Author Archive

conferences, displays/exhibits, history of medicine

Can you display pain without lesion?

It’s notoriously difficult to display invisibles in medical exhibitions. And what’s more invisible than pain? When you break a leg, the lesion is visible, but the pain is not. A mostly subjective sensation, chronic pain has few, if any, visible physical correlates. How do you display headache?

I came to think about this when I heard about the Birkbeck Pain Project, which invites contributions to a workshop organised by Daniel S. Goldberg, titled “The History of Pain Without Lesion in the Mid-to-Late 19th Century West”. The workshop will deal with the social, cultural, and medical status of what we might now refer to as chronic pain sufferers, including labels and complaints, like neuralgia, neurasthenia, hysteria, railway spine, spinal irritation, spinal concussion, headache, dysmenorrhea, and pain without lesion.

Read more here. If you consider attending, send up to 450 words submissions + cv to painproject@bbk.ac.uk, not later than 30 November, or contact the organiser directly, goldbergd@ecu.edu.

collections, conferences, curation, material studies, museum studies, recent biomed

Artefacts meeting in Leiden — final programme

Eventually, the final program for the annual Artefacts meeting (this year in Leiden), has just been sent out. Three of us here at Medical Museion (Louise Whiteley, Niels Vilstrup and myself) are going — here are Louise’s and my abstracts:

Louise Whiteley: Preserving the material culture of functional neuroimaging: Objects of process
Functional neuroimaging research aims to reveal the physical basis of the mind. Since the late 1980s, functional neuroimaging has been a prominent player in contemporary neuroscience, and its strong public profile and invocation in policy contexts also argue for the importance of preserving and engaging with its material culture. Yet brain scanners are not natural museum objects; huge, heavy, and expensive, their most salient sensory qualities derive from the operation of a giant magnet cooled by helium gas and encased in a shielded room. Here I argue that attending to the trajectory from experiment design to data presentation offers us an array of new objects to consider, and new possibilities for engagement with this potent technology. I discuss the collection of computer tasks designed to recreate phenomena such as love or religious experience in the scanner; of objects such as vats of earplugs, restraining cages, and stimulus delivery devices; and of brain scans considered as contingent endpoints of fluid, computational analysis. Finally, I consider how distributed curation of such ‘objects of process’ could bring into productive interaction the interests of neuroscientists, visitors, and a developing critical discourse about the social implications of neuroimaging that is already challenging boundaries of expertise.

Louise Whiteley is an Assistant Professor at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. She has a PhD in Neuroscience and MSc in Science Communication, co-directed the Wellcome Trust funded public engagement project Interior Traces, and recently completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neuroethics. She is interested in using qualitative research to both study and shape public engagement with the social, ethical, and philosophical ‘implications’ of contemporary biomedical science.

Thomas Soderqvist: COLLECTION IMPOSSIBLE: Distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing as alternatives to centralised collecting
Centralised collecting of the artefacts from contemporary science, technology and medical (STM) visual and material culture seems to have rather bleak prospects. The looming financial and social global crisis is not conducive to centralized efforts by big museums to save the contemporary STM heritage, not least because the modern state-subsidised museum institution is running out of funding (at least in the West). What can curators then do to uphold their professional obligation to rescue the contemporary STM heritage for future generations? In this paper I will discuss two alternative collecting strategies: distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing. I suggest that the major aim of STM museum acquisition curators should rather be to raise the general awareness among scientists and the engineering and medical professions of the importance of preserving ‘their’ artefacts (heritagemindedness). Drawing on a historical analogy (biological standardisation in the 1950s), I also suggest that this aim might be achieved best by working out guidelines for the collection, preservation and curation of artefacts to be distributed to individual scientists, doctors and engineers in research institutions and private companies, and to interested members of the public. Presently, social media is probably the best vehicle for producing such guidelines and spreading them widely.

