Category Archives: historians of science

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

"We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap!" in Spontaneous Generations

The new open-access history of science, technology and medicine journal from the University of Toronto, Spontaneous Generations, has its first issue online. I look forward to reading a lot of it; the “focused discussion” on scientific expertise looks very interesting, and both of the peer-reviewed articles look good as well.

Of course, most exciting for me is the publication of my opinion piece, the very first article in the first issue of Spontaneous Generations: “We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap!” (pdf), a call for historians of science, technology and medicine to get involved with Wikipedia.

I’m going to try to work some of this content into Wikipedia (and hopefully others will help), as a way of supporting open content journals. The first one, “An Engineer’s View of an Ideal Society” (pdf), looks like a perfect source for improving Wikipedia’s “C. H. Douglas” and “Social Credit” articles. The second article, “Mothers, Babies, and the Colonial State” (pdf), focuses on health reform in Nigeria from 1925 to 1945 (while it was still a British colony). This is one where it will be tougher to integrate into the existing Wikipedia coverage; there is a short article on “health care in Nigeria“, but no discussion of its history. And that article is one of just two “health care in X” articles for all of Africa (the other is Uganda). There is no article on “health care in Africa”. The history of medicine and public health coverage is also quite slim, making it hard to bridge the gap between the kind of work scholars in those fields do and the kinds of broader coverage that Wikipedia sometimes does well. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any professional historians of medicine or grad students who are active Wikipedians.

Back from History of Science Society meeting

I’m home from an exhausting weekend at the History of Science Society meeting. For a number of reasons, I had a great time: I now know enough people that I can make introductions between people with similar interests; I had my camera (see my Flickr set); I wasn’t giving a paper; my reputation as a Wikipedian occasionally preceded me; and I even learned something at a couple of talks.

I had intended to do some live-blogging during the sessions, but the connectivity wasn’t good enough. I’ll have to settle for a few reflective posts (forthcoming) on good sessions, on the state of the field, on the historian social scene, etc.

What are historians good for? Part II

In my first post to Revise and Dissent, I lamented that historians don’t have good answers to the question: “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?” I heard two very engaging talks over the last 8 days, from two historians of science and medicine with very different takes on the issue.

Last week, Alice Dreger gave probably the most provocative colloquium talk I’ve heard at Yale. Dreger is an intersex rights activist and “medical humanist” who has worked to change the barbaric practices of genital surgery for children with disorders of sex development (or whatever you want to call the conditions; terminology is a charged issue here), often without even informing the parents. She also became involved in recent controversies over transsexualism and the book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and she’s written social/medical histories of hermaphrodites and “unusual anatomies”.

In a great talk that simultaneously made her seem brazenly self-promoting and bracingly altruistic, Dreger explained how she has been doing what she calls “onion-peeling”: private histories about individuals (shared only with the subject) that place people’s lives, or specific traumatic events in their lives, into historical context. She described how powerful these short (4-6 pages, usually) self-contained histories were to their subjects. For many, reading their own history in someone else’s words was a cathartic experience that let them understand and accept their pasts (e.g., why a doctor had performed an infant clitoridectomy, and why their family had never discussed the issue during childhood).

These personal histories are nearly useless for doing academic history, since they are performed on the explicit condition of privacy and the subject-driven interview-and-revision procedure introduces grave reliability problems by normal oral history standards. As Dreger explained it, the main benefit of doing these “onion-peelings” is the personal satisfaction of seeing your work have a direct and substantial positive impact on someone’s life. She hinted that she sees normal history as a powerful force for social good as well, but with effects that are harder to see (and so harder to feel good about). The end-game of the talk was that Dreger is considering starting a non-profit to help other historians do “onion-peeling” (client-centered histories), and maybe even provide funding for them to do so.

Topics of discussion after the presentation included: the line between onion-peel history and psychoanalysis; legal and emotional liability; the permissibility of glossing over historical ambiguity for the benefit of an audience of one; and how such pro bono work could fit into the expectations of modern academia. I, for one, find the idea of client-centered histories compelling, but not something I would actually consider doing. It’s a better answer to the blog title question than nothing, but I think there are more efficient (though maybe not as personally rewarding) ways for historians to serve the public, if they are actually willing to do something outside the professional norms.

