Young Researchers’ Network INSIST – Invitation to Kick-off Meeting

Dear ENS-Harvard Spring School Fellows,

we would like to introduce the INSIST network – Interdisciplinary Network for Studies Investigating Science and Technology to you. This initiative has been started a few months ago from students and scholars in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science and technology from Bielefeld University and especially addresses junior researchers (M.A./PhD) in these fields. Our aim is to provide a network for science studies beyond disciplinary and local boundaries, and to support the participation of junior scholars in science and technology research and organization.

Our first official meeting will take place in Bielefeld, Oktober 12/13. This kick-off meeting is planned as an open ‘bar-camp’-workshop and dedicated to new ideas and topics in our field, addressed by the participants. One of the highlights of the meeting will be a talk of Alfred Nordmann (TU Darmstadt) about the development and future perspectives of science and technology studies („Entwicklung und Perspektiven der Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung“). The talk will be held in German.

For more information we invite you to visit our homepage:  There are no workshop fees, but we would be happy about notification in advance, so that we can estimate the number of participants.

We would be very happy to welcome you over here for this occasion! For the moment, however, we cannot offer any travel grants, but we’d be excited to collaborate with you to change this for the coming year. Although the website is still mainly in German, we would also be pleased to change this step by step in order to be more welcoming to the international community of junior scholar in our (inter)disciplines. Any suggestions and participation of you in these matters are highly welcomed! In the meantime you may like to find the facebook group ‘INSIST Network’ or to subscribe to the newsletter (explained at the homepage).

All the best and an inspiring summer,
Claudia & Rebecca

Anyone of you in Berlin this week?

Technische Universität – Berlin, 25th April 2013

Guest lecture: Prof. Claude Debru

“Science and Philosophy: possible interactions”

Prof. em. Claude Debru (Ecole normale supérieure, Paris)

The lecture will be held in German

Thuesday, 25th April 2013, 18.00 p.m

Main building of the TU Berlin, room H 0110


Gastvortrag: Prof. Claude Debru “Wissenschaft und Philosophie: mögliche Wechselwirkungen, 25. April 2013

Prof. em. Claude Debru (Ecole normale supérieure, Paris)

“Wissenschaft und Philosophie: mögliche Wechselwirkungen”

Technische Universität Berlin, Innovationszentrum Wissensforschung

Veranstalter: Dr. Elisabetta Basso (AvH-Postdoc-Stipendiatin am IZW)

Claude Debru ist emeritierter Professor der Wissenschaftsphilosophie an der “Ecole normale supérieure de Paris” und Mitglied der “Académie des sciences (Institut de France)”. Als Historiker und Wissenschaftsphilosoph hat er im Bereich der Molekularbiologie, der Neurowissenschaften (im besonderen im Bereich der Schlaf – und Traumphysiologie), der Hämatologie und Immunologie  sowie im Bereich der Biotechnololgien geforscht und sich zuletzt mit dem Problem der Zeitlichkeit der Philosophie in den Neurowissenschaften beschäftigt.

Herr Debru wird den Vortrag in deutscher Sprache halten

Donnerstag, den 25. April 2013, 18.00 Uhr c.t.

Hauptgebäude der TU Berlin, Raum H 0110

Michel Foucault’s Trajectory from Existential Psychiatry to Historical Epistemology

Dear Friends,

I hope you are all fine and your work is going well!

Last Spring I had the opportunity of talking with some of you about my work on Foucault, existential psychiatry, and historical epistemology. Some of you asked about my PhD dissertation, which I published some years ago… in Italian.  Last week a paper in English about the same subject was published: I take the liberty of drawing your attention to it, in case some of you would be still interested:

Good work! Bests,
Elisabetta Basso

A.v.Humboldt PostDoc Fellow
Technische Universität Berlin
Fakultät I: Geisteswissenschaften, Institut für Philosophie, Literatur-, Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte
Sekr. H72
Straße des 17. Juni  135
D – 10623 BERLIN

Associated Member
CNRS-École Normale Supérieure, Paris

What Ever Happen to Phineas Gage?

