams as visual techniques that transcend such binaries as 'thought and action' and 'image and text'. This includes the reconstruction of practices of collection, observation, experimentation, modelling, drafting, commenting, explaining with the help of diagrams, as well as investigating the politics of their production and use.

In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly and Popular Practice

Lent Term 2022

25 January
Nick Hopwood: The many births of the test-tube baby

To understand why the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown is recognized as the founding achievement of reproductive biomedicine, although she was far from the first 'test-tube baby' to be announced, it is important to consider the full web of communication over several decades. Studying the interplay between journals and newspapers, television and press conferences, symposia and magazines should make it possible to explain how shifting standards of evidence were caught up in new norms of publication that shape science to this day.

The Many Births of the Test-Tube Baby

1 February
Mary Brazelton & Dániel Margócsy: From Hansa to Lufthansa: Transportation Technologies and the Mobility of Knowledge

How do you get from one end of the globe to the other, and then back? If your vehicle breaks down on the way, what do you do? This project explores the emergence and co-construction of transportation technologies and travel infrastructures from the early modern period to the 21st century. We pay particular attention to how transportation technologies themselves have been transferred across the globe. Case studies include the repair of Dutch East Indiamen in the colonial ports of 17th-century Batavia and the establishment of transnational aviation infrastructures in Republican China.

From Hansa to Lufthansa: Transportation Technologies and the Mobility of Knowledge in Germanic Lands and Beyond, 1300–2018

8 February
Helen Curry and project members: From collection to cultivation – historical perspectives on crop diversity and food security

The genetic diversity of agricultural crop plants is essential to food security, present and future. But how this diversity makes its way into agricultural production – for example as more disease-resistant or nutritious crops – is not well documented. This poses problems for scientific and political decision making. Over a five-year period, the team of researchers working on From Collection to Cultivation is developing histories of the knowledge, labour, techniques, and tools used to transform plants gathered around the world into novel crop varieties destined for farms, markets, and, eventually, dinner plates. Focussing on crops in the twentieth century, they will follow plants as they circulated among agricultural explorers, plant pathologists, crop breeders, commercial farmers, and even allotment gardeners to better understand the histories of everyday foods, from maize to peanuts to chilli peppers and beyond. In tracking down these untold stories, they will together transform the history of how and by whom modern agricultural crops – and modern diets – have been made.

From Collection to Cultivation: Historical Perspectives on Crop Diversity and Food Security

15 February
Sarah Dry, Harriet Mercer, Simon Schaffer & Tom Simpson: Making Climate History

This project uses new historical, oral and material methods to analyse relations between making climates and knowing them, treating climate histories both as topic of inquiry and as systems of environmental and social connexion. Climates are never directly accessible to human experience: histories and geographies show the notion of climate has stabilised widely-varying cultural relations between humans and their weather. Climate maps and climate stories provide particularly important objects of study, as do issues raised by the importance of different cultures' and societies' encounters with and understandings of climates and their changes.

Making Climate History

22 February
Boris Jardine, Josh Nall & Liba Taub: Tools of Knowledge: Modelling the Creative Communities of the Scientific Instrument Trade, 1550–1914

Working with an interdisciplinary team, 'Tools of Knowledge' applies cutting-edge methods of digital analysis to data on almost four centuries of the scientific instrument trade in Britain. The project will provide highly accessible information on the history of science, specifically as it relates to commerce, industry, teaching, and geography; and it will provide quick information in addition to deep context on thousands of objects in museum collections around the world.