Historical instruments and the biotech controversy

by Alessandro & Claudia

Harvard’s Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments

Harvard University collects scientific instruments since 1672, but it is in 1948 that the present Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments has been established by David P. Wheatland. Today it contains over 20.000 objects spanning 6 centuries of History. We split ourselves in 5 groups and visited different parts of the collection, each one dealing with a different theme.


Jean-François Gauvin, curator of the Collection, showed us the Putnam gallery, that is the public exposition of the Collection. It is impossible to exhibit all the items, so a part of them are shown in turn. Many of the more interesting items are described in detail in the brochure, so that we will not insist further upon them. We just mention the oldest instrument of the collection, an astrolabe; then a compass made by Galileo, then an air pump made by abbé Nollet, and also the instruments of physiology and the cloud chamber for measuring the mass of a muon. We will scan and upload the content of the brochure, so that it will be more easily accessible and will be part of the content of this blog.

One thing that is not explained in the brochure, is the exciting history of the first mesure of the distance of the Sun through the observation of the Venus transit. It happens twice every 121,5 years that Venus transits ahead the Sun. This is in itself an exceptional astronomic event. You are all invited to attend to it on the 6th of June this year. But the scientific interest is given by the fact that if you mesure the interval between the moments when the planet enters and exists the shape of the Sun, and you compare the mesures taken at different points of the Earth, you can deduce very precisely the relative distance of the Sun, thanks to the parallax. The phenomenon was first observed in 1631, as it was predicted by Kepler, but it wasn’t until 1769 that expedition to different parts of the globe were organised in order to realize this comparison. All the instruments (telescope, chronometer..) used for the expedition to Tahiti are conserved in the Harvard Collection.


Sara Schechner, curator of the Collection, showed us a few selected items, that are especially interesting. First, we observed some magnificent exemplars of sundials, some in wood, others in ivory or in silver. One from China, the other from Europe, they were made between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Their sophisticated mechanism permits to show the correct hour at whatever latitude, and also to calculate the hour in other known cities (which have, at certain epochs, different ways of computing day time). As it was observed more than once these days, ancient instruments are made by an often astonishing handicraft and combine aesthetics and utility. For example, a gilt brass sundial display a sleeping infant  (or putto), symbol of the oblivion of the time passing – to spur the observer to catch the day, a motto recalls us “ SICUT UMBRA DIES NOSTRI SUPER TERRAM “ (like shadows are our days on earth).


We also could observe two very interesting old microscopes. One was made around the 1740 and has, among other tools, a plate for fixing legs of living frog, that allowed to observe the movement of red globules in the blood of these animals. Another, that captured especially the attention of Silvia, is the microscope made by Zentmayer in Philadelphia for Louis Agassiz in 1860. We also saw a telescope, where lenses were replaced by mirrors, because this could reduce chromatic aberration.


Other fascinating items are two bottles containing chemicals, that was bought by the Medical College of Alabama from a Paris-based chemist. But they were never delivered to the College, because it was the time of the Secession War, and the ship was intercepted by the Northern navy and redirected, so that in the end the chemicals arrived in Harvard and are still here.

Juan Andres Leon focussed on the digitization of the collection that comprises more than 20 000 pieces of which only a small number is publicly displayed. Through Waywiser you can get access to the online collection. By the examples of two Heliographs (“sunshine recorders”), a chaff-cutting machine, a catalogue of geometric objects and books it was illustrated that information management systems and their technologies evolve in local contexts of use.With objects, the labels assigned to them, library cards, storage locations, photographic representations and database identifiers overlapping layers of information have to be coordinated. Some virtues of digitization might be the possibilities of going beyond the collection of heroic instruments, capturing larger, distributed objects, the possibility of relating information from different sources in databases as well as a compact display of objects in one central, easily searchable space. However, it was emphasized that digital collections should best be understood as supplements to physical collections without the aim of replacement. The effort necessary for digitization are to be weighted against the benefits of having comprehensive collections available online. And many questions, such as the integration of software, computational models or simulations into the collection of scientific instruments, remain to be addressed.


