HSS meeting in Vancouver, open journals, Wikipedia evangelism

Last weekend was the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC. Despite growing up in Seattle, I had never been to Canada before.

I gave my first scholarly paper (which I had tried out a week before at the department’s Holmes Workshop): “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America”. I was in a panel with two other very good talks on physics education-related texts–one on 20th century Canadian high school textbooks, which fit well with mine on 19th century American textbooks, and one on children’s biographies of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I’m really pleased with how it went; I got some good questions, and I had at least reasonable responses to all of them, as my Yale colleagues had prepared me well. Turnout was pretty good, really good for a panel of two early graduate students (myself and Michelle D. Hoffman of U. of Toronto), one guy not yet in graduate school (Trevor J. Owens, majored in history of science at Wisconsin), and one junior professor talking on a topic only marginally related to the rest (Steve Sturdy, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh who does history of medicine). I was really excited because David Kaiser was in the audience, but he left after the first two talks (i.e., right before mine).

One of the great things was talking with Adam Shapiro; his dissertation project, on the textbook industry and the Scopes Trial, is freaking awesome (and he has the kind of cultivated idiosyncrasy of dress and manner that I can appreciate).

As is typical at conferences, much of my best-spent time was with people from New Haven. I didn’t spend as much time meeting new people as I have at previous conferences, but no regrets. I did stay up drinking late into the night (along with Brendan) with the marvelous Gar Allen, which was great fun. And I met John Rudolph. And, in one of the great ego-inflating moments of my entire life, I was recognized by a stranger as… the writer of this blog. But beyond that, I mostly stuck with people I already knew.

John Rudolph invited me to work up my textbook research into something publishable, to submit for an upcoming special science studies issue of Science Education. Assuming I can find the time to do that (what with qualifiers hanging over my head) and that I could make it good enough to get accepted, it’s time to decide how seriously I want to take my free-knowledge ideals, since they conflict with my goal of actually being able to get a history job someday. I would like to only publish in open content journals… ideally, ones that support copyleft, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. There aren’t really even any open content history of science journals (the closest things are History of Intellectual Culture and Science, Technology & Innovation Studies) or general American history journals (the closest thing is American Diplomacy). What needs to happen is for a broad flagship journal (like Isis or JAH) to totally retool for open content: increase the number of published articles drastically, invite contributions from a wider range, and start poaching from all the competitor journals. If it was done right, with a plan for expanding the editorial positions to keep pace with submissions and maintain quality, it could force the whole journal ecosystem to switch to open content. Before there was search, it made sense to have highly specialized journals. But at this point, it would make far more sense to get rid of the vast majority of paper publications and make open content online publication the standard.

Another variation on that theme… Despite the marked lack of enthusiasm for Wikipedia among professional science studiers in listservs (like the HOPOS and H-SCI-MED-TECH lists where I pump the History of Science Collaborations of the Month and get ignored), scholars express a fair amount of enthusiasm or at least convincibility when I talk to them in person about Wikipedia. The most effective line of argument (sadly) is not the “contribute to society” one, but the one about how creating high-quality free content expands the market for our work; what science studiers do has the potential to be popular, as far as scholarship goes, but not many people know how compelling our stories are. Even down to an individual level, it will probably pay off in career-prospect terms a few years down the road to have good Wikipedia articles about your area of expertise; it will whet people’s appetites for more, and give people (including the scholars who might hire you) an entry point into your particular esoteric specialty.

Free at last (sort of)

What’s Update: Courses over, Orals Fields shaping up, HSS paper accepted, WikiProject History of Science going great

My second year of coursework is over, so technically I’m done course-taking (except for the paper on science fiction for Agnew, for which I took a temporary incomplete until June). Next year I’ll be TA-ing, and probably sitting in on a least 1 additional course each semester. In the meantime, I’m studying for orals and working part-time in Manuscripts and Archives (this time working on the digitization of the finding aids, which means I get to become much more familiar what’s available here).

Because we still don’t for-sure have an early-modernist on the faculty and I can’t do both “Early-Modern Science” and “History of the Physical Sciences” with Ole, my fields are still up in the air. However, I may have found someone to supervise a field in “Science Fiction and Science Writing.” If that works out, I’ll split the cream of the early-modern crop into the Physical and Biological fields, and my four fields (~50 books each, though the Sci-Fi & Science Writing field might need to be much larger if it consists siginficantly of primary sources) will be:

  • History of Biological Sciences
  • History of Physical Sciences
  • Science Fiction and Science Writing
  • 20th Century American History

My presentation abstract for HSS was accepted; at the Vancouver meeting in November I will be giving a talk, tentatively titled “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America.” How trendy is that? Visual culture, pedagogy, and popular science, all in one. It will be based on a paper I wrote in the Fall on the use of images in 19th- and early 20th-century introductory (high school/academy) natural philosophy and physics textbooks and popular science magazines. As I develop it more this summer, I’m probably going to focus on textbooks, and and try to connect the use of images to the changing role of science in American society as well as the changes within academic culture (professionalization, the rise of university research, and the related changes in teaching methods). I may dip into the archives of some of the Yale textbook authors.

WikiProject History of Science continues to grow; now there are 47 nominal participants, and a new subproject for History of Biology. Among the recent additions is Steve McCluskey, a well-known expert on archaeoastronomy. Beginning in June, there will now be a History of Science Collaboration of the Month; it looks like the first one will be Women in science. I’m very excited about this, as there are a bazillion women in science list-servs, and I plan on spamming every one (as well as my former classmates from “Science, Feminism and Modernity”). In anticpation, I got the two volumes of Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America. And best of all, the History of Science Portal (which I maintain) has been promoted to “featured” status, one of only 14 so distinguished.