Thomas Soderqvist is professor in the history of medicine and Director of Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. His research specialty is the history and historical methodology of 20th century life sciences and medicine (e.g., The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, co-ed, 2007), and he has also written about the problems of collecting and displaying contemporary medical science and technology.

abstracts, aesthetics, art and science, conferences, science communication studies

Mundane design vs. fine sci-art as two realms of aesthetic practice in science communication

Here’s my abstract for a panel on the role of the humanities in science communication that Joan Leach in the Science Communication programme, U Queensland, is putting together for the PCST-12 meeting in Florence next spring:

Mundane Design vs. Fine Sci-Art: Two Realms of Aesthetic Practice in Science Communication
Sci-art has become an increasingly important dimension of science communication through printed media, museums, science centers and the web. Ranging from beautiful images on scientific journal covers to tissue-engineered wet-art installations, sci-art has become a recognised subgenre of the contemporary fine arts; it has entered art schools and caught the interest of gallery owners and art reviewers. It has also drawn the attention of major funding agencies, like the Wellcome Trust, as a means for strengthening public engagement with science. However, the popularity of fine sci-art risks eclipsing another, and perhaps even more important, realm of aesthetic practice in science and science communication, viz., mundane design (everyday aesthetics). In this presentation, I shall reclaim everyday aesthetics and the sensory qualities of research as a central aspect of science and, as a consequence, of science communication.

The full title of the proposed panel is ‘The Role of Humanities in Science Communication: Axiology, Epistemology, Aesthetics’, which connects nicely to the theme of the conference: ‘quality, honesty and beauty in science and technology communication’. It’s a great theme, very anti-mainstream-STS’ish! Besides me and Joan, Steve Fuller (Warwick) and Alice Bell (Imperial) are taking part. But, you never know if the programme committee likes this kind of approach or not. Let’s see. That said, the deadline for proposals is 30 September, and the final programme will be announced in January 2012.

university museums

What’s the role of academic museums in today’s Europe?

There’s been quite a lot of noise about European university museums in the last couple of years. A lot of people are thinking about why and how the academic heritage should be collected, preserved and exhibited (to the right is one of the, our own Medical Museion in Copenhagen).

Now the University of Tartu History Museum (Estonia) will use its 35th anniversary celebration as an opportunity to throw a conference on 5-6 December, where the role of academic museums in today’s Europe will be discussed: “Who needs them and why, and how should academic heritage be exhibited?”

Most European universities possess rather impressive scientific collections – herbaria, minerals, anatomical preparations, instruments, etc. The traditional and initial role of these collections – to support studies and research – is decreasing in the virtual era. This has forced museums to look for new ways to use these collections, mainly to popularise science and introduce the history of universities. However, these collections are often problems for universities, as they take up a lot of room and need maintenance, which universities cannot afford. Many universities have tried to get rid of their collections, some have even managed to take or buy them back. Stocktaking of collections has been used to get rid of spoilt items.

Developing a more attractive exhibition strategy is one of the biggest challenges of museums dealing with academic heritage. They immediately face a number of questions when trying to approach this. Do we exhibit entire collections or just samples? How much will we use modern technical aids? Who are the most important target groups of these museums? How can we communicate the scientific ideas that are hundreds of years old in a manner that is understandable? Creating associations with modern times helps to understand, but it also carries the threat that we project past ideas that didn’t actually exist. How can we connect the work of science historians with the museum?

The role of museums that deal with the history of science and education and their meaning in society also depends on the broader cultural policy. How do the various forms of ownership affect the use and preservation of academic heritage? Would it be better for universities to own their museums or to transfer them to the state, local government, a foundation or other private owners with all their assets, and what would each of these options entail? How can the contribution of university museums to the development of modern society be increased?

The research director of the museum, cultural historian Lea Leppik, who organises the conference, is looking for interesting 25 min-presentations. Send 300 word abstracts to her (lea.leppik@ut.ee) before 1 October. There is no participation fee, but you’ll have to pay for your travel and accommodation in Tartu. The working languages of the conference are Estonian (!) and English.

collections, human remains, university museums

European anatomical collections network initiative

Great initiative! Elena Corradini at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy) and Marek Bukowski at the Museum of the Medical University of Gdansk (Poland) are proposing a European Anatomical Collections Network.