Dear friends,

Do you remember our visit to the Warren Museum? How to forget the scull of Phineas Gage?!

I permit myself to draw your attention to a recent research that could be interesting for those between us who were struck by the history of Phineas Gage, one of the most famous neurology patients in history.

A team of experts, led by John Van Horn, based at the University of California and Harvard Medical School, has used diffusion imaging data, together with anatomical MRI, to try to find out how Gage’s injury affected the connective tissues of his brain.

Here is the internet reference:


Mens et Manus

Thursday: MIT museum workshop, under the supervision of John Durant, Director of the Museum.

The MIT museum

The MIT museum has a double function. It is an interface between the research and the public, but as the single museum in this institution, it is also devoted to the history and conservation of science. It is a real challenge to make science accessible to the public, especially when you are such a high-level institution on the frontiers of science like the MIT. Besides large events, like the “Cambridge Science Festival” we attended last week, a museum has to show every day of the year what science looks like, and what it is like to do science. Among the many difficulties, let us notice the following ones. First you have to take into consideration the public you have to reach. As far as this issue is concerned, most of the MIT museum visitors are educated adults. Compared with science museums dedicated to children or broad public, the pattern is quite different.


Behind the scenes


Thanks to the curator Ariel Weinberg, we had the great opportunity to take a look into the collections. Most of the technological objects stored here are either from MIT research labs or from class work involving students of the MIT. And you can feel that this institute is a real engineering school. How could the engineering spirit be defined?


Say, the first point is that everything has to be quantified, that there is no part in nature that cannot be translated into a range of numbers, into diagrams, into models. Like this strange “denture tendurometer”, a student work from the fifties, used to measure… well you guess it out of its name, quantifying the food consistency. Yes: even the sandwich you had at lunch today has been submitted to such testes by the agroindustry (pressure of the jaws, resistance of the material…) – but does it tell us anything about the taste of this sandwich and the related sensations?


Denture tendurometer


Next feature is the fabric of the world. “What I do not know I cannot understand” said the famous Richard Feynman. Through this topic we found our previous question again: can we make sentient robots, or computers able to appreciate the taste of a good sandwich? At least they try it here, developing programs and artificial devices to supply any human function: perception, action, thinking… Up in the museum you can see Cog, Kismet and their roboturtle friends (did I say “friends”?), each of them simulating and reproducing cognitive, emotional or motor capacities of the natural beings and further. When the engineering approach is brought to life sciences and biology, then don’t only ask “how it works?” but also “how can it be improved?” The uproar of the synthetic biology today has a lot to do with this spirit (related to the contest spirit also, see next point).


A robot named Cog (his head)


Then you find competition, preparing the young undergrad students to the real pitiless world of R&D and business – the robot contests and the will to promote their own technological innovations make most of the nerds less naïve than you think.


Last but not least you have the team work. Students are indeed involved in collaborative projects at the very beginning of their curriculum and research is often conducted through interdisciplinary teams. Sharing competences and exchanging ideas is a great way of improving our skills, and we social scientists could learn a lot from this spirit. The “denture tendurometer” comes from the former nutrition and food department, but it could have been a mechanical or electrical engineering work as well.


But sometimes it is very difficult to foresee how far technology will go, even in a core place for it like MIT. For instance, Marvin Minsky declared a couple of decades ago that his grad student should learn a computer to see by the very summer. Well, in fact we made a lot of progress in that field, but not so much as expected, and this achievement lies still in our future. We have a lot to learn from each other: robots are improved through our knowledge of the natural world (biomimesis) – we, human beings, have a lot to learn from artificial intelligence, even on our own nature – and the interaction between us, machine and beings, is now a new field of investigation!

Canguilhem’s Archives at ENS

Dear Friends,

During the last week I had the opportunity of talking with some of you about the Canguilhem’s archives at ENS.

