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Early Careerist Profile: William Bausman October 26, 2015

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7977William Bausman, “Telling the Origins of the Neutral Theory of Ecology,” Session T14 Historical Narratives, November 19, Thursday, 3:45-5:45pm

What will you be discussing during your talk?

The neutral theory of biodiversity is both controversial and a lasting presence in community ecology. One persistent epistemological question asks how the neutral theory can be useful given its ‘obviously false’ assumption that all individuals in a community are functionally equivalent. This question has prompted the origin story that Stephen Hubbell, the chief innovator, tells. In this way, the philosophy of the neutral theory has been founded upon its history. But that history is not the only one available.

Different epistemological questions and different answers to these questions can be prompted by different narratives of the origin and development of the theory. I use Hubbell’s origin story as the jumping off point for telling the origins of the neutral theory. I critique his origin story considered as a historical claim by outlining three different but interrelated narratives of how the neutral theory of ecology grows out of the history of community ecology after 1950. The first narrative foregrounds the construction of formal models of biodiversity patterns. The second narrative foregrounds empirical and theoretical work on whether tropical communities are in taxonomic equilibrium. And the third narrative foregrounds the existence of Kimura’s neutral theory, the MBL model in paleobiology, and the debates over the proper role of “null hypotheses” in biology.

A very different historical picture of the origins of the theory emerges from these narratives than from the origin story. And a different epistemic picture of the usefulness of the neutral theory follows from these different origins.

Where does your talk fit into the panel on which you’re presenting?

We are grouped because we are all talking about “narrative”.  I think we are all talking about giving a historical narrative, rather than just giving a narrative.

How did you come across this topic?

I came across the neutral theory of ecology in a seminar on chance and contingency in biology and having been working on it since. I had bought in to the history which Stephen Hubbell tells of his own theory. At a workshop in Madison a couple years ago, John Beatty (UBC) asked me about the specific history of the neutral theory and I set about to piece it together. I later realized that Hubbell’s historical narrative was influencing how the theory and surrounding controversy were being talked about, by myself and others. My talk at HSS is basically of the form: I used to think A and ask about X, but now I think B and ask about Y and Z. I’m trying to show how history is used to shape methodological debates in science and how more than one can play that game.

What has proven to be one of the most challenging or interesting thing about the sources that you used in your research?

Scientists will tell you false things about what happened 20 years ago, but not be lying about it. When someone tells and retells a story, it will change. But the old NSF grant application that you wrote still says the same thing.

What are you most looking forward to at HSS in San Francisco?

I am most looking forward to playing historian and talking to historians. I’m also looking forward to eating and drinking there, especially the great cocktail bars in SF!

Biography: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota. My research focuses on analyzing scientific reasoning, especially the inference patterns and lines of argumentation that scientists use to advance their work. My dissertation focuses on community ecology, but that was a highly contingent choice. I studied philosophy and physics in undergrad at UCSB and planned to work on the philosophy of physics, but luckily ecology is much messier and interesting! Last week I sent my advisor the first complete draft of my dissertation and am on the market now.

Early Careerist Profile: Amanda Sciampacone October 19, 2015

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Amanda Sciampacone, “Atmospherics of Illness: Cholera, Weather, and the Scientific Image,” Session F32: “Health and Wealth Through Better Weather: The History of Meteorology and the Improvement of Nations,” Friday November 20th, 2015, 3:45-5:45 PM.


Abstract of the Talk:

With the emergence and repeated epidemics of cholera in Britain between 1831 and 1866, and the elusive nature of its epidemiology, British medics were compelled to investigate the cause of the disease. Various theories were posited to explain cholera, with the miasma theory dominating much of the medical discourse. Since the theory provided only partial answers, however, medics searched for other factors that may have propagated the illness. Increasingly, the climate of India, where cholera originated, as well as unusual meteorological phenomena in England, were identified in government and medical reports as the cause of cholera’s morbidity and spread. India’s tropical heat and jungle miasmas were blamed for first producing a deadly form of cholera, while odd weather was noted for spreading the malady in England. Although much of this discourse was textual, images were used to visualize and support the arguments made about cholera and the conditions in which it propagated. In these visual representations, medics mapped the disease to a certain type of “cholera weather,” giving the invisible illness substance and material presence. As my paper will demonstrate, the conflation of cholera with the Indian climate, strange weather, and a heavy atmosphere powerfully evoked visual tropes of cholera as a mysterious and malignant disease that tainted the very atmosphere of the British nation.