Elena and Marek’s idea is to launch a joint European program for the preservation, handling, and availability of
anatomical collection based on contemporary best practice in the field (the image to the right is from one of our temporary anatomical exhibitions in 2008):

They are going to present the project at the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) meeting in Lisbon in September, but as a starter they would like curators of anatomical collection around Europe to respond to a survey, with questions like:

Type of collection (anatomical and/or pathological and/or curiosity collection); date of foundation; founder’s name and collection providers and managers throughout history; primary venues (separate cabinet in University, palace or court, part of anatomical theater, etc.); researchers connected with collection; famous objects; description of kinds of objects; conservation strategy; availability, etc.

You can respond to the survey via these two links: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QMBDJJX and http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QZFN55K.

They would also like some feedback on what they think are the most important features of anatomical museums and collections, including:

  • having an Anatomical Theatre for displaying anatomical performances.
  • having a large variety of anatomical specimens.
  • having the possibility of exhibiting historical anatomical specimens.
  • having the display of human remains as an explicit exhibition strategy.
  • focusing on the sense of wonder and fascination with the beauty, mystery and complexity of the body.
  • drawing on visitors’ motivation for visiting the museum and their expectations of the museum.
  • being intersted in the reciprocal relation between audiences and content (what is on show?) of anatomical collections.
  • a focus on conservation problems.
  • selcting the right kind of professionals for anatomical museums.

Send your views on these priorities to elena.corradini@unimore.it and marski@gumed.edu.pl.

(Unfortunately, I cannot attend the UMAC meeting in Lisbon; hope you will all have some good days in the Portuguese late summer heat).

material studies, visual studies

Greenaway has got it wrong: there is no ‘visual illiteracy’ — but there is a widespread ‘material illiteracy’.

The last issue of ICOM’s e-Newsletter (June-July 2011) carries a short summary of Peter Greenaway‘s presentation “The New Visual Literacy” at ICOM’s 2011 Annual Meeting, in which the British film maker showed images to encourage ‘visual awareness’ among museum people and support his dictum: ‘the image always has the last word’:

Displaying his signature wit and stage presence, he spoke of a widespread visual illiteracy due to an essentially text-based culture and discussed the global museum’s obligation in this new digital age to promote the visual.

I’m not sure I agree. Ours is a text-based culture, indeed. But I see few signs of a ‘visual illiteracy’ when I look around. Visuality is ubiquitous. There are pictures, images, signs, photographs, stills, videos etc. everywhere. Television, DVD players and visual games have inundated our homes. The web is overflowing with images. Almost every online news story is accompanied by a short video clip. Has Greenaway visited Youtube, Google Images or Flickr? Greenaway is speaking in terms of his own visual interests — but by doing so he is flogging a dead horse.

Why does ICOM support this idea of a ‘visual illiteracy’? Museums ought to be the first to direct our attention to the erosion of a common awareness about the material basis of culture. Given the ubiquitous visual and digital awareness and literacy in today’s culture, ICOM would better focus on the need for a new material literacy.

conferences, general, science communication studies, science studies

Are science and society frenemies? And what, if anything, does this mean for sci-med-tech communication?

Sometimes conference announcements only become interesting in the very last sentence. Like this one for “Frenemies: The love-hate relationsship between science and society”, taking place at Universiteit Twente on 14 September.

Science is put in the dock, so it seems. Experts are under attack, there is public agitation on the internet. Yet we cherish expertise as never before, and cite expert sources whenever they suit us. Are we friends, or enemies, or both? [...] This symposium looks at the dynamic role of expertise in our society. How should we understand the notion of expertise? What operates as credible expertise, and when? Is scientific expertise overrated, and are other forms of expertise too easily dismissed? Or is it precisely the other way around?

Seems like any other conference on scientific expertice to me. But then comes the interesting part:

And what, if anything, does this mean for communicating science and technology?