Here you find some more information about the Caphés (Centre d’Archives de Philosophie, d’Histoire et d’Édition des Sciences; USR-3308 CIRPHLES, CNRS-ENS), that is the documentary center where the archives are collected:

I recommend the Caphés’ library to all of you, American and French students and researchers, since you could find there not only Canguilhem’s manuscripts (here is the list), but also a very good collection of books and documents about history and philosophy of science (here is the catalog of the library:*frf~S11/).

The librarians are extremely kind and, for any further information or questions, you can contact Nathalie Queyroux (Responsable du Centre de documentation-Bibliothèque du CAPHES):
29 rue d’Ulm. 75005 Paris
+33 1 44 32 29 57

I take this opportunity also to express my sincere gratitude to all of you for the great time we had together in Cambridge.

Keep in touch!

A trend toward reductionism?


Do you know who studied at Harvard University? The famous American actress Natalie Portman… She is very well known for her part in the new Star Wars trilogy. In fact, she appears in the saga in the very same episode (Episode 1, The phantom menace) in which the midi-chlorian theory is presented. This theory is quite a revolution in the Star Wars field. In the old movies from the seventies-eighties, the “Force” is a spiritual strength widespread through the universe. Humans (and other living beings) can control it by their feelings, and the Jedis knights are trained to mentally manipulate the Force through yogi-like exercises, focusing their mind on objects in order to move them. Thanks to this ability, they can foresee the future as well, acquire amazing reflexes, and control the mind of the others. Here is my point: Force is a spiritual phenomenon, related to mind and feelings.


However, in the late nineties, when The Phantom menace came out, the “Force” theory is exposed in more details, but in a quite different approach. What we learn at that time is that the ability to control the force for a human being is due to the presence of numerous “midi-chlorians” in the cells of an individual. Midi-chlorians are explained to be some kind of sub-cellular micro-organisms which link any life form to the “Force”. So when you want to know if a child is able to become a Jedi knight or not, you do not ask your feelings, you just measure the rate of midi-chlorian in his blood…


It seems here that the psychological level of phenomenon can be reduced to a biological explanation. Isn’t that what we call reductionism (from psychology to biology)? Does the fact that this theory appears only in the late Star Wars movies reveal that our society is engaging into a more reductionist point of view than it was earlier? Some philosophers and scientists are thinking that the trend to this kind of reductionism is justified because of the advancement of science, that more and more psychological theories are going to be integrated into biological models and after that become superfluous. Is it the natural way of science to progress, to eat its own children as Chronos did? Is it only a trend in our society, that we trust more the “hard” biological explanations than the “soft” psychological ones? And might this current trend still change?


What is reductionism by the way? You can reduce the terms of a theory into the terms of another, or the laws of a theory into the laws of another. But it is a much longer story to tell…

Homo sapiens, Worldwide

By Margo

The gallery of the “living” (as opposed to the “fossil,” in Louis Agassiz’ binary classification of organisms on Earth) mammals in the Harvard Museum of Natural History contains many skeletons.  Two of them stand out in particular, more for their inverse relationships to reason and power than for the quality or rarity of the bone specimen.

The first skeleton is of a now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, whose very name evokes in the mind of the observer mythical creatures of constellations.

The remains of the Steller Sea Cow on display at the Harvard Natural History Museum

Like the Ursa Maggiore in the night sky, the Steller sea cow loom over the visitor’s head, inviting her to flesh out in the imagination the form suggested by the arrangement of white bones.  Alive, the Cow would have been enormous (eight to nine meters in length).  It lived in the shallow coastal waters of the North Pacific (a part of the world that is close to my heart) and grazed on kelp.  A herbivore, slow swimmer, and unable (or unwilling) to submerge itself, the Cow was vulnerable to hunting by human settlers.  Within 27 years of the arrival of the Europeans to the Commander Islands, where the last habitat of these peaceable cows lived, they were hunted to extinction.

