skip to primary navigationskip to content

Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton, Joseph Martin and Richard Staley.

Lent Term 2018

Show overview

18 January Jaume Navarro (University of the Basque Country)
Ether: the multiple lives of a resilient concept
In this session I propose to discuss the text of the introduction to a collective volume on the ether in the early twentieth century soon to be published by Oxford University Press. This book is a snapshot of the ether qua epistemic object in the early twentieth century. The contributed papers show that the ether was not necessarily regarded as the residue of old-fashioned science, but often as one of the objects of modernity, hand in hand with the electron, radioactivity or X-rays. Instrumental was the emergence of wireless technologies and radio broadcasting, certainly a very modern technology, which brought the ether into social audiences that would otherwise have never heard about such an esoteric entity. Following the prestige of scientists like Oliver Lodge and Arthur Eddington as popularisers of science, the ether became common currency among the general educated public. Modernism in the arts was also fond of the ether in the early twentieth century: the values of modernism found in the complexities and contradictions of modern physics such as wireless action or wave-particle puzzles a fertile ground for the development of new artistic languages; in literature as much as in the pictorial and performing arts.

The question of what was meant by 'ether' (or 'aether') in the early twentieth century at the scientific and cultural levels is also central to this volume. The essays in this volume display a complex array of meanings that will help elucidate the uses of the ether before its purported abandonment. Rather than thinking of the ether as simply a name that remained popular among several publics, this book shows the complexities of an epistemic object that saw, in the early twentieth century, the last episode in the long tradition of stretching its meaning and uses.
1 February Seung-joon Lee (National University of Singapore)
People's vital minimum: canteens and nutrition science in industrial China
At the moment when Mao Zedong was triumphantly standing atop the Heavenly Peace Gate in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to declare the founding of a new socialist regime on 1 October 1949, China was facing an existential crisis: food shortages. The Communists now had to face the same dilemma that had long haunted their political arch-enemy, because food scarcity and rampant malnutrition could not be solved overnight, even after the downfall of the KMT rule. The malnourished population, once a strategic target for mobilization against their political opponent, could turn into a potential political threat to the new regime's stability. Furthermore, food calories arguably remained the prime source of energy in China's national economy, which was predominantly agricultural. To build a strong socialist economy — industrially mighty and yet egalitarian — the Chinese working population would need to eat better and consume more food than it ever had before.

Against this backdrop, the Communist authorities undertook unsparing efforts to promote nutrition science in order to optimize the working population's food consumption. Rather than starting from ground zero, however, the Communists emulated the state-led nutrition movement that the previous regime had once practised. Industrial canteens — once a political battleground upon which workers seeking their food entitlement and the KMT-style labour management frequently collided — transformed into a new space that embraced various culinary innovations, nutritional experiments, and the politicization of nutrition science.
15 February Susan Jones (University of Minnesota)
The homelands of the plague: Soviet disease ecology in Central Asia, 1920s–1950s
This presentation analyzes the development of an important Russian/Soviet school of 'disease ecology' at the intersection of human medicine, veterinary medicine, and ecological fieldwork. Part of a larger study in progress, I will argue that (1) although entanglements with the dynamic Soviet political system directly affected scientists' work and ideas, analysis of their local activities in the borderlands demonstrates a surprising independence and autonomy; and (2) initial analysis also points to the importance of indigenous nomadic peoples' knowledge and lived experience in informing scientific theories about endemic diseases. I conclude by discussing how collaboration between HSTM graduate students, scientists, and informants in Kazakhstan have been essential to this historical project.
1 March Cancelled