Readings, Research, Lamarck stuff

Classes continue unabated; I’m almost back into the swing of things, as far as reading and working all the time.

I’ve not been particularly inspired by any readings lately, except Flatland. The Time Machine was also a good reread. I was also somewhat intrigued by Principles of Scientific Management; it’s surprisingly readable and it basically still informs a lot of management philosophy today. It’s a sort of capitalist manifesto.

For Narrative Histories, I read the superb The Murder of Helen Jewett. As far as garden-variety micro-history goes, it really doesn’t get much better (if you don’t mind reading about 1830’s NYC). Unfortunately, the next book was the dull Judge Sewall’s Apology, a masterful boringification of the Salem witch trials.

We’ve yet to read a whole book, or anything really insightful, in the sociology of knowledge course, but it gives me a chance to reflect on some the methods and approaches of sociology that I’m only slightly familiar with. I’m going to write my paper for that class on the role of letters of recommendation in science; last semester I wrote a research paper based on G Evelyn Hutchinson’s letters of recommendation, so I hope to be able to strengthen that paper with the insights of a more general look at recommendations. I’m not sure if any literature exists in sociology or if I’ll have to make it up as I go.

For Science, Technology and Modernity, I’m probably going to do my research paper on visual images in science pedagogy and popular science. It seems like abstract images conveying scientific content were really rare (especially at a non-expert level) before the mid-20th century. Graphs and charts were virtually non-existent in popular literature, and most scientific illustrations were obviously aiming for naturalistic representation of actual sights. So it seems like this shift toward more abstraction of concepts visually went along with the other changes that get lumped into “modernism” and “modernity.” We’ll see how well that thesis bears out once I get down to looking at lots of sources, and hopefully I can pin down the timeframe a little better.

Meanwhile, I’ve redone the Lamarck sticker; it’s slicker now, and I put it on t-shirts. I ordered one today and plan to wear it to the History of Science Society meeting.

beginning of the semester round-up

My classes have finally stabilized in terms of the people, and all four of my main classes are really great.

I’m going to try to do brief reviews of the books I read for each class. We’ll see how long that lasts.

In Ole’s Science, Technology and Modernity class, the undergrads are really bright, and all of them seem enthusiastic about it. Sometimes undergrad discussions can be frustrating, but the first two have gone really well in there. And Ole requires little library assignments each week, which are kind of fun and actually (I’m ashamed to say) useful for me; I’m definitely less experienced with different kinds of library sources than I should be. We read The Railway Journey this week, which I thought was really great.

Fabrication and Uses of Knowledge also looks to be very stimulating; it has one other grad student (a sociologist from Denmark) and (I think) three undergrads, all of whom seem to be able to contribute on a high enough level for the class to really get deep into the literature we’ll be reading. It seemed at first like the undergrads would be a problem, as the class divided into two sides about the definitions we were trying to work out for “Knowledge” and “Information,” but the discussion actually went somewhere and everyone left with a much better idea of those concepts than we started with. (Unfortunately, the room the class meets in is loud and stiflingly hot, but that should change once winter arrives and we can shut the windows without suffocating.)

As for Narrative Histories, the discussions are very enjoyable. The other garden-variety history courses I took last year were somewhat stressful for me, since every discussion really engaged with history beyond the book of the week. It was hard for me to contribute on the same level as the garden-variety historians and Americanists without knowing more history. But this class is really about ways of writing history, so my lack of historical knowledge doesn’t hold me back. However, so far I haven’t been taken with either of the readings. I really like the concept of narrative history, so the reading have been a let-down (but great discussion fodder). We read Mirror in the Shrine last week and Dead Certainties this week, and for both books I simply couldn’t bring myself to care much about the stories being told (although most of the latter is moderately entertaining).

John’s Intro to the History of Medicine and Public Health will be enjoyable (the first week’s discussion went just fine), but I’m also afraid it will retread a lot of the ground we covered last year in his Grounding of Modern Medicine. The books are mostly different, covering a broader spectrum of medical history, but it will still focus more on “craft issues” of how to write (and more often how not to write) books on the history of medicine than on the actual content of the history of medicine. The presence of several non-historians will hopeful help to mitigate that, but even if it doesn’t the books will be good and the discussions will still be of some value to me despite some repetition. The first book we read was Medicine Before Science. Well, they read it; I read only a third, but I’m auditing so I don’t feel bad. But I would like to finish it some time. The last third was about the various and sundry philosophical systems of medicine that arose as the Latin tradition splintered; everyone else hated that part but it seemed from their descriptions to be the most interesting to me.

Meanwhile, I’m considering going to an alternate colloquia series for a few times this semester; every talk but one for HSHM will be history of medicine (and that will be about Kinsey, too social science for my tastes generally, but also provocative enough to make it worthwhile). Meeting at the same time is a history seminar series on “Transitions to Modernity,” which they scheduled also on Mondays at 4:30. It’s staggered oddly, so some of them conflict with Holmes Workshop talks and some with HSHM colloquia; I’m less inclined to skip workshops out of respect for my immediate colleagues. It’s frustrating after last year’s colloquium line-up, which included some really prominent historians of science (and some less prominent ones who gave really great talks).