A drawing of the Steller Sea Cow by naturalist Georg Steller, 1700.

The second skeleton is of a modern human, Homo sapiens (I assume a Wikipedia link would be superfluous).  Unlike the Cow suspended from the ceiling, the Homo sapiens stands upright next to its more ape-like ancestors in a display under a staircase.

The evolution display under the staircase.

According to the plaque by the skeleton’s feet, Homo sapiens, like the late exemplar behind glass, are said to be found “worldwide” (in sharp contrast to the extinct Cow).   

Homo sapiens, Worldwide

A behaviorist, intolerant of ambiguity, Noam Chomsky tells us in his 1956 paper, “Three Models for a Description of Language,” would not be capable of recognizing the double-entendre of this image of human remains marked with a descriptive label “Worldwide.”  The Steller sea cow and the Homo sapien may share the same spectacular “living” room in the Harvard Natural History Museum, but the visitor pauses in front of the Homo sapiens display in a particular way, cognizant of their dramatically different histories.

Worldwide domination, worldwide fate.

Domination: that carves out a place for creatures like the Stellar (sic) sea cow only in permanent suspension from the ceiling of a museum.

Fate: the strange meaning of one’s own reflection in the glass separating the bones.

In the 19th century, William James defined cognition, Claude Debru reminds us, as “knowing objects.”  The visit to the Natural History Museum was a lesson in the history of human cognition: a glimpse of the understanding of the world of powerful individuals through the ordered objects that they left behind.  Particularly, it is a lesson in the centrality of the messy relation between objects and subjects in the history and philosophy of science and a challenge to the cognitive science revolution’s vision of human beings as active agents.  At one moment and from one perspective, the human being is an active agent ordering, collecting, categorizing.  In another moment, or from another point of view, the human being is an object of a museum display.

Continuing to make sense of this dynamic relationship between subjects and objects of knowledge without wishing to settle the complexity, seems to me to be our challenge as critical scholars of science.  Perhaps one strategy that we can employ to this effect is the one proposed by Jerome Bruner in his 1971 education program, “Man: A Course of Study”: contrast the human being with other creatures in order to better see him.

Information and inspiration for this post comes from Janet Browne’s guidance of our visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and Jamie Cohen-Cole’s seminar on “The Cognitive Revolution at Harvard,” May 3, 2012.  With gratitude to both of them and to everyone in our “worldwide” school. 

Peter Galison: Practices, Places and Material Culture in the History of Science


by Silvia, Nicola, and Elisabetta


The second conference planned for the afternoon session was held by Peter Galison, who outlined an overview of the project in which he is currently involved, that is “a material history of the present.” This approach looks to the contemporary scene by investigating the scientific practices in their materiality and visualisation. Indeed, the “material history” is related not only to philosophical and intellectual issues in sciences, but also to practical ones. Galison took the example of physics, which in the last hundred years took a dual direction : on one hand, physics devoted itself to classical Kantian questions, while becoming, on the other, a matter of State as well as a large scale political economy issue. Now, what is at stake in Galison’s approach is to question where physics is happening in contemporary society and what is its contemporary impact. Methodologically, it is a matter of applying historical methods in order to understand contemporary physics starting from the period around 1900.

