History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

semester, 2015


Friday, January 23rd 2015
Speaker: Christian Wuthrich, Department of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego
Subject: Space and Time from Causality
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

Space and time are conspicuous by their absence in fundamental theories of quantum gravity. Causal set theory is such a theory. It follows an eminent tradition of reducing spatiotemporal relations to causal ones. I will illustrate how the causal sets lack all spatial and most temporal structure. The absence of spacetime from the fundamental level of reality poses, however, a deep philosophical and scientific challenge. On the philosophical side, the threat of empirical incoherence looms. The scientific aspect arises from the need for any novel theory to explain the success, such as it was, of the theory it seeks to depose. Both sides of the challenge are resolved if we articulate a physically salient recovery of relativistic spacetime from the underlying fundamental causal sets. I will sketch ways in which this can be achieved.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.


Friday, January 30th 2015
Speaker: Andrew Odlyzko, School of Mathematics, University of Minnesota
Subject: Gravity Models, Information Flows, and Inefficiency of Early Railroad Networks
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Gravity models of spatial interaction, which provide quantitative estimates of the decline in intensity of economic and social interactions with distance, are now ubiquitous in urban and transportation planning, international trade, and many other areas. They were discovered through analysis of a unique large data set by a Belgian engineer in 1846, at the height of the British Railway Mania. They contradicted deeply embedded beliefs about the nature of demand for railway service, and had they been properly applied, they could have lessened the investment losses of that bubble. A study of the information flows in Britain, primarily in the newspaper press, provides an instructive picture of slow diffusion of significant factual information, the distortions it suffered, and the wrong conclusions that were drawn from the experience in the end.


Friday, February 6th 2015
Speaker: Ann Johnson, Department of History, University of South Carolina
Subject: Engineers in the Early American Republic: Where the Political Meets the Mathematical
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Friday, February 13th 2015
Speaker: Craig Hassel, Department of Food, Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota
Subject: Spanning Cultural Difference in Food and Health
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

I will explore examples of University outreach/cross-cultural engagement with older, non-biomedical thought systems (African, Chinese Medicine, Indigenous knowledge traditions) bringing profound cultural difference in epistemology and ontology. Spanning these chasms of cultural difference involves cognitive bridge-building, a form of community engaged scholarship wherein habitual attachment to familiar, self-affirming, biomedical mental models is relaxed, allowing for temporary dwelling within unfamiliar, and often unsettling assumptive terrain. Perseverance with such bridge-building creates novel cognitive locations and perceptual lenses through which to reconsider disciplinary issues of the day and to illuminate otherwise opaque cultural/disciplinary "hidden subjectivities" that too often escape conscious attention and peer review. I refer back to nutrition science with its positivist legacy, its history of success with deterministic, acute deficiency disease, and its current struggle with more complex diet-related chronic disease and concepts of well being. I propose that nutrition as a biomedical science would advance by learning and adapting discourses and/or thought styles akin to those within the humanities and/or social sciences.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.


Friday, February 20th 2015
Speaker: Amy Fisher, Science, Technology, and Society Program, University of Puget Sound
Subject: Hare's Calorimotor: Rethinking Thermodynamics in Early 19th-Century America
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

In the early nineteenth century, prominent chemists, such as Jons Jacob Berzelius and Humphry Davy, proclaimed that a revolution had occurred in chemistry through electrical science. Examining Robert Hare's contributions to this discourse, this presentation analyzes how chemists understood the relationship between heat and electricity during this transformative period. As an avid experimentalist, professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the American Philosophical Society, Hare actively shaped early American chemistry. He was part of a larger network of scholars, having corresponded with a number of scientists such as Joseph Henry, François Jean Arago, and Berzelius. He published works abroad in the Philosophical Magazine in England and the Annales de Chimie in France. He also experimented with and wrote extensively on electricity and its associated chemical and thermal effects. In particular, Hare's calorimotor – a device that utilized the voltaic pile (battery) and set caloric (or heat) into motion – raised important questions about Lavoisier's caloric theory of heat and its relationship to electricity.


