University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

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

Friday, April 1st 2016
Speaker: Jan Golinski, Department of History, University of New Hampshire
Subject: The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was a pivotal figure in the emergence of new scientific disciplines at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but his career cannot be understood through the traditional narrative of specialization and professionalization. Davy was a protean individual who forged his social persona with remarkable creativity. He exploited his institutional location to build a charismatic reputation with a public audience. He applied new electrical instruments and powers to reconfigure the discipline of chemistry. And he engaged in a sustained and profound exploration of his own subjectivity, through testing nitrous oxide and galvanism on his own body, and through literary exercises of poetry and fiction. Social ambidexterity, interdisciplinary creativity, and sometimes grueling self-experimentation were the keynotes of this extraordinary individual’s self-made identity. I shall argue that Davy’s experiments in selfhood illuminate the historical formation of the man of science in an era when social institutions and personal subjectivity were both in flux.

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