Today, William Newman gave a talk on why Newton (and many other smart people in the 17th and 18th centuries) practiced alchemy, and how there was a smooth transition from alchemy to chymistry to chemistry. Even Lavoisier, says Newman, was doing basically the same kinds of things Newton had been doing a century before–just with more sophisticated and precise apparatus (and a clever theory of combustion). Despite substantial treatments of Newton’s alchemy by earlier historians such as Richard Westfall, Newman thinks that most work on the Scientific Revolution is badly flawed because early historians of alchemy didn’t understand the technical aspects of alchemy (and so overemphasized the metaphorical and occult aspects).

Newman and others have been working out what Newton was actually doing in his workshop. (He described a Newton not so different from the character in The Baroque Cycle.) Newman did a live alchemy demonstration, showing how certain minerals would show signs of life (substances that form fast-growing crystals when put in a chemical solution, e.g., a “silica garden“), and how nitric acid could be (and was) used supposedly to transmute silver into gold (by depletion gilding). Newman explained why transmutation was part of the agenda of the legitimate, “scientific” alchemists like Newton: in the 17th century there was no NSF; the promise of transmutation was a sort of “grant application” of sorts, which he compared to modern justifications for research funding that promise a cure for cancer (which the young field of molecular biology used to great effect in the 1950s and ever since, but with a cure still seeming as far off as ever.) Transmutation wasn’t inconceivable, but the alchemists had more practical, immediate goals for their work and would use the lure of unlimited alchemical wealth for their patrons to their own ends.

With NSF funding, Newman is building a complete online collection of Newton’s alchemy manuscripts (which are scattered about the globe, since many were auctioned off in the early 20th century): The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. The site has seen considerable popular interest; there is a lot of enthusiasm about Newton among non-historians. But when I asked Newman “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?”, he stumbled. (This after his eloquent, obviously well-practiced explanation of why it matters to other historians of science). Answering that question, he said, is like “tilting at windmills”; historical myths like Columbus discovering that the Earth is round persist, even though historians have known them to be false for several generations. The misinformed “army of middle-school teachers” create a closed loop of misinformation that propagates from generation to generation, a seemingly insoluble problem.

Myths about alchemy (and the flat earth, and the conflict between science and religion, and Ptolemaic astronomy, and many others) are doubly pernicious and recalcitrant because they serve as a purpose, as foil for their modern counterparts. Newman is pessimistic that any significant changes in public (mis)perceptions of the history of science are possible, since these myths acquire their own momentum.

I think Wikipedia is changing that, and changing the whole way the public uses and understands history–e.g., see Flat Earth and Flat Earth mythology–but that’s a topic for another post (and for the article for the History of Science Society Newsletter that I’m working on). If you got this far, thanks, and sorry for the blogorrhoea.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent]

More scholars calling for Wikipedia involvement

After Roy Rosenzweig’s June 2006 article on Wikipedia in The Journal of American History, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past“, I predicted a large-scale change in the way scholars—humanists in particular—view Wikipedia. Things started slowly; Marshall Poe’s September article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Hive” was the next major piece, and other interesting viewpoints continued to trickle in until the Middlebury College ban.

But lately, calls for involvement and reports of classroom success have been coming in rapidly. Recommended reading:

I’m working on my own piece for historians of science, and I’m trying to kick the inflammatory rhetoric up a notch. I probably need to come up with a catchy title, though. Unfortunately, garden-variety historians and English professors have already melted the obvious Dr. Strangelove snowclone. (What’s up with that? That’s history of science territory!) Maybe I could go with the other Strangelove snowclone: “We must not allow a Wikipedia gap!”

By the way, any suggests for improving the above article would be greatly appreciated; I’ll be submitting it soon.

Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.

Things I’ve been enjoying

A few months ago, I found (via TT) a wonderful series of short videos, “Mr. Deity“. There are eight episodes so far, and most of them are brilliant… especially episodes 5 and 7, featuring Lucifer.

Something else wonderful: a Terry Bisson science fiction (very) short story, “They’re Made Out of Meat“, and an award-winning film treatment of it.

Catherine Pandora has a great post in her petri dish on bestiaries, past and present: “the beasts and the birds will teach thee“.

The last two movies I’ve seen, both quite enjoyable though seriously flawed: The Illusionist and The Prestige. Hooray for David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.

One great image, among several very good ones from the Woot! “wide-screen version” contest, has given me repeated joy every time I think of it:
This is a pipeAnd finally, I won an eBay auction on a trio of 1929 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt:
Blossfeldt 1Blossfeldt 2Blossfeldt 3