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

semester, 2017


Friday, January 20th 2017
Speaker: Jed Elison, Institute of Child Development - University of Minnesota
Subject: "Considering Temporal Heterogeneity in Autism”
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

The genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity integral to the phenomenon of autism is well characterized, yet recent evidence highlights a third source of variability that warrants careful consideration. Temporal heterogeneity, a term borrowed from ecological theory, considered in the context of psychiatric disorders, denotes observed variability in developmental timing as it relates to disease phenomena. Temporal heterogeneity may represent a specific feature of phenotypic heterogeneity or capture evolving patterns of environmental demands that temporally coincide with changes in the developing organism. And yet, simply entertaining the concept challenges traditional notions of diagnostic stability and issues related to nosology.


Friday, January 27th 2017
Speaker: Abigail Neely, Department of Geography - Dartmouth College
Subject:  “Entangled Agencies: Reimagining Social Medicine from Pholela”
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

In this talk, I examine a world famous experiment in social medicine -- the Pholela Community Health Centre -- through the lives and health of the African residents of Pholela, South Africa, where it was implemented. In particular, I use residents' experiences with witchcraft to examine the limitations of the social medicine practiced there. Using a relational ontology, I argue that the Pholela Community Health Centre's social medicine was limited by the ways health care professionals understood the social and the biological factors that affect health.

Co-sponsored with the Institute for Advanced Study.


Friday, February 3rd 2017
Speaker: Ed Larson, Pepperdine University
Subject: "Red Dawn Rising: the Sketchy History and Techno-thriller Prospects of Geoengineering"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

The global debate over the danger of human-caused climate change has spawned a secondary one over geoengineering as a possible human-instigated response with attention increasingly focusing on the intentional injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the earth. Over the past two decades, this idea has moved from a crank concept supported by a few fringe technologists in Russia and the United States, such as H-Bomb physicist Edward Teller, to a theory whose study has been endorsed by such mainstream scientific organizations as the Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. With a friendly ear in the Kremlin and now the White House, the world may see a red dawn rising for geoengineering. This lecture will review its sketchy past and techno-thriller future.


Friday, February 10th 2017
Speaker: Margaret Schabas, University of British Columbia
Subject: "Thought Experiments in Economics"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

This paper will demarcate thought experiments from models in economics, and argue that thought experiments and models are distinct types of conceptual tools. There are, however, some models that are near cousins to thought experiments, and vice versa. I will argue that thought experiments are in fact quite rare in economics, past or present. They are launched by a strong if not jarring counterfactual to a distant rather than proximate other world, and the journey the mind then takes back to this world is a familiar one. The paradigmatic case is Hume’s sudden doubling of the money supply, or Friedman’s helicopter drop. But the current rash of thought experiments in environmental economics, as posited by for example Martin Weitzman or Nathaniel Keohane, is misguided. We would be the better for finding a different name for models that speculate well into the future.


Friday, February 17th 2017
Speaker: Heidi Hausse, Princeton University
Subject: "Exploring the Material World of Mechanical Hands in Early Modern Europe"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

There are few objects that illustrate so well the intersections of medicine, technology, and culture as artificial hands crafted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Made of metal, wood, leather, and paint, these artifacts suggest the creative and elaborate ways men and women in early modern Europe used to cope with bodily loss. Yet, most early modern hand prostheses sit unnoticed by historians in the shadowy corners of armor exhibits, in museum storage boxes, or tucked away in private collections. This talk shines an investigative light on these objects—from iron arms to wooden hands, and spring-driven finger mechanisms to delicately engraved fingernails. The techniques displayed in such anonymous artifacts, whose wearers and makers remain unknown, show that the problem of bodily loss extended beyond the individual sufferer and his or her family, and into the shops of locksmiths, armorers, clockmakers, woodworkers, and any number of other sites of production.

Co-sponsored with the Center for Early Modern History and the Center for Austrian Studies.