Where does your talk fit into the panel on which you’re presenting?

I will be the third presenter in a panel organized by Bridget Collins on the ways in which meteorology was used in nineteenth-century American, British, and French discourses on the physical, moral, and economic health of the nation state. My talk will follow Zeke Baker’s paper, which will examine three case studies of climate knowledge and how they informed American state-making, and Bridget Collin’s paper on the important role that medical geography played in the settlement of the Midwest. My paper will shift the discussion from the American context to nineteenth-century Britain and introduce issues raised by imperial expansion into new climates. It will be followed by Joseph Horan’s talk on the use and failure of the new science of meteorology in the development of France’s empire and its cotton industry. I think the connections between the papers in the panel will raise interesting questions and generate discussion on the historical importance of meteorology, and I look forward to it.

How did you come across this topic?

During the research for my PhD, I was going through all of the nineteenth-century material on cholera in the Wellcome Library and in an appendix by the meteorologist James Glaisher for the General Board of Health’s report on the third epidemic there was a set of diagrams that juxtaposed the mortality rates of cholera with different weather phenomena. I thought these images were really interesting, as they contained so much detail. There were precise measurements for barometric pressure, rainfall, wind direction, temperature, and the amount of mist in the sky for every day of the epidemic. I thought Glaisher’s belief in some kind of correlation between cholera and the weather was intriguing, despite the fact that it was completely wrong, and it led me to the work of other medics, statisticians, and sanitarians who were all grappling with this issue. Finding Glaisher’s diagrams opened up a whole new path of research on Victorian medical topography that I had not considered when I initially began my PhD and it has become the foundation for my postdoctoral project.

What was the most interesting source that you encountered in your research? Or what has proven most challenging in your research?

I think the most interesting source that I have encountered so far has been a map of the cholera outbreak that struck London between 1848 and 1849. The map was commissioned by the General Board of Health, and used blue tinting to identify the areas of London affected by cholera and the degree of cholera’s morbidity in those areas. I do not want to give too much away, as you will get to see the map during my presentation, but the use of this deep blue to mark out cholera’s presence in the city is visually striking. It not only distilled the empirical data about the disease’s death rates, it also evoked the troubling meanings that cholera acquired in medical accounts, newspaper articles, and images about race and contamination.

What did you have to cut out from your talk that you wish you could have kept in?

As with any conference paper, points have been simplified and a lot of research has been removed. I wish I could have included more images of cholera, though. I have tried to keep as many of the diagrams on cholera and the weather in the talk as possible, but I do wish I could have included more medical images of cholera, maps of the disease’s spread, and satirical illustrations of the environments associated with cholera, because seeing this collection of imagery together brings to the fore how Victorians created an iconography for the disease. Before the cholera vibrio was discovered by Robert Koch in 1884, these images were visualizing something that was seemingly invisible, elusive, and deadly. Moreover, these images were in dialogue with each other. Popular images were informing scientific images of cholera and vice versa, so the diagrams of cholera and meteorological phenomena that I will show in my talk were not only based on scientific information, they were also drawing on sensational and popular images of cholera as a monstrous and polluting threat.

What are you most looking forward to at HSS in San Francisco?

This will be my first History of Science Society annual meeting. I am very much looking forward to HSS in San Francisco, as I have spent much of my time attending conferences in the United Kingdom that have centred mainly on Art History and Victorian Studies. I think HSS will provide a wonderful opportunity to meet with international colleagues working on the History of Science. I am approaching my research from an art historian’s perspective, so I am particularly keen to learn from scholars who are interrogating the field from a different position, and to have an open discussion about interdisciplinary research and collaborative methods.