In other Wikipedia news, I turned my term paper for Peter Westwick into Military funding of science, I’ve done a bit of recent work on the always enjoyable Science Wars, my re-write of Johannes Kepler is about halfway done and continues to creep along, and I have plans to use the material from Michael Kammen’s “American Nationalism and American Culture” to greatly improve Nationalism in the United States (a few of my classmates have given me permission to GFDL their book reports and short papers).

Bonus links:

HSS – History of Science Society meeting

I was at the History of Science Society Meeting in Minneapolis from Thursday through Sunday. Very exciting.

It was a really good conference. This year was the first time in quite a while that HSS had a co-meeting with the Society for the History of Technology. Apparently there was bad academic blood between the two organizations. More likely, they just thought historians of technology were boring and methodologically simplistic. I joke, I joke.

Non-academic highlights include: belly-dancing and falafel, Indian buffet (twice), plenty of beer, finding out that coffee is good if you put enough cream and sugar in it (I bought a coffee maker today, after my good experience with coffee there), Mall of America (the ultimate cathedral of capitalism; definitely recommended).

Society for the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science:
I decided a few weeks ago that I’m going to really work on this idea I’ve been kicking around for a while now, the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science, and I’ve started recruiting other people to help me. Rana Hogarth and I are going to co-edit a farcical journal that explores the intersection of modern science and technology with traditional pseudo-sciences. Things like high-energy metaphysics, evolutionary cryptozoology and biophysical alchemy simply don’t get the scholarly attention they deserve. As Matt Gunterman put it, this will be like if the Daily Show were a history of science journal. Matt is going to do the website once we grooving.

I was fantastically successful at finding interest among grad students and young professors; if even half the people who expressed interest in contributing articles actually do, we should definitely be able to put out the inaugural volume of the Journal for the Quasi-Historical Study of Modern Pseudo-Science (JQSMP) by this time next year or a little later. I hope to get articles in by the end of next summer, then have a few months for peer-review and revisions and publish by Winter 2006. The range of expertise among the potential contributors is simply outstanding. Once we’re further along, I’m going to pitch Anthony Grafton for a radioastrology article; how sweet would that be?. A taste of what’s to come:

Ornithomantic Models for Long-Term Weather Prediction
Hydrid Car(d)s: Tarot and Auto Industry
Incorporeal Statistics and the Paranormal Distribution


  • Piers Hale – Super rad Australian with a green dragon tattoo on his head. He’s a cultural historian who’s moving into history of science via the popular end of early- to mid-20th-century evolution debates, particularly George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis – Author of Unifying Biology and one of the few people who work on evolution during and beyond the Modern Synthesis. Her book was important for me as I framed the research topic I will probably work on for my dissertation (essentially how the splitting of biology departments between molecular and organismal affected the intersection of evolutionary biology and biochemistry). I saw her last year but never introduced myself. This year I met her and told her about my likely project; she was so excited about it! Her reaction really made me feel like I have the thread of something interesting and important, and hopefully I’ll stay in close contact with her when it comes time to do more work in that direction. I’m supposed to email her with more details. It was also really gratifying that she agreed with my assessment of the pedagogical (and hence intellectual) split between evolutionary biology and the biochemical/molecular disciplines: the reason why Intelligent Design arguments get as far as they do among biochemists is that they never learn (or get indoctrinated with, ID proponents might say) evolution in their training. Google turned up an interesting exchange between her and the Panda’s Thumb crowd.
  • Leandra Swanner – Radiant and clever historian of astronomy and physics at Oregon State (one of four gals from OSU at the meeting – Katie, Rachel and Erica were the others). She’s getting her masters this year and is applying to Yale (among many other places, along with her husband – same problem Faith and I had) for next year. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Luis Campos – Finishing Harvard grad student applying for the Yale job (and got at least as far as an interview at HSS; more news on the Yale search soon). He works on connections between radium and origin of life research, and Julia and I had lunch with him and like him a lot. Very clever chap, and very excited about history of science – my kind of guy.
  • Roger Turner – 3rd year grad student at Penn, with a big red beard. He gave a really excellent talk on the shift from US meteorology from a craft discipline to a more rigorous, scientifically based discipline after WWII, thanks to the massive number of military weathermen that were trained for the war. Possible JQSMP contributor.
  • Gabe Henderson – Grad student from Iowa State, does 20th century astronomy. We ended up in a lot of sessions together… clearly he has good taste in topics.
  • Warren Dym – A hoopy frood who knows where his towel is. A sarcastic and fun U.C. Davis historian of early modern mining (or leprechauns, according to Julia) who knows a whole lot about divining rods. I almost stayed with him at a nearby youth hostel (instead of the floor of a hotel room). Possible JQSMP contributor.

I also had nice chats with my OU professors Katherine Pandora and Stephen Weldon, and saw Peter Barker’s great session on early modern science where Katherine Tredwell gave a superb talk on the spread of Melancthon’s natural theological view of astronomy in England. I told Pandora about my thoughts on using Wikipedia for classroom assignments after her talk about reaching “Mr. Everyman” with new technology, and Weldon told me about (OU grad student) Sylwester Ratowt’s history of science blog Copernicus Sashimi (nice URL, too). Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the OU kids there.

On a related note, it looks like there’s great competition for the OU job. Of course, I’m rooting for Lloyd Ackert (a true Brewer-Patriot if ever there was one).

Lamarck Giraffe:
I wore my shirt to the Dark Side of Lamarckism session, and the reactions were extremely disappointing. I got one comment on it after I had been chatting with one of the presenters for a while, but no one came up to me afterwards asking about it or anything. People at Yale seemed to have a really great reaction to it, especially the kids in Ole’s class (maybe because he explained the joke of it to them). Maybe the new design I’m working on (more news on that soon) will go over better at the next conference I go to.