Friday, February 24th 2017
Speaker: Robert Schulmann, The Einstein Papers Project
Subject: "Albert Einstein: Political Consistency in Volatile Times"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

There is a remarkable consistency in Einstein’s views on physics and politics, and in his personal relations. In concentrating on political aspects of the Einstein trajectory, I will stress the continuities, above all the moral consistencies that underpinned his political evolution and that explain at least in part the hold he still has on us. Ever the non-conformist, it is Einstein’s sensitivity to the plight of the underdog, to the weaker members of society, and to the outsider that serves as the major contributing factor. I plan to tease out some strands that have particular significance in the present political situation.


Friday, March 3rd 2017
Speaker: Stacey Van Vleet, University of California - Berkeley
Subject: "Edible Networks: Precious Pills as Technologies of Medical Governance in Qing China"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

Between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century, Tibetan Buddhism grew from a regional system of governance to one at the heart of the Qing Empire (1644-1911) ruling China and Inner Asia. A crucial factor in this growth was the Qing rulers' adoption of Tibetan Buddhist medical institutions and technologies, in a concerted imperial strategy to consolidate administration of the frontiers by promoting medical training, treatment, and ritual. Tibetan Buddhist monastic colleges in the Qing Empire practiced medical technologies from smallpox innoculation to moxibustion and bonesetting, but became best known for their production of "precious pills" (rin chen ril bu), or the consecrated, edible products of ritual assemblies. In this talk, I demonstrate how precious pills during the Qing period developed as technologies of collecting and compounding expensive ingredients from far-flung regions of the empire, materializing the experience of a multi-ethnic Buddhist community as a consecrated "edible network." Understanding precious pills as medical technologies available for imperial adoption and redevelopment, I argue, reveals how they served not only to engineer physical health and spiritual growth, but also to engineer remedies for conflict and building community.


Friday, March 10th 2017
Subject: No HSTM/MCPS Colloquium this Week

Friday, March 17th 2017
Subject: No HSTM/MCPS Colloquium for Spring Break

Friday, March 24th 2017
Speaker: Lee Vinsel, Stevens Institute of Technology
Subject: "Making Maintainers: A Place for History in an Age of Innovation-Speak and Endless Tech Hype"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

Our culture is obsessed with innovation, which is thought to be the goal of business, policy-making, philanthropy, education, even play. Yet, the vast majority of human activity aims not at creating or adopting innovative things but in maintaining old ones. This talk first traces the rise of innovation-speak in the USA before turning to an alternative view of human life with technology that focuses on maintenance, repair, and mundane labor, a long tradition of thought that includes historians like Ruth Schwartz Cowan and David Edgerton.


Friday, March 31st 2017
Subject: Author Meets Readers: David M. Miller's "Representing Space in the Scientific Revolution"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

Readers:

Katherine Brading, Philosophy, University of Notre Dame

Samuel Fletcher, Philosophy, University of Minnesota

Edward Slowik, Philosophy, Winona State University

Abstract: The novel understanding of the physical world that characterized the Scientific Revolution depended on a fundamental shift in the way its protagonists understood and described space. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, spatial phenomena were described in relation to a presupposed central point; by its end, space had become a centerless void in which phenomena could only be described by reference to arbitrary orientations. David Marshall Miller examines both the historical and philosophical aspects of this far-reaching development, including the rejection of the idea of heavenly spheres, the advent of rectilinear inertia, and the theoretical contributions of Copernicus, Gilbert, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. His rich study shows clearly how the centered Aristotelian cosmos became the oriented Newtonian universe, and will be of great interest to students and scholars of the history and philosophy of science.


Friday, April 7th 2017
Subject: "Medical Materialities: Teaching, Feeding, and Healing the Body through Medical Humanities" - A Conversation with Barbara Troise Rioda and David Gentilcore
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

Friday, April 14th 2017
Speaker: Jeremy Greene, Johns Hopkins University
Subject: "Innovation on the Reservation: Information Technology and Health Systems Research Among the Papago Tribe of Arizona, 1965-1980"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

In May of 1973, an unusual collaboration between the NASA, the Indian Health Service, and the Lockheed Missile and Space Company promised to transform the way that members of the Papago (now Tohono O’odham) Nation of Southern Arizona accessed modern medicine. Through a system of state-of the art microwave relays, slow-scan television links, and mobile health units, the residents of this vast reservation—roughly the size of the state of Connecticut—would access physicians remotely via telemedical encounters instead of traveling to distant hospitals. The STARPAHC (Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care) partnership lasted from 1973 to 1977, but its legacies continue today.