Galison emphasized that material phenomena makes history local and links specific, it makes choice more evident, it provides proportion and crossing of scale, and makes contingencies more apparent by historical analysis. This entails inevitably a political issue: to analyse choices that are already made, indeed, means to understand choices in the past, and this is intended as a way of offering us choices now. Actually, to see current events as contingencies of history prevents us from considering them as inevitable. Moreover, it lets us develop a sense of proportion, since many aspects of contemporary physics involve taking into account “out of human sight” dimensions. There exist thus historical as well as political reasons for adopting a material and visualisable approach and transforming thereby transhistorical transcendentals into something graspable in practice. To substantiate further his argument, Galison pointed out the importance of understanding the history of the history of science, i.e. the history of the very idea of knowledge. Ernst Mach, for instance, was convinced that knowledge should be grounded in accumulation of observations and that scientific theories were to be seen as mere bookkeeping devices. The same attitude towards theories, along with the belief that the language of science and perception was reducible to atomic bits, was shared by all the upholders of logical positivism, like Otto Neurath, Gottlob Frege or Bertrand Russell. This philosophical school, remarked Galison, played a heavily progressive political and social role at its beginnings, since it fostered cooperation between epistemologists and scientists from various nations (above all France and Germany), while fighting against idealism and hegelianism. For logical positivists, especially the austro-german ones, stripping away metaphysics from philosophy amounted to fight against reactionary stances, both political and cultural, as well as upholding an anticlerical, antifascist and antinationalistic agenda.

Thirty years later the situation had been completely reversed, as logical positivism had come to be seen as stronghold of intellectual conservatism, drawing attacks from such philosophers as Gerald Holton, Norwood Russell Hanson, Mary Hesse and Thomas Kuhn. According to them, positivistic epistemology was deeply flawed because it failed to recognize that scientific observations are always conditioned to theories, which do not serve only as codifying directories for experience, but actually form it.

Thomas Kuhn, inspired among other sources by Gestalt psychology, questioned the existence of atomic bits of reality, as well as neutral sense pre-percepts, and the ideal of a single neutral observation language. His contributions to the history of science were instrumental in shifting the attention from observations to theories, along with replacing the concept of continuos knowledge accumulation by those of epistemic break and incommensurability. This shift resulted in a blow for a relativist conception of scientific knowledge, on the model of the boasian school in social sciences, which reached its apogee with the birth of science and technology studies in the early 80s . Knowledge was regarded a sort of inland empire and science historians, as an antidote to teleological thinking, were trained to recognize the solidity of every system.

Concerning the history of physics, this attitude took the shape of an emphasis put on major theoretical breakthroughs, like the publication of Einstein’s papers on special relativity. Peter Galison clearly distanced himself from this stance as he pointed out that the history of physics is marked by big breaks, but not by overall change. In his opinion, believing this would be paramount to committing a logical fallacy, since, from the absence of a single scientific language capable of crossing all theories and all periods, it does not follow that there is no way of comparing two different theories. As Galison pointed out further, there exist three different material cultures within physics, each of them reposing on a particular conception of what it means to demonstrate something : the theorists, the experimentalists and the object makers. By doing so, he equated theory to all other forms of scientific practicing, like manipulating objects or constructing instruments. These three levels are not hierarchically superposed and epistemological breaks can occur at any level, since it is always possible to check a new theory with an already existing procedure and vice versa. Another important feature of Galison’s standpoint is locality, i.e. the requirement of considering every scientific issue within its particular context, rather than aiming at drawing a cultural history of Zeitgeist at different ages. This approach is supposed to allow historians to focus on what really holds together different material subcultures within a given scientific discipline. Scientific theories, argued Galison, are like natural languages, i.e. they do not transition from each other abruptly, but undergo a series of complex hybridisation processes resulting from verbal exchanges between agents that do not share a common language. In this framework, for instance, biochemistry can be contextualised as a sort of pidgin – a functional exchange language aiming at making possible particular applications – originating from negotiations taking place between biologists and chemists. Moreover, while some processes of hybrid end up freezing in structures that are able to survive, not every hybrid evolves into a full blown language. Exchanges of this kind give birth to “trading zones”, where scientists from different backgrounds interacts with the goal of solving certain given problems. These trading zones involve partial exchange for working together through a language of coordination, such as in the case of nanotechnologies, computer simulation, string theory and environmental arenas.

Natural History Museum

by Silvia, Nicola, and Elisabetta


Wednesday morning was devoted to the visit of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, one of three natural history museums whose public face is the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Janet Browne guided us throughout the visit and explained us the history of the Museum. The Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded in 1859 through the efforts of the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. The institution was made possible by private gifts and funds supplied by the state of Massachusetts. The central part of the building that one can see today is the original part, whereas the wings were subsequently added by Alexander Agassiz, Louis’ son.