Martha Richardson and her colleague gave us an impression of what the work behind the scenes of such a large and extraordinary collection means.We talked about conservation techniques and how they are based on getting to know objects, their materiality, and needs. The bottom line of their exciting talk could be summarized as “if you’re really doing research the database is just the start”, so always ask the curator in order to find things, make connections and also contribute to the management of the collection with interesting questions.


Samantha van Gerbig brought us to visit the exposition “X-Rays of the soul”, concerning mainly the Rorschach Cards. These are 10 card (of which the museum possesses 4 originals) that were used in 20s by the psychologist Hermann Rorschach in order to study clinical patients’ personality. The cards were randomly created by some colored ink blots. Rorschach produced thousands of them and then selected ten that became standard. The subjects were then asked to describe what did they see in these cards. The design of the exposition, suggested by Peter Galison, is really fascinating. Light from two different projectors combines on a semi-transparent mirror in front of the visitor, so that she can see at the same time the original Rorschach card, and the details highlighted by the imagination of the patients who answered to the questions.

On a side of the room, the Rorschach cards are compared with the thematic apperception test (TAT), in which an ambiguous situation is shown and the subject have to interpret it. While in the first test, the images are random and has no intrinsic content, the TAT uses physically and culturally meaningful images, that show people or animals doing things, but it is often unclear what exactly are they doing.

The name of the exhibition is “X-Rays of the Soul”, which is an expression that became common in Germany one century ago, in reference to this psychological practices. The image of the poster at the entrance of the exposition is itself ambiguous, because it is made as a Rorschach ink blot, but it is very similar to an axial section of the brain, that we are used to see in recent neuroimagery research. It is evident that the expression “x-rays of the soul” would be very appropriate now in the 21st century, even if it has been coined one hundred years ago.

As Scott noticed, the analogy should be carefully meditated, because also today people, when they see an image of a brain with colored dots, they think to have a straightforward comprehension of what’s going on, while in fact they may just being over-interpreting.     

American Biotechnology

Based on the article “Frankenstein at Harvard. The public policies of recombinant DNA research” by Everett Mendelsohn (1984), Sophia Roosth elaborated on the controversy on biotechnology in 1976 here in Cambridge. Citizens and Harvard faculty strongly disagreed on the necessity, benefits and risks of opening a P-3 facility for DNA research in the Biology Laboratories at Harvard. The possibility of leaks and a widespread contamination were frightening; among other things the laboratories were just next to the faculty’s child care.After bitter debate the Cambridge City Council imposed a 3-month moratorium and guidelines for recombinant DNA research at Harvard. View the video documentation of the City Council here:

After contrasting the recombinant DNA case with another example of controversy in Boston – an infectious disease research laboratory by Boston University – our discussion evolved around questions regarding risks and regulation, contexts of non-knowledge and trust in research and emerging technologies.


Luminescent bacteria engineered by Claudia at a bio hacker space 35 years after the controversy in Cambridge

Claude Debru has noticed that at the conference 25 years later Asilomar, scientists wondered whether the same pattern of reflection about DNA technology may be reproposed, but concluded that the present situation is different. On the one side there has been a long history of DNA manipulation and no major disaster has happened, on the other side the sensibility and education of the public has evolved. This leaves open the door for optimism for the future.

Yukie shared with us her reflection about the recent catastrophe of Fukushima. The public opinion should have confidence in the work of scientists in order to promote a constructive debate, for example about nuclear energy. Nevertheless, political and industrial leaders has lied about the facts and the meaning of the accident of Fukushima, and since then, people has lost this confidence. Now it happens that at every level of society, and also inside each families, people cannot agree with each other about the usefulness and the safety of a nuclear program; these facts have fragmented community and should be borne in mind also by everybody else, because a similar scenario may happen again, because of physical or biological technology failures.

Wine and Cheese

Thanks everybody for coming! It was wonderful meeting you and exchanging views, ideas and plans. Hopefully we can repeat this  before Friday and in future cooperation!

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