The mission of STARPAHC was twofold: first, to help NASA test out its new Integrated Medical and Behavioral Laboratory Measurement System for use in future manned space flight, second, to help the IHS assess the role of new technologies for providing care across a vast rural landscape. While other accounts have explored the role of STARPAHC as an early telemedical system, little has been written on how or why the Papago reservation became an experimental site for biomedical communication technologies. We argue that STARPAHC was not entirely unprecedented, and had roots in other Cold War investigations into the role of health technologies in domestic and international health policy. Well before NASA became involved on the Papago reservation, the IHS had designated the Papago reservation as a “population laboratory” for testing new communications technologies inpublic health and primary health care, and tribal leadership had likewise developed this role through engagements with other forms of prototype electronic medical technologies.

This paper explores the configuration of the Papago reservation as an experimental site whose value derived in part from the ability of stakeholders in the IHS, the Peace Corps, and NASA to generalize its terrain to stand in for any number of other Native American reservations, villages in Malawi, Liberia, and Korea, or extra-terrestrial landscapes, respectively, as a proving ground for health communications technologies. This talk, drawn largely from archival materials and published articles is part of a larger project on the uses of communications technologies to resolve disparities.


Friday, April 21st 2017
Speaker: Kathryn Tabb, Columbia University
Subject: "The Precision Medicine Turn in Psychiatry: Some Epistemic Puzzles and an Ethical Concern”
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

Recent methodological, financial, and rhetorical shifts by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reveal the Institute’s growing interest in funding basic science research over clinical research. The most dramatic adjustment has been the abandonment of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in favor of an alternative classification protocol for psychiatric research, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework. I begin by giving a history of this shift, noting that RDoC is only a part a larger embrace by biomedical psychiatry of what has been called the “precision medicine model,” a new paradigm for medical research that uses biomarkers to stratify patients into new categories for treatment purposes. This shift in nosological practice is being accompanied—for contingent rather than necessary reasons, I show—by a heightened interest in neuroscientific explanations. I argue that these two new epistemic virtues—precision and neurocentrism—give rise to new epistemic puzzles about psychiatric progress, especially about the sort of explanations and interventions that biomedical researchers are likely to find. I conclude by showing that answering these epistemic puzzles will be a necessary part of tackling what I see as an important ethical concern about precision psychiatry: that it favors future patients over present ones.


Friday, April 28th 2017
Speaker: Jessica Riskin, Stanford University
Subject: "How the Mouse Lost its Tail, Or, Lamarck's Dangerous Idea"
Refreshments served at 3:25 p.m.

The clockwork cosmos of early modern science was a passive and static thing, its shape imposed by an external designer, its movements originating outside itself. The classical mechanists of the seventeenth century evacuated force and agency from the cosmos, including, for the most part, from its living inhabitants, to the province of a supernatural Clockmaker. They thereby built a kind of supernaturalism into the very structure of modern science. But not everyone concurred in this banishment. From the late seventeenth century onward, a tradition of dissenters embraced the opposite principle, that agency -- a capacity to act, to be self-making and self-transforming -- was essential to nature, especially living nature. A crucial member of this dissenting, active-mechanist tradition was the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, professor of natural history at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris. This paper examines his rigorously naturalist approach -- which naturalized rather than outsourced agency -- and its exile from the halls of mainstream science.

Lamarck was the leading author of two major, related ideas: first, the term “biology” and the idea of biology as a distinct science of life, and second, the idea of species-change, what we would now call “evolution,” but I will call it “transformism” to avoid reading aspects of later theories back into these early ideas about species-change. In 1802, Lamarck defined “biology” as one of three parts of “terrestrial physics,” the part comprehending everything to do with living bodies, especially their organization and its “tendency to create special organs.” In other words, the idea that living things composed and transformed themselves was central to this original definition of “biology.”

The paper will examine the political history of these conjoined ideas, transformism and a science devoted to its study, which carried with them an atmosphere of materialism, radicalism and anti-clericalism. This atmosphere became especially troubling toward the end of the nineteenth century to people such as the German Darwinist biologist August Weismann, who offered a definitive new interpretation of Darwinism that eliminated any whiff of Lamarckism. He and other neo-Darwinists were so successful that even today, Lamarck’s name is still in bad odor. His ideas themselves cannot tell us why; only their history can do that.