Friday, February 27th 2015
Speaker: Abena Dove Osseo-Asare, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin
Subject: From Plants to Pills: Take Bitter Roots for Malaria
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

How do plants become pharmaceuticals? In this talk, I examine the history of efforts to patent a treatment for malaria made from the bitter roots of fever vine (Cryptolepis sanguinolenta). Malaria is a serious health risk in tropical West Africa. In Ghana, where these bitter roots became known as "Ghana Quinine", a group of African scientists devoted their lives to creating a patented pharmaceutical from the plant. I consider their interactions with traditional healers from the 1940s, their struggles to establish a fledgling pharmaceutical industry, and the conflicts that complicated the success of the new drug in this postcolonial nation. This little known historical case provides a window into recent controversies surrounding biodiversity prospecting in tropical environments, the rights of indigenous peoples to shared benefits, and the quest for pharmaceutical patents. It is drawn from my recently published book, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa.


Friday, March 6th 2015
Speaker: Andrea Woody, Department of Philosophy, University of Washington
Subject: A Methodological Role for Explanation in Science: Mechanistic Explanation and the Functional Perspective
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

Philosophy of science offers a rich lineage of analysis concerning the nature of scientific explanation. The vast majority of this work, aiming to articulate necessary and/or sufficient conditions for explanations, presumes the proper analytic focus rests at the level of individual explanations. In recent work I have been developing an alternative, which I call the functional perspective, that shifts focus away from explanations as individual achievements and towards explaining as a coordinated activity of communities.
In this talk, I outline the functional perspective and discuss certain virtues and challenges for the framework. In particular, the functional perspective suggests that explanatory discourse should be “tuned” to the epistemic and practical goals of particular scientific communities. To explore the plausibility of this contention, I examine explanatory patterns involving reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. The aim here is to investigate ways in which such explanations are shaped to support the largely synthetic goals of the discipline. The contrast case will be mechanistic explanations in the biological sciences as recently characterized by philosophers of science. Mechanistic explanations in chemistry seem different in important respects. Most basically, I will argue that this example illustrates how taking the functional perspective may reveal an important methodological role for explanation in science, a role situated ultimately in social epistemology.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science


Friday, March 13th 2015
There will be no colloquium this week.

Friday, March 20th 2015
There will be no colloquium this week.

Friday, March 27th 2015
Speaker: Kristin Peterson, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
Subject: Transcontinental Drug Traffic: Chemical Arbitrage, Speculative Capital, and Pharmaceutical Markets in Nigeria
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

In the 1970s, Nigeria's oil boom generated unprecedented state wealth, quite in contrast to a massive U.S. economic recession. During that period, U.S. and European multinational companies turned to Nigeria to manufacture drugs and sold them on what was then a significant and important foreign market in terms of sales. By the 1990s, brand name drug markets in Nigeria and throughout Africa were completely eviscerated and relocated elsewhere. What was once almost exclusively a brand name drug market is now home to mostly imported pharmaceuticals throughout the world, for which there are constant concerns over drug quality. The paper first discusses two simultaneous convergences that remade the West African brand name market: Nigeria's structural adjustment program and the pharmaceutical industry's turn to speculative capital. It then provides an overview of the kinds of markets and the kinds of drugs that emerged in the aftermath of brand name industry's abandonment of the West African market. It concludes with a discussion on how actors within Nigerian and global drug markets interact with chronic, and indeed anticipated, market volatility in ways that produce new orders of pharmaceutical value.


Friday, April 3rd 2015
Speaker: Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
Subject: Rural Health and Striking Urban Doctors: The Aftermath of Mexico's Attempt to Provide Healthcare for All
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

In late 1964 residents and interns walked out of Mexico City hospitals and clinics in what would become a ten-month-long medical movement. In the months that followed the walkout, young doctors' demands shifted from salary and better working conditions to openly questioning an increasingly oppressive regime. Mexico had long been seen as a leader in health care delivery in Latin America and the image of doctors protesting in the streets became a visible sign of the failings of the nation's public health care system. This presentation examines the unlikely aftermath of the medical movement as well as its causes and links to earlier policies to provide healthcare to rural Mexicans.


Friday, April 10th 2015
Speaker: Mazviita Chirimuuta, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
Subject: Ontology of Colour, Naturalized
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

Can there be a naturalized metaphysics of colour—a straightforward distillation of the ontological commitments of the sciences of colour? In this talk I first make some observations about the kinds of philosophical theses that bubble to the surface of perceptual science. Due to a lack of consensus, a colour ontology cannot simply be read off from scientists' definitions and theoretical statements.