If you plan to attend, send an email to pauline.teppich@utwente.nl with subject REGISTER #FRENEMIES.

blogging

Public health science communication through social media

Public Health Science Communication 2.0Just want to spread the word that Nina Bjerglund Andersen, who’s working on a project on public health science communication through social media here at Medical Museion, has just started a blog titled Public Health Science Communication 2.0. Looking forward to see how it develops! And we’ll sure hear more about Nina’s project here.

general

Tenure track job in history of medicine at Yale

Although the United States seems be on the track of turning into an intellectually and economically failed nation, some of their universities are still among the best in the world. And among the best of the best is Yale University. Readers of this blog may therefore be interested to hear that Yale invites applications for a tenure track Assistant/Associate or tenured Associate/full Professor in the History of Medicine beginning July 1, 2012. Applicants with interests in the history of the biomedical sciences, experimental life sciences, or clinical practice since 1800 are particularly encouraged to apply.

The search committee will begin considering applications on October 15, 2011. Applicants should send a curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, a statement about their work and professional plans, and a sample of their scholarly writing such as a dissertation or book chapter or article to Professor John Harley Warner, History of Medicine Search Committee, c/o Ewa Lech, Section of the History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, P.O. Box 208015, New Haven, CT 06520-8015, USA. More info from Ms. Lech, ewa.lech@yale.edu (don’t ask questions in the comments section below, this blog is just the humble announcement board).

general, history of medicine, history of science

The medical history background for the Oslo terrorist action

One of the inspirational sources of Oslo terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s peculiar manifesto ’2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ is the anonymous blogger Fjordman, who has been a leading intellectual in the international anti-Jihad movement for almost a decade.

In a recent circular mail, Oslo historian of science Vidar Enebakk draws the attention of his Scandinavian colleagues to the fact that Fjordman has not only written about history, religion and politics in general, but also quite a lot about the history of science and medicine to ‘prove’ that modern science and medicine could only have emerged under the umbrella of European Christendom, and definitely not in Islamic cultures.

I’ve now read a few of his many articles (originally published on a variety of extreme anti-Islamic blog). One thing is Fjordman’s extremely one-sided anti-Islamic and pro-Christian interpretation; another thing is that he/she is quite well-read in the history of science and medicine. I’ve made a few Google searches on random stretches of text, which show that Fjordman doesn’t seem to have cut-and-pasted, but apparently has written these articles him-/herself. It’s not original research, but from a technical point of view it’s quite well-written popular history of science and medicine.

Probably only a person with a basic academic training in history of science could have written these texts. As Enebakk points out, we’re probably talking about a person who many Scandinavian historians of science and medicine may already know as a colleague or (former) student, and he therefore suggests us to take a closer look at the texts — analysing arguments, interpretations, stylistic features, etc. — to try find out who hides behind the Fjordman pseudonym.

conferences, university museums

What shall I say about university museums?

I’ve been invited to give a keynote lecture at the 2011 University Museum Conference, which is going to be held 11-12 November at the National Cheng Kung University Museum in Tainan, Taiwan.

Apparently, I’m supposed to speak my mind, so this would be a great opportunity to think through the topic of university museums. But what to say? I’ve browsed all the issues of the University Museums and Collections Journal, but didn’t find anything that really caught my imagination.

Does anyone know a good, provocative, statement about university museums that could work as an appetizer? Any angle is welcomed.

By the way, I’ve never been in Taiwan before; Tainan is supposed to be a rather beautiful city, at least compared to Taipeh.

general

Summer vacation

I forgot to tell that Biomedicine on Display is having a short summer vacation. Back again sometime in August.

conferences, university museums

Next Universeum meeting will take place in Trondheim in 2012

Next year’s Universeum meeting (the 13th) will take place 14-16 June 2012 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. An announcement and call for papers will be sent out in November. See further: http://www.universeum.it/meetings.html.

For those who have forgotten it: Universeum is an association for the preservation, study, access and promotion of university collections, museums, archives, libraries, botanical gardens, astronomical observatories, etc.

