I first encountered A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich twenty years ago when I was a teaching assistant for a course called Medicine and Society in America. For Professor Allan Brandt, the book was of interest mainly for its content. Based on the diary of an eighteenth century midwife in rural Hallowell, Maine, Ulrich’s book gives a wonderful sense of the system of “social medicine” that thrived in that time and place, a system sustained by women, often co-existing alongside but sometimes in open conflict with the more elite practice of “scientific” medicine dominated by male physicians. I was fascinated by the types of remedies employed by the midwife, Martha Ballard, who acted as “nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife” (40). Martha was a stalwart member of her community, in addition to delivering its hundreds of infants.
Can a culture study its own knowledge? Yes, according to sociologist David Bloor. More than that: it is vital that we can look at our own scientific knowledge scientifically. Otherwise, there would be an “irony at the very heart of our culture. […] it would mean that science could not scientifically know itself.” Speaking of irony: 2400 years before Bloor said this in 1976, Socrates supposedly saw himself confronted with a very similar question while talking to a certain Charmides. For reasons wholly different than Bloor’s, Charmides and his caretaker Critias defend the position that science can be applied to itself – that there is a ‘meta-science’ through which we know knowledge.
The recent discovery of gravitational waves has impressed many people and has caused considerable stir in the community of physicists. Surprisingly this commotion has not spread to the community of historians of science. This is surprising because I believe that the claim to have detected gravitational waves constitutes a serious blow to the stronger versions of social constructivism, which arguably has deeply influenced the profession of historiography of science in recent decades. The aim to find empirical confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves has occupied physicists from the 1960s onward. Sociologist of science Harry Collins (Cardiff University) has turned the activities of this group of ‘wave’ physicists into one of his central case studies. Collins has long been one of the most important proponents of the social approach to the study of knowledge formation. His programme of methodological relativism may be more ‘practical’ and less ‘philosophical’ than the perhaps better-known strong programme of the Edinburgh School, but in essence both approaches in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) boil down to the same thing. They share the radical view on science as a social process, not in the sense that other factors such as ‘nature’ or ‘reason’ (whatever they might be) do not play a role in determining the course of scientific development, but in the sense that social factors are always ultimately decisive in determining such things as the acceptance (and rejection) of evidence, experimental methods and claims to knowledge. In tracing the search for gravitational waves, Collins’ aim has been to show how scientific data can be subject to interpretative flexibility, and how social or ‘non-scientific’ means are used to close scientific controversies. In what follows I will argue that the discovery of gravitational waves seriously undermines the SSK perspective on science because it cannot be fitted into SSK’s explanatory scheme. It follows that this discovery has rippling effects on the study of past science and I close with a brief reflection on the direction in which these ripples are heading.
In the winter of 1980, during the final months of her nearly 32-year reign, Juliana of the Netherlands received multiple distraught letters from subjects deeply disturbed by a news item making waves in national media. In December, the Dutch Telegraaf had reported that a Leiden internist had taken blood samples from foetuses aborted in the fifth month of pregnancy for experimental purposes, an item quickly picked up on by other big media. Due to recent developments in chemical abortion-techniques, foetuses were often left intact after leaving the uterus and sometimes still showed signs of life such as muscular movement or a heartbeat. Although that did not mean these foetuses could survive outside of the womb, leading newspapers soon reported that experiments were conducted on “live-aborted children” in the Netherlands.
Fred de Heij (illustraties), Ad Maas (tekst), Ehrenfest! (Museum Boerhaave, Leiden 2015), 50 pagina’s, € 7,95.
Als er één natuurkundige een stripverhaal waardig is, dan is het Ehrenfest. Zijn leven is op zich al bijna een stripverhaal. Deze energieke fysicus wist in een tijd van verwarrende ontwikkelingen de natuurkunde te verlevendigen door deze te vatten en verhelderen in pakkende beelden. Hoe toepasselijk dat Fred de Heij en Ad Maas het leven van Ehrenfest zelf in beelden weten te vangen, waarbij ze slagen een nieuwe dimensie aan de beschrijving van deze flamboyante wetenschapper toe te voegen.
