Ed Larson comes to town

Edward J. Larson was the guest for my department’s colloquium yesterday. It was neat to get a chance to talk with him during the graduate student coffee beforehand, where I was the host (even if it was hard to get a word in edgewise). Larson is an interesting character for a number of reasons. His research interests are admirably sprawling; he’s a legal scholar as well of as a historian of science, and religion, and politics, and law. He was Frank Herbert‘s lawyer; as he told it, it was his job to call up Frank and tell him when he’d been at his foreign residence too long and had to get back home to avoid extra taxes. He studied history at Wisconsin under Ron Numbers, and he shares an inordinate number of interests with my advisor Dan Kevles (including eugenics, law, the Galapagos, Antarctica).

Like Numbers (and unlike the vast majority of scientists and philosophers), Larson takes an extremely balanced approach to his work on creationism and its permutations (see his two books, Trial and Error and Summer for the Gods). And in lot of ways, he’s in a perfect position to do something powerful and significant for the public discourse over Intelligent Design. He has a track record with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Scopes Trial book, which is well regarded by creationists, anti-creationists, and historians of science (no mean feat). By odd coincidence, Larson was a fellow of the Discovery Institute, doing unpaid consulting on their Cascadia Project (which is funded mostly by the Gates Foundation, even now). He left when they got into ID, but obviously his connection there just adds to his credibility on the topic. Larson was at University of Georgia for a number of years, but recently moved to Pepperdine University, where he still does both law and history. Pepperdine is a Church of Christ school (coincidently, the non-denomination both Matt Gunterman and I grew up in); Larson was raised a Lutheran (I think of the ALC variety, now part of the ELCA ), though I’m not sure how religious he is now.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that a book on ID by Larson would demand respect from a lot of corners. When I asked him why he hadn’t done more with it (his latest projects are on the election of 1800 and Antarctic exploration), he got defensive. On the one hand, he insisted he had in fact written a lot on ID (articles in an assortment of popular venues; the updated version of Trial and Error; public lectures like the one he’s giving this afternoon; his appearance last year on The Daily Show). On the other hand, he explained, Intelligent Design is extremely hard to pin down. Each of the main figures at the Discovery Institute has a different take on what exactly ID entails, and each is defending a different set of metaphysical doctrines (obviously, even if not explicitly). To further complicate things, there’s the tricky relationship between “Intelligent Design” and “intelligent design”, the utterly blurred continuum from Phillip Johnson to William Dembski to Michael Behe to Mike Gene to Francis Collins to Ken Miller. So Larson said that Intelligent Design isn’t a discrete historical topic, and that this kind of thing (cultural/intellectual history?) is not what he does. (He has written a general history of evolution, a concept at least as historically amorphic and flexible as ID, but I digress.) His understanding of the complexity of the issue (as opposed to the polemics that currently pass as scholarly analysis, which tend to have a monolithic view of ID) is exactly why he should write the book on it. I guess the real issue is that he doesn’t think ID is a significant issue in the long term, which I think is (for better or worse) may not be the case.

On a related note, Horganism has a pair of posts (part 1, part 2) about an interview with Francis Collins that are worth looking at.

Winter break

It’s been a while since I’ve post anything personal. The most interesting news is probably the trip to Europe Faith and I took with her Dad. There are lots of pictures on Flickr, but I’ll put up some of my favorites here:

“Cogwheel train to Rigi Kulm

“Luzern swan moves closer”

“Luzern water tower”

“Historical re-enactment”

These pictures are all the results of my new camera, a Canon PowerShot S2. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it for Thanksgiving vacation (in Orlando with my family, including the cousins), which was also a great time.

Closing in on qualifiers

My first semester as a teaching assistant is done, and in about two months I’ll be taking qualifiers. I was pretty pleased with the way the course (Ole Molvig’s “History of Modern Science in Society”) went. I was disappointed with the amount of low amount of reading the class was willing to do; discussions were perpetually hamstrung because a large portion of the class didn’t do the reading in any given week. However, leading discussions was fun and I think I got a lot better at it as the semester went by. We used the Wikipedia assignment that I designed, which took a lot more work (on my part and the students’) than the original assignment. You can see the results here:

(On a related noted, I wrote an article for the Wikipedia Signpost on Wikipedia assignments.)

As it turns out, I’m a hard-ass grader. (Technically, grades were Ole’s responsibility while grading was mine, but still.) History of Science, History of Medicine has the unfortunate reputation of being an easy major at Yale. So, especially considering the amount of work I required of them, many students were frustrated with the low grades (a B+ average, which is considered a bad grade these days). Now I have the reputation of a TA to avoid. But it’s hard to feel bad about it; grade inflation doesn’t do anyone any favors.

This semester will probably be different. I’m TAing for Susan Lederer’s “A History of American Bodies”, which has 7 TAs and possibly up to 300 students. That means the grading will be fairly uniform across sections and the overall distribution will probably be higher.

Matt Gunterman is back at Yale, and he’s the head TA, which means he has to run point for all the class logistics. Ha ha. Sucks to be him. He has a blog post about the first lecture. I’m glad he’s back, and I’m also TAing with my fellow 3rd year Brendan; it looks like we’ll do our orals on the same day, and we have two fields more-or-less in common, so I’m looking forward to having some orals prep discussions with him. It’s nice to have someone to bitch about orals with.

For the first time in my graduate career, I’m not going to audit or sit in on any extra classes this semester. In theory, that means I have more time for orals reading. But in practice, I can’t read for more than about four hours a day; after that, nothing sinks in and I lose all will to keep at it. Some people are capable of more sustained reading, but I think most graduate students are not (unless they’re popping Ritalin); qualifier preparation is like a hazing ritual. (At Yale, qualifiers are actually not so harrowing an experience, but they still have enough of the traditional elements to cause plenty of stress and induce plenty of depression.)

Speaking of Ritalin, I’ve been trying to convince Faith to score me some free samples from the pharma reps, but she won’t. (They give out whatever prescriptions medical students are on that are still under patent protection; unforunately, Faith’s meds just went generic but aren’t yet being produced by very many sources, so they’re hardly any cheaper but no longer free.) Since becoming a coffee and tea drinker, I’ve become much more attuned to the effects things like carbohydrates, salt, and caffeine. I want to branch out to self-testing of more psychoactive substances, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Oh well.