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Paper 2: Sciences and Empires

Paper manager: Staffan Müller-Wille

Michaelmas Term
Physical Sciences and Empire in the Victorian World
Josh Nall (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 1–4)
Sciences of Territory and Population
Staffan Müller-Wille (8)
Tue 11am (weeks 1–8)
Nature and Technology after Empire
Helen Curry (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 5–8)
Lent Term
Nature and Technology after Empire (continued)
Helen Curry (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 1–4)
Modern Science and Technology in East Asia
Mary Brazelton (8)
Tue 11am (weeks 1–8)
The Nuclear Age
Sam Robinson (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 5–8)

This paper surveys the history of science and technology from the early 19th century until the present day. The sciences in this decisive epoch were made for a world increasingly dominated by trade and the industrializing economies of the West. New knowledges and technologies both in the natural and the human sciences, emerged and combined, extended their global reach through nation-building, colonial dominion and decolonisation, and met criticism, challenge and resistance throughout their consolidation. Key institutions were established: teaching laboratories, research institutes, and professionally organised careers and qualifications. Key technologies were developed to set standards and collate data about the natural and social world. This was also the epoch of grand visions of natural and social order and their secular meanings, whether in thermodynamics and electromagnetism, in engineering and industrial sciences, in astrophysics and cosmology, or in evolutionary theory and racial science. Changes in sciences and technology also sparked human imaginations, inspiring progressive dreams of solving global hunger or securing global communications, and fuelling nightmares of nuclear annihilation, racial conflict and catastrophic climate change.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with fundamental issues in historical writing on the sciences from the early 19th century to the aftermath of the Cold War and the period of decolonisation;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the principal changes that created the scientific institutions, professionals and practices of the modern world;
  • to explore the modern imperial and colonial origins and uses of scientific knowledge;
  • to present students with a deeper understanding of how science and technology came to occupy a central place in modern societies and especially in the daily lives of peoples worldwide;
  • to encourage students to reflect critically on their own experiences of science and technology now, informed by greater knowledge of its recent history.

Lectures

Physical Sciences and Empire in the Victorian World
Josh Nall (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course explores the history of the physical sciences in Britain and its empire across the 19th century. It aims to explain the emergence of key disciplinary configurations now taken as self-evident and relate these changes to shifting political, economic and social demands on the exact sciences. Particular attention will be given to the spaces in which the physical sciences were put to work⁠ – on ships; in observatories and laboratories; at public exhibitions⁠ – and on the material culture of these enterprises. Key themes will include: the crucial role played by astronomy and its precision instrumentation in the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire; the flourishing of new laboratory spaces for teaching and inquiry, and these spaces' links to the opportunities and crises afforded by industrial capital; the growth of London's public spaces for scientific education and spectacle; and the central place of commercial telegraphy in the making of precision physics in the British university.

Sciences of Territory and Population
Staffan Müller-Wille (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Debates about the value of 'Big Data' have led in recent years to increased attention to the historical development of sciences that rely on practices of collecting, surveying and processing large amounts of empirical information. This course introduces the history of a range of disciplines, from mineralogy to racial anthropology, that played a key role in industrialization and the governance of modern nation states and colonial empires. The lectures will cover the history of key concepts – like territory, resource, population, environment and inheritance, time and history, evolution and progress – but root this history in the global circulation of institutions and practices like map-making or census-taking. The course takes inspiration from Michel Foucault's equation of knowledge and power but carries his analysis forward by paying attention to the way in which paper-based information processing articulated politics and subjectivities.

Nature and Technology after Empire
Helen Curry (8 lectures, Michaelmas & Lent Terms)

Spanning World War I to the present day, this course examines how the sciences facilitated state control over land, water, plants, animals, mineral resources and human bodies – and how those would-be subjects resisted. The course explores particular domains of expert knowledge (like chemistry, physics, genetics, ecology and computer science), canonical technologies of environmental and social control (dam building, breeding, economic development programmes, wilderness preservation and digital databases), and the institutional and political configurations that advanced and thwarted these.

Modern Science and Technology in East Asia
Mary Brazelton (8 lectures, Lent Term)

This course is about how people in modern East Asia sought to understand and organise knowledge about their world. These endeavours involved extensive exchanges of ideas, objects and people, as well as shifting definitions of what constituted science. Topics covered include China's Qing Dynasty and its officials' efforts to cultivate knowledge about their empire, as well as the Meiji Restoration in Japan and its projects of modernization and industrialization. In the 20th century, the rise of Communism in China and North Korea made the region a critical sphere in the Cold War, and led to novel exchanges in science, technology and medicine. The lectures connect narratives of science and technology in East Asia to themes that motivate other courses on the paper, such as the rise and spread of the university laboratory, the role of empire in the production of knowledge, and the relationships between science and industry.

The Nuclear Age
Sam Robinson (4 lectures, Lent Term)

From the detonation of the first nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear weapons, nuclear energy and the culture surrounding them have shaped our lives and the world in which we live. The explosions inaugurating the nuclear age transformed international military and political relationships, but they also transformed popular culture and social life. Art, literature and film as well as politics and military doctrine have all reflected and embodied the traumas of nuclear culture. In the Cold War the 'mushroom cloud' became the terrifying icon of the nuclear age and imminent destruction. This course explores the origins and development of nuclear science, culture and politics in order to shed light on the interactions of science, technology, politics (imperial, totalitarian and democratic) and cultural production in the nuclear world. It confronts the methodological and political problems of acquiring historical understanding of nuclear matters. Asking did nuclear things make or break imperial projects, or rather make new nuclear empires, in the late 20th century?

Preliminary reading

Resources for Paper 2 on Moodle