Biography: Amanda Sciampacone received her BA in History (Honours) and Art History, and her MA in Art History from the University of British Columbia. She was awarded her PhD in the History of Art from Birkbeck, University of London in 2014. Her dissertation, which was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship, examined the visual culture of the cholera epidemics that struck Britain in the nineteenth century. She has just begun a three-year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship in the Department of History of Art at the University of Warwick. Her postdoctoral research project, titled “Epidemic Atmospheres: Disease, Climate, and the Unstable Boundaries of Empire,” will investigate the ways in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical and scientific imagery implicated epidemic diseases and environmental dangers as agents of globalization. Her research interests include British art and visual culture, the history of science and medicine, disease, climate, and the British Empire, and material and print culture.

Graduate Student Profile: Elizabeth Dobson Jones October 13, 2015

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DSC_3726Elizabeth Dobson Jones, “A History of Ancient DNA Research: A History of Celebrity Science,” Session T2: Developing Disciplines, Thursday, November 19, 2015, 1:30-3:30 PM

What will you be discussing in your HSS talk?

In my talk, I argue that the history of ancient DNA (aDNA) research is a history of celebrity science. Ancient DNA research – the search for DNA in fossils – is a contemporary, interdisciplinary, and controversial technoscientific practice. It emerged from the interface of paleontology, archeology, and molecular biology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Over the last thirty years, aDNA research has evolved as a professional discipline under the influence of intense public interest and extreme media exposure. I argue that celebrity science is a type of science that has constant news value which results in consistent attention from media. Its presence in the media is so substantial that the science and scientists respond, positively or negatively, to the attention and even reinvent their reputation accordingly. I show evidence for the interplay between science and media and how this relationship has driven and directed the formation of aDNA research as a technoscientific practice, especially in the 1990s. The search for the most ancient DNA from the most iconic fossils was inspired by evolutionary interests in professional science but encouraged and enhanced by productions of popular science, like Jurassic Park. I argue that aDNA research is a case study of a celebrity science, and most importantly I suggest to historians of science the opportunity to use this argument as a framework for asking questions and finding answers about the development of other sciences under persistent publicity and pressures of media.

How does this fit with your panel? 

My talk is part of a panel on “Developing Disciplines.” The panel includes subjects from astronomy and chemistry to modern archeology and paleontology. I hope my work will suggest how media can be, and often is, a real and influential social force in the development of science in general. I also hope my work will benefit from the expertise of other historians in other sciences by identifying similarities and differences in how sciences across time, space, and topic emerge and evolve.

How did you come across the topic of ancient DNA research?

I studied history, philosophy, and paleontology at North Carolina State University and my paleontology professor, Mary Schweitzer, was involved in novel but controversial work in molecular paleontology, specifically molecular dinosaur paleontology. Instead of prepping and preserving fossils for museum display, she broke open bones to sample what was inside (amino acids, proteins, DNA, and so on). The idea was that molecules are fossils too. I loved the changing meaning of fossils, the intersection of molecular biology with evolutionary biology, and I wanted to learn more. I knew nothing about ancient DNA research so I selected it as my thesis topic and continued it for my PhD project.

What do you find most challenging about your subject?

The most challenging (but rewarding!) part of my work is that it is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. The topic of ancient DNA research is broad, covering the molecular and evolutionary history of humans, animals, plants, bacteria, and more. My approach as a historian of science in Science and Technology Studies is also broad, including history, philosophy, sociology, science communication, and science policy.

What do you wish you could have included in your HSS talk?

I interview scientists from across the world and use their stories to help write my story of the history of ancient DNA research. I wish I could include all the gossip! These scientists are fascinating and I wish I could include the hilarious and sometimes inappropriate remarks they share with me.

What are you looking forward to about this upcoming HSS? 