Review of The Planets, by Dava Sobel

I finally finished writing my review of Dava Sobel‘s forthcoming The Planets. I had about half a review written before my computer crashed, but of course it’s better the second time anyway. Here is the only other pre-release review I’ve found so far; apparently Dr. Bortz is less impressed than me.
Here’s mine:

Dava Sobel‘s newest offering deviates from the historical path of her previous work, but the stellar prose that remains in The Planets will inevitably pull in any who wander too close. This book touches on the social, religious and intellectual aspects of the solar system from antiquity to January 2005, but cannot properly be called history; Sobel simply stuffs the most interesting stories and facts about each celestial body into a slim 231 pages (plus a glossary and a brief appendix of factual details). Of course, interesting stories and facts about the planets could easily fill a book many, many times as long. The beauty of The Planets is that Sobel (who has clearly culled from an enormous pool of potential content) selected only most fascinating and unusual to include. Few but historians of planetary astronomy and the most dedicated trivia buffs are likely to be bored by too much they already know, even though nearly everything comes from published sources. And even if the contents are old news, Sobel’s packaging is a joy.

The Planets is organized into thematic chapters that, for the most part, read like separate essays. The introduction and conclusion give the context for Sobel’s longtime and continuing passion for the Planets; the former is not particularly riveting, but does not detract. The chapters—there are ten including the Sun and the Moon, with Uranus and Neptune sharing one—bear titles indicating the overarching theme of each, though each theme is stretched far enough to allow a feeling of continuity as the book proceeds outward from the Sun to the edge of the solar system.

Beginning appropriately with “Genesis,” Sobel’s Sun chapter is perhaps the least novel (as well as the shortest). Sobel gives an overview of basic facts and trivia about the Sun, while beginning and ending with invocations of creation and drawing a few parallels between the scientific and religious stories. Mercury’s “Mythology” has the easiest theme (mostly Greek, though it dabbles in other cultures), but Sobel makes it interesting by telling the scientific history of the planet through anecdotes of scientists applying the same mythological themes to their work. The integration of science and culture is even smoother in Venus’ chapter, simply themed “Beauty;” highlights include poetry on Venus by scientists and literary figures alike (and what sophisticated history of science is complete without a William Blake reference?). Our own pale blue dot offers a change of pace; Sobel tromps through a brief history of the developments of Earth’s “Geography,” dispelling a number of common historical myths in the process. “Lunacy” vaguely revolves around Moon superstitions but is mostly filled with interesting facts.

One of The Planets‘ best chapters is “Sci-Fi,” which is told entirely from the perspective of a 4.5 billion year old Martian rock that crashed into Antarctica sixteen million years ago. The rock tells its own story and that of Mars, explaining how its home planet has been the object of such fascination among Earth natives through science fiction. Jupiter has the honor—or shame, depending on one’s perspective—of bearing the theme of “Astrology.” Given it’s role in the careers of Galileo, Kepler and so many other early astronomers, historians of science should appreciate Sobel’s choice for the king of the planets, despite whatever offense contemporary astronomers may take. Saturn’s “Music of the Spheres” addresses the numerological aspects of the history of planetary astronomy, opening with a discussion of Gustav Holst and interspersed with other musical references. Uranus and Neptune share “Night Air,” which tells their stories of discoveries mostly through the eloquent correspondence of 19th-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell. “UFO” is nominally Pluto’s chapter, but as the name suggest, Pluto is odd planet (if it can even be considered one) out, more similar to other recently discovered Kuiper Belt objects than its traditional brethren. Discussion of such discoveries segues into the conclusion, which brings planetary astronomy up to the ongoing investigation of Saturn and its moon Titan.

General readers will take a lot from this book: a head full of scientific knowledge about the planets, details and anecdotes about how that knowledge was produced, and an appreciation for their historical cultural significance as well. But the greatest gift Sobel grants the reader is a small piece of her enthusiasm; The Planets makes you want to, if not become an astronomer, at least do more reading on the subject.

[UPDATE: 10/3/05] Here are some other reveiws that have come out recently:
Sunday Times (UK)
Guardian Unlimited Books

books, books, books

Today, I got a copy of Dava Sobel’s new book The Planets. The neat thing about it is, it won’t be released until October 11; I got an advanced proof copy from eBay for $.99 plus $2.50 shipping. I hope to finish it and post a review before it come out.

I was supposed to have read both of Sobel’s previous best-sellers, Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, for history of science classes. I’ve skipped very little reading for any history of science classes, but those two I happened not to read, although I have both. Longitude I just forgot to buy, and by the time it came up on the syllabus I was too busy to find it. Galileo’s Daughter I read a little bit of, but either lost interest or just procrastinated too long. I don’t remember what I thought of it, but I’m looking forward to this new book; Sobel is widely acknowledged as an excellent writer. Soon I’ll be able to judge for myself (and for anyone who happens to read my review).

I’m also looking forward to read the four short articles that comprise the Focus section (entitled “The Generalist Vision in the History of Science”) of the new issue of Isis; all the authors are very prominent historians of science, and I’ve read and enjoyed the work of three of them in the past year (Robert Kohler, Steven Shapin, and Paula Findlen). And two of them (Kohler and Shapin) gave HSHM colloquia last year. Shapin was great to talk to (although his talk was not so great), and Kohler was also pretty interesting (even though he didn’t seem too impressed with my painting inspired by his book). Generalist history of science is what I’m all about (and tangentially, it’s what I wrote my paper about in “Intro to History of Science” last semester), so maybe these articles will inspire me further.

I’m almost done with Mary Terrall’s great Maupertuis book that we read half of last semester. I plan to seriously update his Wikipedia entry once I finish; currently it’s just straight from the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica (which is out of copyright), and hardly does Maupertuis justice.

Reading: The Man Who Flattened the Earth