Co-sponsored with the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World and the Anselm House.


Friday, May 5th 2017
There will be no colloquium this week.

Friday, September 8th 2017
Speaker: Dr. Jennifer Alexander, History of Science and Technology - University of Minnesota
Subject: Technology, religion, and postwar debates about the order of creation: how the history of science and religion has led us into error in analyzing technology and religion
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Technology and religion in history can no longer fruitfully be analyzed within current parameters, which have been set by debates about science and religion. This talk uses debates about technology, theology, and the order of creation at the post-war forming of the World Council of Churches to illustrate that questions about science and religion were marginal, and that they yielded conservative political perspectives on the rebuilding of war-torn Europe. The talk comments on Peter Harrison's Gifford Lectures of 2011, recently published as The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, 2015), and on Harrison's respondents, who have suggested using the World Council of Churches and its emphasis on technology and practical projects as a way to rebuild the notion of a dialogue between science and religion.


Friday, September 15th 2017
Speaker: David Herzberg, Department of History - University at Buffalo
Subject: 'He Will be a Better Citizen as a Legitimate Addict': The Forgotten History of Harm Reduction in America’s First Opioid Epidemic
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

This talk argues that medical maintenance of opiate addicts was an important element in the effective response to America’s first opioid epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Physicians were relatively free to prescribe morphine to addicts despite federal authorities’ effort to stop them, because surveillance and policing were weak and state Medical Boards were often protective. Maintenance was clandestine and informal, however, and depended on addicts’ gaining sympathy and/or trust from individual physicians on a case-by-case basis. This restricted its reach along the familiar lines of American social prejudices, favoring addicts who could claim to be (as one described himself) “nice people in good standing.” This early and limited form of harm reduction did not ultimately serve as a model for future drug policy because of its secrecy and because of the racially-charged assumption that good addicts—rather than good policy—had helped bring an end to the opioid epidemic.

A Dorothy Bernstein Lecture in the History of Psychiatry


Friday, September 22nd 2017
Speaker: Alison Gopnik, Department of Psychology, University of California - Berkeley
Subject: When Children are Better Learners than Adults: Theory Formation, Causal Models, and the Evolution of Learning
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In the past 15 years, we have discovered that even young children are adept at inferring causal relationships and that they do so in much the same way as scientists, using causal models and inductive inference to construct intuitive theories of the world. But are there differences in the ways that younger children, older children and adults learn? And do socioeconomic status and culture make a difference? I will present several studies showing a surprising pattern. Not only can preschoolers learn abstract higher-order principles from data, but younger learners are actually better at inferring unusual or unlikely principles than older learners and adults. This pattern also holds for children in Peru and in Headstart programs in Oakland, California. I relate this pattern to computational ideas about search and sampling, to evolutionary ideas about human life history, and to neuroscience findings about the negative effects of frontal control on wide exploration. My hypothesis is that our distinctively long, protected human childhood allows an early period of broad hypothesis search, exploration and creativity, before the demands of goal-directed action set in.


Friday, September 29th 2017
Speaker: Amy Bix, Department of History - Iowa State University
Subject: Inviting Girls Into the Lab: the Rise of Diversity Advocacy in STEM, 1950-Present
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

One of the biggest transformations in modern science and engineering isn't a particular discovery, invention, or technique, but a revolution in assumptions about who can and should enter those disciplines. For years, American efforts focused on steering more young white men into science and engineering. By the mid-1950s, some scientists and engineers began programs to open opportunities to broader groups of youngsters. Their advocacy fostered wide-ranging campaigns to expand STEM opportunities for K-12 female students, which came to command major support from scientific and technical organizations, corporations, government, community groups, educators, even celebrities. This talk explores when, how, and why evolving ideas about gender roles, education, and the nature of STEM generated the modern movement for STEM diversity and outreach.


