Haeckel’s illustrations

A few weeks ago I checked out Ernst Haeckel‘s amazing Kunstformen der Natur (1904), and I’ve been gradually scanning the plates and uploading them to Wikipedia. So I’m going to share a few of the coolest. As of right now, I have 62/100 uploaded, and 5 more ready to go.

Actiniae (Sea Anemones). This is now a featured picture on Wikipedia, and should end up on the main page for a day, eventually. I’m quite proud of it; almost as if I actually created it.
Discomedusae: Desmonema Annasethe. The central medusa, shown from the top and the side, was named after Haeckel’s deceased wife, Anna Sethe; found and described the year after her death, it’s tentacles reminded him of her long blonde hair.

Stephoidea (radiolarians). 1 of 10 radiolarian plates out of the 100 images in Kunstformen der Natur, which was itself a selection of the best of Haeckel’s image from earlier work. Haeckel helped to popularize radiolarians for recreational microscopists.Update (2/28/06): This post is part of this week’s Circus of the Spineless, which collects blogging on spineless creatures of all sorts.

Randy Olson’s science communication suggestions

Recently, the film Flock of Dodos was screened at Yale, followed by a discussion with the director Randy Olson, science writer Carl Zimmer, and others. As you might infer from the title, a poke at March of the Penguins, the movie is a humorous take on the public controversy over intelligent design. Unfortunately, I didn’t even find out about this until after it had come and gone. But the discussion afterwards focused on how evolutionists should deal with ID, and from the report of one of the students in Lloyd’s class, Olson recommended an excellent approach (with Zimmer providing an opposing perspective more in line with the approach of Panda’s Thumb, NCSE, etc.). Fortunately, Zimmer has provided some of the material, Olson’s 10 suggestions for “improving communication,” and I think he pretty much nails it.

Especially notable is number 3: “The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience.”

Effective storytelling is something that the scientific community as a whole simply fails at. But, ironically, the humanist disciplines (e.g., history) are nearly as bad. Scholars of all persuasions can continue, as PZ Myers suggests and John Lynch seems to support as well, to emphasize their strengths of “depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence.” But that just serves to further insulate an already insular group; putting more priority on effective mass communication does not mean abandoning good explanations, it just means making them available to non-scholars.

While the more practical branches of science might be able to justify their work in terms of the tangible technical payoffs that society gets from it, evolutionary biologists, historians, and most types of scholars simply don’t have any other reason to exist except for the general enrichment of society. Technical monographs and detailed case histories are a proximate goal to enhance the collective knowledge of a specialist community and body of literature, but we ought always to keep an eye on the larger goal of distilling the broad and deep scope of that literature into stories for the rest of society.

This is, of course, the same broad issue that draws me to Wikipedia, one of the easiest and most effective means of actually applying specialist knowledge to reshape public understanding. The way things are now, the extent of historical outreach is the occasional late-career book that aims at a (very limited) popular audience along with the requisite scholarly one. The only historical work that really makes it into public consciousness is what the media industries ask for from historians; Wikipedia (perhaps among other venues) is a chance for disciplines to shape their own public destinies and forge their own places in mass culture.

Ballad of Gresham College

Something wonderful was brought to my attention by one of the participants in the History of Science WikiProject: the Ballad of Gresham College. The ballad is a 1663 ode to the Royal Society, recounting the noble exploits of the Fellows. It was first (and probably only) published in 1932 (ISIS, vol. 18, no.1, pp. 103-117), along with Dorothy Stimson’s speculation on authorship and sparse notes about the individuals and RS publications to which it alludes.

Topics include:

These be the things with many more
Which miraculous appere to men
The Colledge intended: The like before
Were never donne, nor wilbe agen.

For anyone with a casual interest in the early Royal Society (or fans of The Baroque Cycle), you should definitely check it out. It’s now on Wikisource for the enrichment of the masses lacking JSTOR access.

Stephen Colbert on Science and President Bush

Check out this Colbert Report segment as a followup to my previous science funding post.

Edit: Those of you searching for “Colbert Bush” or some variation are probably looking for something on the White House press correspondents’ dinner at which Colbert recently lampooned the President. Try www.thankyoustephencolbert.org for links to the video.

raw fish + raw honey = crazy delicious

I decided a little while ago that I would try to start eating fish; inspired by Laura’s rareness enthusiasm, I figured I’d start with raw fish. I got some tuna and salmon sushi from the Whole Foods we found in Hartford. It actually wasn’t bad. I’m sure some of my friends will be proud.

Those same friends might appreciate this:

I was cleaning up my room and hanging up all the pearl snap shirts that littered the floor, and I thought of high school. Actually, I thought of reminiscing about high school in college, but whatever. What I thought of was how I used to wear 2 and sometimes 3 button-up shirst together; usually a short-sleeve and a flannel. So I put on 8 of my best shirts and took a few pictures.

In other news, raw honey. It’s the best foodstuff ever, except for cinnamon raisin cookies from Trader Joe’s. If you’ve never had it, go buy some.

Reading: Quicksilver

Watching: The Best Years of Our Lives, Serenity, 24, House, Quantum Leap

Listening: Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland, Jimmy Eat World – Futures

“This is, for historians of science, the equivalent of finding one of the original gospels.”

So says ‘manuscript expert’ Felix Pryor.