Twitter, blogging, history of science

History of science blogs and Twitter accounts

Last year Michael D. Barton published a list of blogs and twitter accounts that “focus on or dabble in the history of science, science and technology studies, etc.” that he was aware of. He’s just posted a link to it on his FB wall, so this must be the latest updated version.

Great work! But did he miss any? Seems like the list below doesn’t include much history of medical science (after all much of medicine is medical science), so hopefully someone with good link collecting instincts could make a similar list for HoMS.

Advances in the History of Psychology (@AHPblog)
Adventures of a Post-Doc
Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project
Alfred Russel Wallace News & Views (@ARWallace)
AlunSalt
AmericanScience: A Team Blog (@henrycowles, @danbouk)
Anita Guerrini
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal
Archy (& Mammoth Tales, @archymck)
Biomedicine on Display (@museionist)
Boffins and Cold Warriors
BSHS Travel Guide (@BSHSNews)
The Bubble Chamber: Where history and philosophy of science meet society and public policy (@BblChamber)
Chris Renwick’s Blog (@ChrisRenwick)
Collect and Connect: Nineteenth Century Natural History
Contagions (@hefenfelth)
cryology and co.
Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog (@dancohen)
Darwinaia
Darwin and Gender: The Blog (@DarwinWomen)
Darwin and Human Nature: The Blog (@DarwinHuman)
Decoding the Heavens
The Dispersal of Darwin (@darwinsbulldog)
Echo
Einstein’s Apple (old)
entangled bank
Envirotech
Ether Wave Propaganda
Evolving Thoughts (@john_s_wilkins)
False vacuum: a weblog by Aaron Sidney Wright (Notes on the History and Philosophy of Science) (@aaronswright)
Floating in a web of inter-textuality
Foundations of Science Sydney
From the Hands of Quacks: The Official Weblog of Jaipreet Virdi (@jaivirdi)
The Giant’s Shoulders (blog carnival)
Heterodoxology (@easprem)
History of Economics Playground
History of geology (@David_Bressan)
The History of Psychology
History of Science (from the Royal Society, see @NotesRecordsRS)
History of Science
History of Science (@emmajacobs)
HistoryofScience.com Blog
History of Science in America
History of Science at Oregon State University
History of Science for the Science Classroom/Ron Gray – science educator (@grayron)
The History of Vaccines Blog
h-madness
hpb etc. (@Darwiniana)
HSS Graduate & Early Career Caucus
HSTM at the University of Minnesota (old)
The Inverse Square Blog (@TomLevenson)
IT History Society Blog (@ithistoryorg)
Jacob Darwin Hamblin (@jdhamblin)
Kele’s Science Blog (@KeleCable)
Laelaps (@laelaps)
The Lippard Blog (@lippard)
Logan Lounge (old)
Longitude Project Blog (@beckyfh)
media to explore hsci / med / tech @ ou
Meteorite Manuscripts (@MetManuscripts)
The Missing Link (old)
Morbid Anatomy (@morbidanatomy)
Mz Skeptica (@MzSkeptica)
Neuron Culture (@david_dobbs)
The Neuro Times (@TheNeuroTimes)
Non-Consensual Science
Not by Needs nor Nature (@jessephiltz)
Occam’s Trowel (old)
OSQUALITUDE (@JFDerry)
PACHSmörgåsbord (@pachsnet, @dhayton)
The Pauling Blog
The Perfect Vacuum, Imaginary Magnitude (@GustavHolmberg)
petri dish
The Primate Diaries (formerly The Primate Diaries in Exile and TPD, @ericmjohnson)
Productive (Adj)
Oral Histories of Science (British Library)
OU History of Science Collections
Periodic Tabloid (@chemheritage)
Projectories
Ptak Science Books (@ptak)
Public Historian (@publichistorian)
Quodlibeta
ragesoss (@ragesoss)
Rationally Speaking
Reciprocal Space (@Stephen_Curry)
Relevant History (@askpang)
The Renaissance Mathematicus (@rmathematicus)
In Retrospect
Roger Launius’s Blog
Science in Society
Science, Values, and Democracy
Scientia
Scientia Curiosa (@history_geek)
Seiler on Science
SHOTnews.net
A Simple Prop (@jmlynch)
Skulls in the Stars (@drskyskull)
Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology (@somatosphere)
Songs from the History of Science
Stories from the Stores
STS Observatory
Textbook History (@textbooktweets)
think deviant – philosophy of science
Thoughts in a Haystack
through the looking glass (@alicebell)
Time to Eat the Dogs (@ExplorationBlog)
Transcribing Tyndall (@JohnTyndallCP)
University of Toronto Science Instrument Collections (@UTSIC)
Until Darwin: Science & the Origins of Race
UCSD Science Studies Program
Vintage Space (@astVintageSpace)
VIRIDARIUM
A Voice of Reason
Walking History (@wilkohardenberg)
Wellcome Library Blog (@wellcomelibrary)
Whewell’s Ghost (@beckyfh, @thonyc, @john_s_wilkins, @jmlynch)
Whipple Library Blog (@hpslib)
William Eamon (@williameamon)
Wonders & Marvels (@history_geek)
The World’s Fair (@dnghub)
Zoonomian (@physicus)