Friday, October 6th 2017
Speaker: David Kaiser, Program in Science, Technology and Society - Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Subject: Cold War Curvature: Measuring and Modeling Gravity in Postwar American Physics
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

A popular image persists of Albert Einstein as a loner, someone who avoided the hustle and bustle of everyday life in favor of quiet contemplation. Yet Einstein was deeply engaged with politics throughout his life; indeed, he was so active politically that the FBI kept him under surveillance for decades. His most enduring scientific legacy, the general theory of relativity -- physicists' reigning explanation of gravity and the basis for nearly all our thinking about the cosmos -- has likewise been cast as an austere temple standing aloof from the all-too-human dramas of political history. But was it so? By focusing on two examples of research on general relativity from the 1950s and 1960s -- the Shapiro time-delay test and early efforts in numerical relativity -- this lecture will examine some of the ways in which research on Einstein's theory was embedded in, and at times engulfed by, the tumult of world politics.

Co-sponsored with the School of Physics and Astronomy


Friday, October 13th 2017
Speaker: Rebecca Kukla, Department of Philosophy - Georgetown University
Subject: Structural Bias and the Commercialization of Medicine
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

The rapid and massive commercialization and privatization of medical research and practice constitutes a seismic shift in how medical knowledge is built, disseminated, and applied. In this presentation, I examine the epistemological (as opposed to the narrowly ethical) effects of this commercialization. I consider how private interests shape what gets researched, using what methods, and how research results are communicated, as well as how these interests shape clinical practice and even our theoretical understanding of what counts as a disease. I argue that commercialization and private interests result in various epistemically distorting biases being built directly into how we organize medical research and practice, quite independently from anyone’s intentions or conscious goals.


Friday, October 20th 2017
Speaker: Victor Boantza, History of Science and Technology - University of Minnesota
Subject: "Fluidity, Elasticity, and Activity: Conceptualizing Air from Boyle to the Early Newtonians"
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

The category of ‘permanently elastic fluids’, which by the late eighteenth century was widely used by investigators of pneumatic phenomena, embodies key aspects of the history of air as it gradually turned into a chemical species and a physical state of matter. In this talk, I explore the evolution of early conceptions of Air in terms of fluidity, elasticity, and
material activity. I examine the interplay between theory and practice from early mechanistic depictions of Air, through Boyle’s use of the notion of ‘springiness’, to the emergence of various conceptions of fluids, including aerial ones, based on the work of Boyle, Newton, and their contemporaries. Mobilizing new accounts of elastic fluids, in the early 1700s pneumatic practitioners drew analogies between Air and Fire. In the 1720s–30s, following Stephen Hales’s experimental demonstration that air could be fixed in and obtained from solid and liquid substances, natural philosophers and chemists introduced further distinctions between atmospheric Air and views of air as an active material agent and a form of matter. By the middle of the century, increasingly prevalent references to permanently elastic fluids marked the culmination of these developments. This reading challenges and complements the accepted narrative of the rise of pneumatic chemistry as essentially driven by a series of landmark experiments, facilitated by technological innovations ranging from the air pump to the pneumatic trough.

Promotion & Tenure Seminar - Co-sponsored by the School of Physics and Astronomy


Friday, October 27th 2017
Speaker: C. Kenneth Waters, Department of Philosophy - University of Calgary
Subject: An Epistemology of Scientific Investigation
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Basic accounts of scientific knowledge typically present it as a system for representing the world, often as a system that represents the fundamental structure of the world. This talk presents science as a system centered on investigating the world. It begins by posing the metaphysical possibility that the world has no fundamental structure. The world seems to have lots of structures, but perhaps it has no overall, general structure that spans scales. The talk continues by examining how geneticists and allied biologists systematically investigate, manipulate, and explain aspects of such a world. It shows that the systematicity of these investigations depends on strategies for manipulating and learning about aspects of parts of the world; it does not depend on scientists having a representation of the overall structure of these parts. The talk concludes that we can dispense with the assumption that the parts of the world investigated by these scientists have a general overall structure to be represented. These parts of the world have lots of structure, and investigation depends on them having lots of structure, but it does not depend on them having a general, overall structure.


