Historians of science look forward to a unique gathering

Cross-posted from The H Word.
Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope

This Friday sees the deadline for submissions to what will be the largest ever meeting of historians of science in the UK, and almost certainly the largest for at least a generation to come.

Last Friday already saw the closing date for organised symposiums within the International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and the organisers tweeted:

 has just received its 1000th symposium paper abstract. 23 Nov 12

With the individual submissions still to come in, this promises to be huge for the history of science, which usually counts conference delegates in the 10s or 100s.

The event is taking place next year, 22-28 July 2013, in Manchester. It is officially hosted by the British Society for the History of Science, and is being co-ordinated locally by members of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

As well as an extremely full academic programme, the website promises to show off the history of science, technology and medicine in Manchester, “the original ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution” withdisplays, events and tours, including to Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope of which has been appropriated to the event’s logo.

There will also be a “fringe” that will include films, music, theatre and performance, aimed at the public as well as delegates. Importantly, there may [edit – this is unconfirmed as yet!] also be an entire pub, the Jabez Clegg, handed over for the conference, selling, I’ve been promised, unique and appropriately-named cask beers. (It helps that the Manchester department includes a postgrad with experience of organising beer festivals and a historian of brewing.)

As well as being large, the Congress, an activity of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, will, of course, be very international. It will be an important opportunity for scholars working within very different contexts to get together. This is the 24th such Congress – they take place every four years, with recent meetings having been held in Mexico City (2001), Beijing (2005) and Budapest (2009). It has not been in the UK since Edinburgh in 1977.

Probably the most famous of all the International Congresses of the History of Science was the second, in London in 1931. It was here thatBoris Hessen delivered his paper, “The Soci-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia“.

As the title suggests, this presented science as something that did not stand aloof from its social and economic context. It has been considered foundational for research into the relationship between science and society, or “external” rather than “internal” history of science. Certainly, it was remarkable at the time, being a full-blown Marxist account, which concluded:

The great historical significance of the method created by Marx lies in the fact that knowledge is not regarded as the passive, contemplative perception of reality, but as the means for actively reconstructing it. For the proletariat science is a means and instrument for this reconstruction. That is why we are not afraid to expose the “terrestrial origin” of science, its close connection to the mode of production of material existence. Only such a conception of science can truly liberate it from those fetters in which it is inevitably trapped in bourgeois class society.

Such international gatherings have often been stages on which politics can be performed. It was not just Hessen, but a whole set of Soviet delegates who took the audience by surprise in 1931. Their papers were gathered together and published as Science at the Crossroads, by Nikolai Bukharin. It was to provoke heated debate, touching a nerve in a time of crisis of capitalism in the west.

I am told by old hands that Cold War politics coloured the Congresses of the 70s and 80s. Things have changed again, but I suspect that there will be lively interest in the diversity that continues to exist when the field is seen at its broadest. The British organisers, naturally, are interested in showcasing the wealth of resources and scholarship that can be found in Manchester and the UK. Beyond that, it would be great if the size of the event can help raise awareness of the discipline.

I will be there, as one of the co-organisers of a symposium on current history of science research taking place in, or in partnership with, museums. There is plenty to choose from: Arabic science, paleontological specimens, radio communication, Chinese natural knowledge, science at war, theology and science, ancient astronomy, east-west encounters, gender and knowledge, mathematical institutions, and much, much more – including the history of the sauna and new insights into bicycle history.

More information: http://www.ichstm2013.com/index.html
Follow @ichstm2013 and #ichstm

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The British Journal for the History of Science turns 50

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The British Journal for the History of Science
The British Journal for the History of Science has been published since 1962. Photograph: Melanie Keene

This seems to be a good year for anniversaries in the history of science, particularly 50th anniversaries. Science studies clearly turned a corner in 1962. I have already mentioned the anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and there has been much attentionon Rachel Carson’s now-classic Silent Spring. This year also sees one of the discipline’s leading international journals, the British Journal for the History of Science, turn 50.

The British Society for the History of Science, which supports the BJHS, has been reflecting on the journal’s history and celebrating the anniversary by making a selection of past articles free to access.

This moment – when academic publishing is being scrutinised with questions of open access, impact ratings, and the role of print in a digital world – is an interesting one in which to reflect on the past and future of a journal. Will it continue to build up on my bookshelves, in physical form? What was the journal’s role in defining and cementing the discipline? Which articles have been most influential? How have our interests changed over the last half century?