And updated by commentators (added by me):

History of Geology Blog: http://historyofgeology.blogspot.com/
Cryology & co.: http://rockglacier.blogspot.com/
Fossils and other living things: http://fossilsandotherlivingthings.blogspot.coPALAEOBLOG: http://palaeoblog.blogspot.com/

History of science on Twitter solely:
Ann, @transfermium
Dominic Berry, @Rusgerkins
Keynyn Brysse, @Paleo_Girl
Gary Butt, @gbutt
Joe Cain, @drjoecain
Lizzy Campbell, @LizzyCampbell
Margaret Cavendish, @ScientificLady
Natalia Cecire, @ncecire
Brendan Clarke, @philmedman
Nathaniel Comfort @nccomfort
Bill Cronon (@wcronon)
Ralph Drayton, @rdrayton
Randi Hutter Epstein @rhutterepstein
Graham Farmelo, @grahamfarmelo
Mike Finn, @theselflessmeme
Kieron Flanagan, @kieronflanagan
Delia Gavrus, @DeliaElena
Gregory A. Good, @HistoryPhysics
Neil Gussman, @sgtguss
Piers Hale, @piershale
Deborah Harkness, @DebHarkness
Vanessa Heggie, @HPS_Vanessa
Jan Helldén, @jhellden
Ian Hesketh, @ianhesketh
HPS Museum Leeds, @hpsmuseumleeds
HPS, University of Cambridge, @CambridgeHPS
Home of Darwin, @HomeofDarwin
Claire Jones, @Claire_L_Jones
Finn Arne Jørgensen, @finnarne
Seong-Jun Kim, @SeongJun
David Kohn, @DARBASE
Oliver Lagueux, @olilag
Sienna Latham, @clerestories
Linnean Society, @LinneanSociety
Marri Lynn, @Marri
Pamela Mack, @pammack
Amy-Elizabeth Manlapas, @mrsmanlapas
Museum of the History of Science, @MHSOxford
Satoshi Nozawa, @st_nozawa
Rebecca Pohancenik, @rpohancenik
James Poskett, @jamesposkett
Rebecca Priestley, @RKPriestley
Isaac Record, @hoobiewan
Royal Institution, @rigb_science
Pedro Ruiz-Castell, @P_RuizCastell
Science Museum Archives, @GalilieosBalls
Society for the Study of Astronomy, @SocHistAst
Society for the Study of Natural History, @SHNHSocNatHist
struthious, @struthious
STS, York Univ., @STS_YorkU
Andrew Stuhl, @andrewstuhl
Carsten Timmermann, @ctimmermann
Alexander Vka, @Alex_Vka
Jakob Whitfield, @thrustvector
Grant Yamashita, @gyamashita