This is my first time attending and presenting at HSS! I am so excited! I want to meet as many people as possible, hear about other research, and see how I can help the society in the future.

Biography: I am a third year PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. I am a historian of science interested in the history, philosophy, and sociology of biology and paleontology. For my PhD project, I am writing a history of ancient DNA research. My question is,  “How has ancient DNA research evolved from an emergent into an established research practice?” To answer this question, my method is oral history through interviews with 45 ancient DNA and related researchers.

Graduate Student Profile: Zeke Baker October 5, 2015

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Zeke Baker, “Climate Knowledge as a Practice of Government: From Appropriation to Biopolitics,” Session F32: Health and Wealth through Better Weather: The History of Meteorology and the Improvement of Nations. Friday, November 20, 3:45-5:45.

At HSS, I am presenting a paper that seeks to provide an analytic framework for explaining transformations in climate knowledge over time, with an empirical focus in this presentation on how “rational accounts” of weather and climate were coproduced with early American state-making, especially projects that comprised Westward Expansion from 1800-1840. The paper deals with a central paradox: that the formation of a rational basis for meteorological and climatic knowledge emerged alongside state-making practices that appropriated others’ knowledge and livelihood through the “civilization” of American territory, climate, and society. Analysis of findings is conceptually organized around how scientific and state-making practices co-produce government. The project conceptualizes government in Foucault’s sense, as power ordered through knowledge and the formation of social categories, populations and territory amenable to security, management, and discipline.

The panel that this presentation is a part of broadly explores the role of meteorology and related sciences in 19th century government, especially practices of colonialism and empire. Each of us on the panel are grappling with how weather—and its almost wildly various scientific apprehensions—related to projects to improve the health of citizens and the wealth and prosperity of particular nations. The panel is diverse in its disciplinary perspectives, ranging from the history of science, to sociology and art history, and it also presents different cases from the U.S. and from the British and French empires.

I stumbled into this historical research by first studying contemporary climate expertise. I was studying how climate expertise has fragmented in the last decade in a way that, I argue, articulates with state interests to render climate change governable in status quo ways, especially through securitization of its social effects. In other work, I had also studied the formation of modern climate science and its emergence alongside the post-WWII state. This led me to ask whether and how state-making and climate science have been coproduced across a much broader timescale.

Initial investigation into early American natural philosophy immediately shows that climate, and climate change, were extremely important to how scientists and statesmen evaluated the possibilities and successes of that puzzling master-frame of Enlightenment thought—civilization. Many European and American natural philosophers believed that American climate was becoming more moderate, that is, climate was changing along the historical trajectory of Europe, which was also believed to have become more temperate as land was cleared, swamps drained, and civilization introduced to land and society. I evaluate this scientific theory to see how it was substantiated among scientists and how it related to frontier policy and strategy, settlement practices, and policy regarding native people.

The scope of the relationship between the science of American climate and the politics of civilization is staggering, but it is mostly a forgotten history because most of the relevant controversies have been settled, and the paradigms of scientific practice have changed. Climate is no longer central to how physicians evaluate health, as it was well into the nineteenth century. Likewise, disease is no longer a major concern of those migrating and settling in new climates. Until recently, moreover, not many of us believed that climate was changing in response to human activity. We rarely evaluate social progress in terms of how human “constitutions” are fit or unfit for particular climates and lands, and we no longer accept that humans are separable into natural categories or races that align with particular places or climates. One way to deal with this history is to say they were basically wrong, and now we know better. However, historical research is critical in order to reconsider how science grounded the political discourse of “civilization” and its effects. More important to contemporary concerns, historical research compels analysts to probe how meteorological and climate knowledge continues to relate to patterns in social power.

As a historical sociologist and a graduate student, I am going into my first HSS Annual Meeting like something of a first date. I expect a lot of intriguing conversation, enlightening presentations, a lot of fun, and no shortage of those awkward conference moments! If a long-term relationship works out, I would be very pleased.