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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Paper manager: Staffan Müller-Wille

Lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Physical Sciences, Empire and Modernity
Josh Nall (4), Richard Staley (4)
No lecture in week 6 (10 November). Instead, there will be a lecture on Wednesday 9 November at 11am.
Week 8 (24 Nov): lecture cancelled
Thu 11am (weeks 1–8)
Sciences of Territory and Population
Staffan Müller-Wille (4), Lewis Bremner (4)
Tue 11am (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Science, Technology and Society in East Asia
Mary Brazelton (4), Lewis Bremner (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 1–8)
Science, State and Society in South Asia
Charu Singh (4)
Tue 11am (weeks 1–4)
Richard Staley (4)
Tue 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 industrialising economies and punctuated by wars and revolutions at a global scale. New knowledges and technologies both in the natural and the human sciences, emerged and combined, extended their global reach through nation-building, colonial imperialism 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 industries and state bureaucracies 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.



Physical Sciences, Empire and Modernity

Josh Nall, Richard Staley (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course is about the transformation of the places and practices of the physical sciences in the last two centuries. Particular attention is paid to changes in scientific organisation and material technique. In this period, physical sciences became central to notions of progress and governance, investigated and prominently displayed in laboratories and observatories, workshops and international exhibitions. The politics of imperialism and of technological and economic transformations of modernity through the development of industrial capital were crucial for working institutions and practical conduct of physical sciences worldwide. These changes were marked especially in the material and the instrumental dimensions of physical sciences' enterprises. It is planned that the course include some working sessions with historical collections in the Whipple Museum. Key themes include the imperial role of astronomy and its instrumentation; new lab spaces for teaching and inquiry, involving the role of telecommunications and the advent of radiation sciences and nuclear physics; development of metropolitan spaces of performance, display and education and widely varying models of spectacle and of vision; and the development of electronic computing and sciences of artificial intelligence.

Sciences of Territory and Population

Staffan Müller-Wille, Lewis Bremner (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.

Science, Technology and Society in East Asia

Mary Brazelton, Lewis Bremner (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 modernisation and industrialisation. 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.

Science, State and Society in South Asia

Charu Singh (4 lectures, Lent Term)

This course focuses on the transformation of natural and social orders in South Asia and their conscription to global scientific networks of European trading companies and the British Empire. From the late 18th century, European scientific enterprise in the colony took several institutional forms, such as scientific surveys, observatories, learned societies, expeditions, and state scientific bureaucracies after the rebellion of 1857. South Asians were crucial actors in the construction of scientific knowledge at these sites, and from the 19th century, they also became learners, interpreters, and practitioners of European sciences at new colleges and universities. These lectures provide an overview of the dynamic relationship between science, state, and society in South Asia between 1780 and 1950, with a focus on the institutions, practices, and sociology of actors involved in the production and transmission of scientific knowledge.


Richard Staley (4 lectures, Lent Term)

For much of its history as an idea, literature, field of study and mode of research, anthropology has been too important to be simply a discipline, with great political significance and implications for identity riding on observations issuing from the contact zones between peoples, and little consensus on methods or research aims. This course examines the complex, ambivalent relations that have characterized the emergence of anthropology within imperial powers, and explores how a focus on indigenous agency and anthropological self-critique unsettles perspectives on modernity. Lectures consider anthropologies in expedition and exhibition, the emergence of fieldwork, critical approaches to intelligence and science, and new perspectives on imperial and other economies and markets. Considering the roles that methods and concepts of the natural sciences have played in the development of different versions of anthropology, we explore several examples of anthropologists as activists and public intellectuals.


Preliminary reading


Resources for Paper 2 on Moodle