David Wootton’s The Invention of Science (Allen Lane, 2015) is witty and learned and gloriously ambitious, and although I am not convinced that science as we know it came into existence in the seventeenth century, as Wootton argues, I do think that the seventeenth century is the one that lays the strongest claim to hosting that momentous event. I also agree with much that Wootton has to say, in this book and elsewhere, about how the history of science should be done, and especially with his view that there is a place for hindsight in the study of past science. However I do think that there is a blind spot in Wootton’s hindsight. He suffers from some of the same confusions as his adversaries, such as the historian and sociologist Steven Shapin, and the gap between Wootton and Shapin becomes much smaller when we clear up these confusions.
On the first of February the early modern historical colloquium on the history of the humanities took place in the fully packed Sweelinck room of Utrecht University. For this extended colloquium the university invited Prof. dr. Rens Bod and Prof. dr. James Turner, two authors of seminal publications on the history of the humanities. Rens Bod is a professor of Digital Humanities and co-director of the Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and author of A New History of the Humanities, published in Dutch in 2010. James Turner is the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame and author of Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, which appeared in 2014. The afternoon at Utrecht University was the first time the two scholars met for a lively debate on the subject of the history of the humanities.
“Everybody say Pannekoek!’ ‘PENNNNEECOOOOKK’ ‘And again!”
Emeritus-professor Ed van den Heuvel klom dapper op het muurtje in de tuin van het Trippenhuis van de KNAW om een uniek gezelschap te vereeuwigen. Rondom astronoom en socialist Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) hadden zich op 9 en 10 juni wetenschaps-, kunst- en politiek historici, filosofen, kunstenaars en astronomen verzameld op het congres “Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960): Ways of viewing science and society”. Deze diversiteit aan disciplinaire achtergronden binnen dezelfde muren zou ik op zich een succes willen noemen. (Helaas gold niet hetzelfde voor de genderverhouding onder de sprekers.) Op twee zonnige dagen met een bomvol programma moest blijken of het ook zou leiden tot vernieuwende inzichten in de samenhang van wetenschap en samenleving, en in Pannekoeks biografie in het bijzonder.
When the French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède died in 1825, fellow naturalist Georges Cuvier lamented this as a loss for the field of natural history. Lacépède, who authored the five-volume Histoire naturelle des poissons, ‘had a talent for finding the appealing side of the story of these organisms [fish] that seem to touch us so little and do not arouse our imagination’. Might fishes’ uninspiring feel, as Cuvier mentions, be the reason that the field of ichthyology (the official term for the study of fish) has not been systematically studied in contemporary research into natural history – quite unlike early modern founding publications on botany and ornithology?
Op de hoek van de Roemer Visscherstraat hangt een plaquette van Aletta Jacobs –een paar meter verder ligt het gebouw waar de eerste vrouwelijke hoogleraar van Nederland rond diezelfde tijd haar eerste wetenschappelijke schreden maakte: Johanna Westerdijk. In wat nu het Owl Hotel heet ontmoet ik Patricia Faasse die over de botanicus en schimmeldeskundige Westerdijk de biografie ‘Een beetje opstandigheid’ schreef. In 2015 ontving zij de Herman Boerhaave prijs voor de ‘overgave’ waarmee zij over deze ‘buitengewone vrouw met bulderende lach’ vertelt. We lopen een rondje door het gebouw waar ‘Hans’ Westerdijk haar wetenschappelijke carrière begon. Hier voedde zij aan het begin van de twintigste eeuw met weinig licht en in de stadse drukte een kleine verzameling schimmels. Nu slapen hier toeristen van over de hele wereld en is de geschiedenis van het gebouw enkel terug te vinden op een enkele verdwaalde bouwtekening op de muur. De prijs en plek zijn aanleiding om met Patricia te praten over haar wetenschapshistorische werk, Hans Westerdijk, en de huidige staat van de wetenschap die zij bij het Rathenau Instituut onderzoekt. Continue reading