Some of these issues are considered in the October issue of Viewpoint[PDF], the magazine of the BSHS. I particularly enjoyed a feature that got five current scholars to look over the articles published in the very first issue BJHS, from June 1962. They provoke some interesting reflections, although as Frank James writes:

An inattentive reader comparing the first with more recent issues of the BJHS might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the history of science over the last fifty years. The subject matter looks remarkably similar – papers on the history of institutions, communication technology and genetics all continue to be written about in the Journal and elsewhere. But a detailed reading … reveals an entirely different approach….

One of the things that James notes is that four out of the five contributors to Issue 1 were scientists. In 1962 there were only a few tiny enclaves of professional historians of science. Today, although the discipline is still not large, the vast majority of articles in the BJHS are by academics working in history, history of science and science studies departments. The journal was a sign of this nascent professionalisation.

The change in the content of the BJHS thus chiefly reflected the way in which professional historians of science sought to differentiate their approach from what came before. In particular there was a rising interest in the social, cultural and economic contexts in which science and technology were developed and used. As a result, there was a reduced focus on the specialist technical content of scientific publications.

There are other changes. For example, Andrew Gregory, examining “Greek astronomy and its debt to the Babylonians”, notes that the last century saw a gradual shift away from a “great cultures” understanding of the development of science, to one that takes interest in a wider range of cultures. Historians now take note of the many routes through which knowledge has been transmitted, and have developed an interest in these cultures for their own sake, rather than purely for that of developing a story of progress from great civilisation to great civilisation.

As with so much academic research, the BJHS is not free to access. University libaries usually subscribe and members of the BSHS receive a print subscription and digital access to the whole 50-year back catalogue. Profits are shared between the publisher, Cambridge University Press, and the Society. It is a reasonable model compared to some, since it benefits the discipline as well as CUP, and there will, increasingly, be Research Council-funded research that will need to be made publicly accessible.

It seems a good omen that the Society and CUP should have decided to mark the anniversary by making a selection of articles open access. The list has been put together by two eminent former editors of the journal,Simon Schaffer and Janet Browne, and there are some corkers.

Ranging from the 1970s to 1990s, they show where history of science has headed since 1962. To pick a few, there is Hugh Torrens’presidential address on Mary Anning, Anne Secord on artisans and gentlemen corresponding on natural history in the 19th century, J.R.R. Christie considering big picture historiography of science, Steven Shapin looking at Robert Boyle’s self-fashioning and Deborah Warner asking “What is a scientific instrument?

There is much in these physical and digital pages that is worth revisiting. It continues to provide food for thought, despite changes in fashion and developments in scholarship. Here’s to BJHS’s next 50 years!

Preparing for the Three Societies (US, British, Canadian joint history of science meeting)

I have now reached Philadelphia, continuing research on Lewis and Clark (see previous post) and awaiting the Three Societies meeting, which starts on Wednesday. I am part of a session relating to the Longitude Project, called ‘Defining the Instrumental: Navigation, Longitude and Science at Sea in the 18th Century’. The full programme of the meeting can be found here, and I have posted the session and paper abstracts over on the Longitude Project Blog.

The Three Societies meeting is a quadrennial joint meeting of the History of Science SocietyBritish Society for the History of Science and Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, hosted by each society in turn. There is a St Louis Cardinals baseball bat that is ceremonially handed over from one society president to the next, which must have started life at the HSS-hosted event of 2000, at the Hyatt Union Station, St Louis (it was hot then, too – the British delegates found it tough going!).

This was not, however, the first of these meetings. You’ll see from the list here that a joint HSS-BSHS meeting was held in Manchester in 1988 and that the three societies have met up since then in Toronto (1992), Edinburgh (1996), St Louis (2000), Halifax, Nova Scotia (2004), Oxford (2008) and now Philadelphia (2012).

I have been in this business long enough to have been to three of these meetings, which is a sobering thought. The previous two mark important junctures in my life. At Halifax (a lovely place, if you haven’t been, full of pubs, book shops and maritime history) I was in possession of a brand new doctorate and, although unemployed, happy to be presenting on new, spin-off research.

Before the Oxford meeting I got my postdoc job in Edinburgh, but by summer 2008 I was a (relatively) new mother and starting a brand new career as a curator. Apart from a talk at the NMM, this was my come-back gig. On the back of my research on the history of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, I joined a session organised by Aileen Fyfe on ‘Science and Victorian Tourism’.