I next consider three alternative routes towards a naturalized colour metaphysics.
1) Ontological pluralism—endorsing the spectrum of views associated with the different branches of colour science.
2) Looking for a deeper scientific consensus.
3) Applying ideas about emergent properties that have been useful elsewhere in biology.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.


Friday, April 17th 2015
Speaker: Francesca Bray, Social Anthropology, University of California Santa Barbara/University of Edinburgh
Subject: Happy Endings: Narratives of Reproduction in Late Imperial China
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

A rich resource for exploring the reproductive cultures of late imperial China ca. 1500 – 1800 is the abundant corpus of gynecology (fuke) treatises and case-histories. Demographic historians have recently used quantitative sources to argue that deliberate checks on fertility became common during this period, and that a rational, "modern" demographic mentality emerged which saw elite or better-off families matching numbers of children to resources and opportunities. In documenting specific attempts to intervene in natural processes, the fuke medical cases offer some very different perspectives on how childbirth and fertility were understood by Chinese families, what was considered a successful outcome, what a failure, and whose opinions counted. Here I focus on the temporal framing and narrative choices of selected fuke cases to ask what they can tell us about how practitioners and their clients attempted to control reproductive processes, and about the ideals, decisions and emotions associated with childbearing. The medical sources corroborate several elements of the demographers' model of reproductive agency and rationality, yet vividly portray the uncertainty, peril and intense emotions of reproductive life, and underline the heavy price the many women had to pay in order to produce a socially desirable family.


Friday, April 24th 2015
Speaker: Leslie Tomory, History and Classical Studies, McGill University
Subject: London's Water Supply before 1800 and the Origins of Network Modernity
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, integrated technological networks have proliferated, especially in the Western world. This talk argues that one of the roots of this technologically networked society is London's water supply network. This infrastructure network was first founded in 1580, and by the 18th century, tens of thousands of houses were connected to it. The builders of this network solved a host of business, financial, legal and technological problems, and in doing so, created a model that was explicitly used by later network builders.


Friday, May 1st 2015
Speaker: Erik Angner, Department of Philosophy, George Mason University
Subject: There Is No Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons
Refreshments served in Room 275 Nicholson Hall at 3:15 p.m.

The proposition that interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible has been part and parcel of mainstream economics for almost a century. These days, the proposition is invoked inter alia in arguments against happiness-based measures of well-being, which average happiness scores across populations in an effort to represent social welfare. In this talk, I will argue that interpersonal comparisons of utility are in fact implicit in virtually all traditional economic social welfare measures as well; if such comparisons are problematic, then, the problem is not unique to happiness-based measures. Fortunately, however, I will argue but that the proposition is a piece of zombie methodology: a methodological prescription that should have been dead and buried a long time ago. Social welfare measures have many problems, but interpersonal comparisons isn't one.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science.


Friday, May 8th 2015
Speaker: Michael Worboys, Life Sciences, University of Manchester
Subject: The Making of the Modern Dog: Breed, Blood and Britishness
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

In this talk I discuss the material and cultural manufacture of the modern dog. By 'modern dog', I mean an animal seen principally in terms of its 'breed'; that is, a specific physical conformation and related behavioural characteristics. Its inventors were British middle and upper class aficionados of dog shows, which were events of sporting competition, commercial speculation and sociality. They grew in popularity from the 1860s and by 1900 had spread, with their new types of canine, across the world. The ways in which dog shows were organised encouraged, and then required, dog breeders to reshape the existing variety of dog types into standardised forms called breeds, and to record the breed history of dogs in pedigree. The very first modern dog was a pointer named 'Major', so defined in 1865 by John Henry Walsh (aka 'Stonehenge'). He became the model for all subsequent members of the breed; however, in the spirit of the times, the 'improvement' was expected through breeding with and for good blood.


Friday, September 11th 2015
There will be no colloquium this week.

Friday, September 18th 2015
Speaker: Mary Domski, University of New Mexico
Subject: Descartes and Newton on Deducing True Laws of Nature
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1644) and Newton’s Principia mathematica (1687) are two of the most important works of seventeenth century natural philosophy. Yet, when put side by side, it is far easier to identify differences between the texts than it is to pin-point similarities. Their laws of nature are a case in point. Descartes deduces his three laws from our knowledge of God and claims these laws are true insofar as they capture the world as God actually created it. Newton, in contrast, “deduces” his laws of motion “from the phenomena,” which suggests that these laws are true of the world as it is presented to our senses. In this paper, I first clarify the epistemic significance of Descartes’s and Newton’s competing “deductions” and competing notions of truth. Based on that treatment, I then highlight a significant and frequently overlooked point of agreement: Both Descartes and Newton adopt methods for establishing true laws of nature that allow us to know that bodies obey particular laws without a complete understanding of why they do, i.e., without requiring that we identify the natural processes and properties that explain the behaviors that the laws describe.


