University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Physics and Astronomy Calendar

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.

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