Links about HoS Blogging:

Gustav Holmberg, Blogging the history of science, Imaginary Magnitude (March 1, 2011)
Jai Virdi, Conversing in a Cyberspace Community: The Growth of HPS Blogging, From the Hands of Quacks (October 6, 2010)
Jai Virdi, Survey Says… and Survey Results, From the Hands of Quacks (Sept. 17, 2010)
Jai Virdi, Navigating the History of Science Blogosphere, From the Hands of Quacks (August 30, 2010)
Jai Virdi, On the Blogosphere: History of Science Blogs, From the Hands of Quacks (June 12, 2010)
Michael D. Barton, History of Science Society 2009: “Your Daily History of Science,” The Dispersal of Darwin (Nov. 25, 2010)
Will Thomas, “Blogging as Scholarship,” Ether Wave Propaganda (October 24, 2008)
Michael Robinson, “A Blog of One’s Own,” Time to Eat the Dogs, (October 27, 2008)
Loïc Charles, “Blogging for what? Blogging for whom?” History of Economics Playground (November 14, 2008)
Benjamin Cohen, “Why Blog the History of Science?” Newsletter of the History of Science Society (October 2008)
Benjamin Cohen, “Why Blog the History of Science?” The World’s Fair (October 14, 2008)
Benjamin Cohen, “What difference does the history of science make?” The World’s Fair (August 4, 2008)
John Lynch, “Blogging and history of science,” Stranger Fruit (August 4, 2008) [John now blogs at A Simple Prop]

ageing, biography, individuality, medical humanities, personality, social criticism

Care of self and keeping track of one’s identity

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize winner Ragnar Granit’s essay on the distinction between discovery and understanding as two separate modes of scientific work, which, he suggested, are differentially distributed throughout a scientist’s life-course — young researchers are impatient to discover something new, whereas older scientists are more interested in getting insight, he suggested.

Even more interesting, in my view, is Granit’s thoughts about how researchers ‘keep track’ and ‘take care’ of their identity in order to achieve understanding and insight:

By “keeping track of one’s identity” I mean cultivating the talents of listening to the workings of one’s own mind, separating minor diversions from main lines of thought, and gratefully accepting what the secret process of automatic creation delivers.

In all creative work, including scientific work, Granit said, there is ”need for a good deal of time for exercising the talent of listening to oneself”, and this self-listening is “often more profitable than listening to others”. Listening to oneself is at any rate more important than going to scientific seminars and conferences, which the ageing neurophysiologist thought was a pretty overrated activity:

There are so many of these meetings nowadays that people can keep on drifting round the world and soon be pumped dry of what is easier to empty than to refill.

Granit was aware of the possibility that some colleagues might regard his notion of ’keeping track of one’s identity’ as idiosyncratic. But he also knew others, who, like himself, when looking back on their lives, might recognise ”a main line of personal identity in the choice of their labors”. And maybe these colleagues would also agree with his own conviction that “if one can take care of one’s identity, it, in turn, will take care of one’s scientific development”.

Today, such ideas seem largely anathematic. Any graduate school programme will tell their students how important it is to engage with others, go to seminars, attend conferences, and read the literature systematically. Period. Few, if any, graduate school programmes would tell their students to listen to their own selves and take care of their scholarly identity.

The reason I find Granit’s idea of ‘keeping track’ and ‘taking care’ of oneself interesting is that it is pretty close to the ancient notion of ‘care of self’. I don’t know if Granit read Socrates or the Stoics or about the Epicureans. But his ideas are close to the notions of ’spiritual excercises’ and ’souci de soi’, which have been reintroduced into contemporary philosophy by Pierre Hadot, and later by Michel Foucault.

Such ideas — whether expressed by French philosophers or Finland-Swedish medical Nobel Prize winners — are definitely not on the agenda of present-day research governance agencies, who view researchers in more neo-liberal terms. It’s also a far cry away from the contemporary tradition of social studies of science, which shuns the idea of researchers taking their destiny in their own hands.

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