Friday, September 25th 2015
Speaker: Harold Cook, Brown University
Subject: A Different Descartes: The New Galen
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m. A Charles E. Culpeper Lecture in the History of Medicine. Co-sponsored with the Center for Early Modern History.

Descartes is often said to be the French philosopher who gave us the mind-body problem. But he only began to write philosophy seriously in his 30s, living abroad. In his youth he apparently became we acquainted with libertine writers; when the assassination of the Queen Regent’s favorite, Concini, took place in 1617 he left to learn the art of war and became deeply immersed in French entanglements related to the Thirty Years War. After another short period in Paris his personal and political involvements seem to have caused him and his friends to feel threatened by the chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. He spent the last twenty years of his life (1629-49) as an exile in The Netherlands, where he indeed had the leisure and ambition for writing about the nature of the world. Can we re-connect his mind and body?


Friday, October 2nd 2015
Speaker: Christopher Noble, Villanova University
Subject: Leibniz and Technology: What Automata, Mills, and Calculators Teach Us about Cognition
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Friday, October 9th 2015
Speaker: Richard Scheines, Carnegie Mellon University
Subject: The Revolution in Computational Causal Discovery
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Social scientists have been pursuing causal knowledge from observational studies for well over 100 years, with limited success. In the last 25 years, however, the computational and statistical methods available for causal modeling and discovery have exploded. I describe this revolution and illustrate it on some recent case studies in social and biomedical science. I also describe the challenges that still remain, including conceptual problems of defining variables and inferential problems arising from trying to measure them.


Friday, October 16th 2015
Speaker: Ahmed Ragab, Harvard Divinity School
Subject: How to be a Patient: Patienthood and Medical Thinking in the Medieval Islamicate World
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m. Co-sponsored with the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Center for Early Modern History, and the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World

Friday, October 23rd 2015
Speaker: Joseph Gabriel, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Subject: Origins of a Legitimation Crisis: Medical Science, Private Profit, and the Challenge of Big Pharma
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, has recently suggested that as much as half of all published medical literature may be false. Horton is not alone in making such a claim: over the past decade a growing number of influential critics from within the medical establishment have raised significant concerns about the evidentiary basis of contemporary medicine. Drawing from my recent work on intellectual property rights and the history of the pharmaceutical industry, in this talk I present some preliminary thoughts on the origins of what I see as a brewing legitimation crisis facing medical science. I suggest that one possible origin point for current concerns about the evidentiary basis of scientific medicine can be found during the late nineteenth century, when a series of therapeutic reformers re-conceptualized the relationship between medical science and monopoly rights in drug manufacturing. In doing so, these reformers sought to legitimize the role of private profit in the production of scientific knowledge; unintentionally, they also cast in doubt the very possibility of an objective science free from motivated self-interest. Since then, I suggest, the tension between private profit as both a productive force and a source of skepticism has been generalized to such an extent that the very possibility of actionable scientific knowledge in the medical domain now seems threatened.


Friday, October 30th 2015
Speaker: Margaret Morrison, University of Toronto
Subject: Fictional Models and Models as Fictions: Disentangling the Difference
EVENT CANCELLED!!!

Because models often represent the world in unrealistic ways an increasingly popular view in the philosophical literature classifies models as fictions, aligning the way they convey information with strategies used in various forms of fictional writing. While fictional models certainly play a role in science I want to resist the “models as fictions” view by arguing that it not only has the undesirable consequence of erasing an important distinction between different types of models and modelling practices, but it fails to enhance our understanding of the role that fictional models do play in the transmission of scientific knowledge.


Friday, November 6th 2015
Speaker: Michael Reidy
Subject: How to Create a Physicist
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In 1850, John Tyndall was struggling to find his way: he was a thirty-year old graduate student in mathematics living in an attic in Marburg, completely unknown, utterly broke, and working himself to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. Within three years, he held a distinguished professorship at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, working alongside the likes of Michael Faraday, and commanding sold-out crowds wherever he lectured. I will follow Tyndall for these three years as he rose from obscurity to stardom. The route he took will sound both surprising and familiar to modern ears. How he navigated his way through the social and scientific world of mid Victorian Britain can tell us much about how a physicist is created, both then and now.