Huge history of science news breaking today: A 520-page manuscript of Robert Hooke‘s Royal Society meeting minutes from 1661-1691, found in the bottom of a cabinet. Hopefully the Royal Society will drum up enough cash to win the auction or find a “white knight” buyer, so it doesn’t end up locked in the private library of some collector.

This reminds me, I need to quit getting distracted with all these “required” readings and get back to Quicksilver.

The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, then and now

This week in Peter Westwick’s Science, Arms and the State, I got a chance to reread Paul Forman’s seminal “Behind quantum electronics: National security as basis for physical research in the United States, 1940-1960”. (Gender-sensitive young scholar that I am, I don’t use that adjective lightly; in addition to originality, the essay is remarkable for its macho-ness: dense graphs, dense footnotes, and a dense argument; sparse examples and lots of data… it’s enough to fill out a 400 page book, distilled into 60 pages.) My HSHM compatriot Brendan and I were both much more impressed with it than when we first encountered the “second Forman thesis” last year (I think we both remain skeptical of the first). The connection between scientific culture and military funding seems like a rich historical vein that hasn’t been explored enough yet. How much was the turn in physics from a positivistic, universalizing philosophy to more instrumentalist, application-oriented approach the result of the forces of money, and how much was just the manifestation of American pragmatism as the U.S. came to dominate the field (or whatever other cultural/philosophical/sociological/scientific-intellectual reasons might apply)?

As a historian of science and ex-scientist, I always find it astounding every time I see the breakdown of R&D budgets (even though by now, I’ve seen the statistics many, many times). All I’ve seen is university research, and all the professors I worked for were funded by the NSF, so it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the scale military research simply dwarfs so-called basic science. Science had always been nationalistic since there were nations, and was always shaped by patronage, but Big Science—which in the context of the military also means classified science—was and is a whole different beast.

Obviously military funding of applied science has produced major dividends in terms of technology that can be used for basic research (and consumer technologies), and to some extent scientists are able to utilize grants for their own ends that only tangentially contribute to the goals of military planners. But I can’t help thinking that for the physical sciences, probably 75% of the money (and researchers’ time) since the rise of the military-industrial-academic complex has essentially produced nothing of lasting value (I’m trying to be conservative here; Forman argues that only about 1% of federal funding went to what can reasonably be called “basic” research). Maybe historically that’s an unfair deprecation of national security concerns (coming from someone approaching history from a post-Cold War perspective), but at least since the first Gulf War (when our military showed the world that it was overwhelmingly superior—thanks to all those nice toys the researchers built—to any other convential forces), I can’t see any reason to continue pouring money into military research at the current levels.

Coincidently, I heard two segments on NPR relevant to Science, Arms and the State. The first was about Bush’s FY 2007 budget: former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who sounds a lot like the annoying yet charismatic host of NOVA, Robert Krulwich) cuts into Bush, oddly enough, for not being enough of a capitalist. Reich is outraged that Bush is spending $6 billion on the NSF for basic physical science research, which he characterizes as corporate welfare, and it doesn’t even give us a leg up on foreign competition, since the whole world has access to the results. And funding alternate fuel technologies (nuclear power and ethanol) undercuts the economy as well; apparently, the profit motive should be sufficient to solve the nation’s energy problems…despite that unaided capitalism really has no way to deal with the consequences of peak oil until the crunch actually sets in.

I’m much more concerned about the fact that while NSF gets $6 billion, up slightly from last year (with some more grants coming from DOE) , education funding is being cut almost 20%, from $90 bn to $74 bn. Meanwhile, defense spending is going strong at $504 bn (actually down $8 bn, but up very significantly over pre-Bush levels, with the $43 bn for Homeland Security as an added bonus). And nearly half the the DOE’s $23 bn is for the National Nuclear Security Administration, i.e., for upkeep on our nuclear stockpile, which serves no purpose after the end of the Cold War anyway. To repeat, NSF: $6 bn, nuke warehouses: $9 bn.

The second NPR segment was a interview/political analysis with Joseph Cirincione, looking at the problems with trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In a nutshell, if we bomb the easy targets, it will only push the program underground and cement Iranian support for the nuclear program (plus the likely proxy war in Iraq and possibly even outright war with us or our allies). If we impose sanctions and actually managed to get other major players in the global economy to go along with them (namely, India and China), there would be a global oil crunch; Cirincione suggested $5/gallon gasoline. Thus, statements like McCain’s “the only thing worse than a military action is a nuclear armed Iran” are basically just talk (though perhaps talk that serves a purpose).

Getting the word out

I figured it was time to move the History of Science WikiProject to the next level, so I sent an email about it to h-sci-med-tech. While no one has responded directly on the listserv so far, a surprising number of readers from the list have blogged about my message:

Medical Museion Weblog – The blog of Thomas Söderqvist
Paradigms Lost – A new History of Science and Medicine blog from Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
LIS 569 – A library science course blog at U. Wisconsin (Madison)
Rational rants – The technology and media blog of Mitch Ratcliffe (a journalist who apparently lurks on h-sci-med-tech)

The response by each is quite positive. Then again, the people who are blogging at all are probably more disposed to see Wikipedia in a positive light than the average historian.

RTP3.com – The blog of Thad Parsons, a graduate student at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.