Louis Agassiz and the Museum of Comparative Zoology

Louis Agassiz was a major figure of the natural history in the 19th century. Before starting his career in the United States, Agassiz had published monographs on ichthyology, paleontology, and geology. The five volumes of the Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1843) were written according to the tradition of his mentor Georges Cuvier. They contained descriptions of more than 1.700 ancient species, together with illustrated reconstructions based on principles of comparative anatomy. This work, with his researches on glacial action, earned him the admiration of well established savants as Cuvier, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Lyell.

Having traveled to the United States in 1846 to study the natural history of North America, Agassiz was offered a professorship at Harvard and decided to settle in Boston. He then started to popularize natural history and to establish lasting institutions of research and education. The Museum of Comparative Zoology, as it was intended by Agassiz, was conceived for the public more than for students and researchers. Today, we had the chance to go “behind the scenes” and visit also one of the collections (Herpetology) used by researchers.

The Museum was founded by Agassiz in an important year in the history of biology: the year of publication of Darwin’s Origin of species (1859). Agassiz had always sustained a fixist view. In fact, he was convinced that each specific form of plant or animal represented “a thought of God” at the moment of creation, and that structural affinities between living organisms were ideas’ associations in God’s mind. Agassiz’s opposition to Darwin’s theory was immediate. Asa Gray –the other great figure of Harvard’s Faculty of Natural History and Darwin’s correspondent– started to support and make public evolutionary theory already in a lecture held in 1858. After this lecture, Agassiz admonished seriously his colleague with these words: “Gray, we must stop all this.” For the rest of his life, Louis Agassiz remained a strong opponent of evolutionary view.

The arrangement of the halls originally reflected Agassiz’s non-evolutionary views: species are displayed according to a geographical order. The Hall of Mammals still presents today quite the same arrangement. Each species is presented as a stuffed form and as a skeleton, without any element of its environmental context. After Agassiz some changes occurred, for example a display case of man and ape skeletons has been added. This became famous thanks to Thomas Henry Huxley’s cover of Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863).

Today, the organization of the Museum follows an evolutionary approach.

The case of Gorilla: Epistemological issues

Janet Browne’s presentation developed some very interesting epistemological issues. We can just recall the way in which she presented the gorilla in the Hall of Mammals. Actually, according to Browne, such an “object” is supposed to represent many things and to tell sundry stories. On one hand, indeed, it makes us to reflect upon the way in which the animal was shot and became an object for the academic research. On the other hand, the position of the animal as “male dominant” refers to the social life of the apes, so recalling us the researches of the philosopher and feminist Donna Haraway, whose study on “Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science” (1989) explicates the metaphors and narratives that direct the science of primatology.

It is a very important approach, since it shows, in the spirit of historical epistemology, that scientific “objects” are not conceptually pure, but are always at the crossroad of different perspectives—philosophical, social, political, economic—and they are the stakes of different interests and goals.

Romer Hall and Glass Flowers

The Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology presents an impressive specimen : the Kronosaurus, an extinct pliosaur of the Cretaceous. In fact, this specimen is only 68% real, as some vertebrae were added artificially to impress the public. Paleontology is, in its essence, a discipline were imagination has to be exerted to reconstruct an entire organism from small parts… but in this case imagination was too wild!

Finally we visited the collection of glass model of plants. We learned that these models were made from 1886 through 1936 by the glass artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschkas, whose studio was located in Hosterwitz (near Dresden, Germany). This artisanal method aimed at creating life-like representatives of the plant kingdom for teaching botany. The models include over 800 species with accurate anatomical sections and enlarged flower parts.

We really enjoyed the visit. The collection was amazing and we had the great chance to follow a special tour guide! Thanks again to Janet Browne.



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