Friday, November 13th 2015
Speaker: Donna Bilak, Columbia University
Subject: Steganography and the Art of Secret Writing: New Perspectives on Michael Maier’s Alchemical Emblem Book, Atalanta fugiens (1618)
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In 1618, an alchemical savant named Michael Maier published an extraordinary alchemical emblem book, the Atalanta fugiens. Distinguished among the hermetic corpus for its fifty exquisite engravings of enigmatic alchemical images, which are set to music, Maier's Atalanta fugiens is an elegant audio-visual articulation of alchemical theory and practice for producing the philosophers’ stone, the panacea held to restore perfect health and longevity to humankind. The Atalanta fugiens is Maier's allegorical paean to wisdom achieved through the pursuit of true alchemy, and it is his evocation of a Golden Age published on the eve of the Thirty Years' War. However, this book contains a secret that has lain hidden for the past four hundred years, enciphered in its pages. This talk explores Maier's Atalanta fugiens as a virtuoso work of allegorical encryption that fuses poetry, iconography, music, mathematics, and Christian cabala to extol hermetic wisdom, while evoking alchemical technologies and laboratory processes - for Maier’s emblem book functions as a game or puzzle that the erudite reader must solve, decode, play.


Friday, November 20th 2015
Speaker: James Justus, Florida State University
Subject: Ecological Theory and the Niche
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

At least until Hubbell’s neutral theory emerged, no concept was thought more important to theorizing in ecology than the niche. Without it––and its highly abstract definition by Hutchinson in particular––technically sophisticated and well-regarded theories of character displacement, limiting similarity, and many others would seemingly never have been developed. The niche concept is also the centerpiece of perhaps the best candidate for a distinctively ecological law, the competitive exclusion principle. But the incongruous array of proposed definitions of the concept squares poorly with its apparent centrality. I argue this definitional diversity reflects a problematic conceptual imprecision that challenges its putative indispensability in ecological theory. Recent attempts to integrate these disparate definitions into a unified characterization fail to resolve the imprecision.


Friday, November 27th 2015
No Colloquium: Thanksgiving Break

Friday, December 4th 2015
Speaker: Peter Distelzweig, University of St. Thomas
Subject: Method and Morals in William Harvey's Philosophical Anatomy
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In the preface to his 1655 De Corpore, Thomas Hobbes identified William Harvey as the first to discover and demonstrate the science of the human body, and set him alongside Copernicus and Galileo as a founder of genuine natural science. Hobbes says Harvey is the only man he knows who, conquering envy, established a new doctrine in his own lifetime. Harvey himself frames his De motu cordis (1628) as an effort, both methodologically sound and morally upright, to convince “studious, good, and honest men” despite the ill will and machinations of those with biased minds. Drawing on his anatomy lecture notes, I first unpack Harvey’s understanding of right method in “philosophical anatomy.” I then trace how this understanding shapes Harvey’s argumentation in the De motu cordis, including its moral valence.


Friday, December 11th 2015
Speaker: Nicholas Buchanan, History of Science and Technology, University of Minnesota
Subject: Tanked: On Keeping This Alive in Places They Shouldn't Be
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In this talk, Dr. Buchanan will discuss the history of two tanks, each of which was designed to keep organisms alive in places where they otherwise would have perished. These artificial environments—aquaria beginning in the mid-19th century and spacecraft in the mid 20th—together offer a window onto changing perceptions about the human ability to know the natural world and to use that knowledge to control, manipulate, and even replicate it. In both cases, scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts used changing knowledge about the earth and its inhabitants to create technologies that were meant to be “an imitation of the means employed by nature herself” (to use the words of a Victorian aquarian), ranging from table-top jars to large institutional aquaria, from single-person capsules to plans for permanent human colonies in space. I’ll argue that building artificial environments was an important activity from which scientists, engineers, the public, and policy-makers learned about the systemic complexities of nature. What’s more, the difficult task of making artificial environments that could actually support life for long periods, and the ease with which these could be “broken,” highlighted the fragility of nature and its vulnerability to human intervention.


Friday, December 18th 2015
There will be no colloquium this week.

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