Aileen was a much newer mother than I was at that meeting. There is a photograph in the relevant issue  of Viewpoint, the BSHS newsletter, recording the fact that three of us (me, Aileen and Emily Winterburn) were there at the meeting with babies. We were all recipients of the BSHS’s Care Grants, which allowed us to pay for childcare during the sessions themselves. Kudos to Emily, though, who gave her talk with her baby in a sling!

Not sure that this 2012 meeting marks such a transition point, unless it is the large amount of time I’ve been away sans little one. I’m certainly looking forward to the talks, tours and sociability. More anon.

The disciplinary landscape of the historian of science

On Friday I received my copy of Viewpoint the newsletter/magazine of the British Society for the History of Science. This issue is a bit of a treat – no less than three pieces by people associated with the Science Museum (Charlotte Connelly on working with enthusiasts in the British Vintage Wireless Society,  Tim Boon on the Museum’s Public History Project and Jessica Bradford reviewing the BBC’s ‘Shock and Awe: the Story of Electricity‘), an account of an outreach project introducing poets to history of medicine (or vice versa?) as part of the Off Sick Project, and a review of a performance of Siobhan Nicholas’s Hanging Hooke at the Royal Society.* Well done to editor Melanie Keene!**

However, it is the cover story that I want to feature today, relating to some research that Aileen Fyfe has undertaken within the British history of science community, and the membership of the BSHS itself, regarding their background, careers and sense of identity. As well as an online questionnaire, Aileen asked (pressed/pushed/forced?) attendees of last summer’s Exeter conference to illustrate their perception of the discipline in relation to  the rest of academia and other relevant fields.

I remember producing some rather lame spider chart, but the article reproduces some other efforts, including a Venn diagram that places HSTM (history of science, technology and medicine) at the centre of science, humanities and social sciences. There is also a mind-map style view of one stick man’s sense of their ‘academic landscape’, which has HSTM interacting with philosophy of science, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, literature, science and literature, history, geography, historical geography, history of art, architecture, museums, science and science communication. Any more to add? Plenty, I’ll bet.

The cover features one rather more artistically-interesting, and distinctly more witty, attempt to describe perceptions of our world:

This particularly tickled me exactly for the close-shop reasons that the first image depicts as the convivial atmosphere among fellow historians of science – the reference to a “warm fug of in-jokes about Davies Gilbert” is lovely (and also suggests to me the author of this anonymous cartoon, as I had just such a conversation in Exeter….). Meanwhile the historians and philosophers consider each other timewasters, the conversation with a ‘proper’ historian takes place over a vast gulf and the “encounter with a life scientist” suggests an inferiority complex among the historians and bafflement from the scientist.

Does this image work for everyone? As a joke, at least, it probably does, although it will vary depending on the background and current circumstances of the individual historian of science. As someone who started my university career in history rather than science, I am in the minority, and I think my sense of conversations with historians or scientists might be slightly different. Aileen’s survey does more to probe some of these differences, as demonstrated in this article and as will be explored in more depth in her planned article for a higher education research journal. For me, the wide range of disciplinary identities and loyalties within history of science is one of its strengths, although it certainly causes problems in terms of making ourselves heard, within institutions as well as in the wider public sphere.

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* If any BSHS members are interested in reviewing TV programmes, films, plays, popular or fictional works relating to the history of science, please contact the editor at viewpoint [a] bshs [dot] org [dot] uk.

** I hope I’ll be forgiven for a little motherly pride whenever I see Viewpoint, which I developed back in 2005/6 and edited until the end of 2008. It has largely continued with the same design, features and broad focus, although subsequent editors Rosie Wall and Melanie have continued it brilliantly. It was rewarding, but a great deal of work, even for a thrice annual publication, involving soliciting, editing and designing all the content – all, of course, undertaken without payment. Melanie has recently agreed to continue as editor, which is fantastic, and I hope we find someone else with the right levels of energy and flair to continue after her term ends in 2014.

A great Devonian conference

Last week saw the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science, held at the University of Exeter. I have been going to these conferences for the last nine years and have always enjoyed them as convivial and intellectually stimulating occasions. As with all large(ish) general conferences with several parallel sessions there can be negatives: it’s hard work, there are usually a few annoing clashes in scheduling, and there is too little time for discussion during the sessions. However, historians of science are a friendly bunch and it is very easy to catch the person whose paper you had to miss to find out more, and to have discussions over lunch, dinner, drinks and into the night. All the better this year that the backdrop to such conversations was this glorious:

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