Friday, November 3rd 2017
Speaker: Darin Hayton, Department of History - Haverford College
Subject: Astrology from University Lecture to Print Culture
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

n 1502 Conrad Tockler became a professor of astrology at the University of Leipzig. Manuscript copies of his lectures on a range of astrological topics and techniques survive as do a number of printed works, ranging from technical treatises on instruments to popular wall calendars and annual prognostications. Tockler’s lecture notes give us a fascinating glimpse into the concrete practices of teaching astrology at the early modern university, while his printed works help us recover the broader uses for astrological literature. Taken together, these materials reveal how Tockler extended a coherent astrological program from the exclusive university lecture hall to wider audiences for printed astrological pamphlets.

Co-sponsored with the Center for Early Modern History and the Center for Austrian Studies


Friday, November 10th 2017
Speaker: Rob DiSalle, Department of Philosophy - Western University
Subject: Absolute Space, Relative Motion, and the Method of Newtonian Physics
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Philosophical discussions of Newton’s theory of absolute space and motion generally focus on metaphysical questions that were raised by philosophical critics, such as Leibniz, who emphasized the relativity of motion. Such discussions generally overlook the fact that, in the course of developing his dynamics, Newton himself pursued the problem of the relativity of motion further than his opponents realized. While they defended the relativity of motion as a general principle, only Newton developed what ought to be called a theory of relativity: a systematic theoretical account of what is objective in the description of physical interactions, and a principled distinction between the objective properties and those that depend on the choice of a frame of reference. On this basis Newton articulated, more clearly than his contemporaries, the conceptual revisions imposed by the relativity of motion on prevailing notions of force, inertia, and causality. Indeed, the history of his thinking shows that Newton introduced the theory of absolute space precisely in order to articulate his theory of relativity, and to apply it to the outstanding problem of “the frame of system of the world.


Friday, November 17th 2017
Speaker: Molly Kao, Department of Philosophy - University of Montreal
Subject: Unification and Heuristic Strategies in the Development of Quantum Theory
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

In this talk, Dr. Kao provides a heuristic conception of the feature of unification in the context of developing scientific theories. She argues that the value of a unifying hypothesis is not necessarily that of its ability to explain phenomena, nor must it be that it is more likely to be true. Instead, unifying hypotheses can be valuable because they guide experimental research in different domains in such a way that the results from those experiments contribute to our understanding of a theory under pursuit. Dr. Kao supports this characterization by appealing to the early development of quantum theory.


Friday, December 1st 2017
Speaker: Nora Berenstain, Department of Philosophy - University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Subject: Active Ignorance and the Rhetoric of Biological Race Realism
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Biological race realism is frequently assumed in scientific investigations into presumed connections between race and physical and psychological features such as intelligence, temperament, criminality, and athleticism. I analyze ways scientists and philosophers actively cultivate ignorance surrounding biological race science by using rhetorical tools to portray critiques of biological race realism as in opposition to science itself. These rhetorical strategies involve painting substantive scientific criticisms—such as questions about empirical and methodological issues with data interpretation, unjustified background assumptions, and failure to rule out alternative explanations of data—as motivated purely by ideological concerns. These rhetorical strategies invoke an assumed distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values in science and misrepresent criticisms of biological race realism as existing wholly outside the realm of epistemic values.


Friday, December 8th 2017
Speaker: Andy Bruno
Subject: Eurasianism in Soviet Science: The Environmental Views of Aleksandr Fersman
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

Thoroughly a product of imperial Russia’s aristocratic culture, the mineralogist and geochemist Aleksandr Fersman rose to the top of the country’s scientific establishment after the Bolsheviks took control. He then remained a staunch supporter of various industrial projects through much of the Stalinist period. This talk puts Fersman’s thinking about the natural world in conversation with a quite distinctive mode of intellectual inquiry that developed contemporaneously. Eurasianism was a philosophical doctrine of a group of Russian émigrés who emphasized Russia’s unique status straddling Europe and Asia. While Fersman did not belong to this group of thinkers, a number of his ideas drew on specific experiences in the environments of the Eurasian landmass. Indeed, I argue that Fersman’s dualistic understanding of nature, his advocacy for the field of geochemistry, his definition of deserts, and a scheme he proposed for industrial operations owed much to the Eurasian settings of the science he practiced. Furthermore, this case of a Eurasian mineralogist illuminates novel aspects of the interplay between national and global sciences.

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