Archive for the 'history of science' Category

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.

blogging, history of science, Twitter

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)
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)
Darwin and Gender: The Blog (@DarwinWomen)
Darwin and Human Nature: The Blog (@DarwinHuman)
Decoding the Heavens
The Dispersal of Darwin (@darwinsbulldog)
Einstein’s Apple (old)
entangled bank
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) 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
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)
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)
Ptak Science Books (@ptak)
Public Historian (@publichistorian)
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 Curiosa (@history_geek)
Seiler on Science
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)
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:
Cryology & co.:
Fossils and other living things: http://fossilsandotherlivingthings.blogspot.coPALAEOBLOG:

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, history of medicine, history of science, individuality, knowledge production, medical humanities, personality, science studies

Impatient discovery vs. mature understanding — revisiting Ragnar Granit’s view of the goal of scientific work

Prompted by a recent guest blog post on the Scientific American site, I’ve just revisited an almost 40 year old essay titled “Discovery and understanding” by the Finland-Swedish neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize Winner Ragnar Granit.

Growing out of a talk (see video here) that Granit gave at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 1972, the essay was published in the Annual Review of Physiology later the same year. I remember dimly having read it when I was a PhD student a few years after it was published, but apparently I didn’t really appreciate it then — and didn’t understand the deeper significance of the message either.

But now I think I’ve got it. And it’s quite interesting for discussions about the culture of science, especially the contemporary political emphasis on scientific competition and race for publication.

The thrust of Granit’s argument is the distinction between discovery and understanding (and later insight) as two separate modes of scientific work that are differentially distributed throughout a scientist’s life-course. Discovery is all-important in the younger, passionate, phase of a scientist’s life, he suggests, whereas understanding and insight is the mark of more mature and detached scientists (which is probably why I didn’t understand the deeper significance of his essay when I was 30).

Young scientist are, he writes, characterised by an “impatient passion” to make discoveries. They want to “see something that others have not seen”. They are on the outlook for what’s new, unexpected, and exciting, they are “ruled by ambition”, they crave for “immediate satisfaction” and “instantaneous excitement”.

It’s easy to believe, he continues, that this passionate quest for discovery is the goal of science, partly because discoveries perpetually initiate new lines of experimental work, but partly also because they are more visible through popular media: “It catches the eye and, in the present age [1972] is pushed in the limelight by various journals devoted to the popularization of science”.

But even if the history of science is full of important discoveries that have “led to major advances”, they are nevertheless not what science is fundamentally about; they are just the means for the “real goal” of scientific work, which is “to try to realize some fundamental ideas about biological structures and their functions, that is to promote understanding”. And “gradually understanding will ripen into insight”.

If Granit had lived today he would probably have been horrified by the fetishisation of long publication lists, impact factors, and bibliometrics:

This attitude [understanding and insight] toward scientific work has the advantage of permitting the experimenters to devote themselves quietly to their labors without filling various journals with preliminary notes to obtain minor priorities

Was the distinction between discovery and understanding valid back in 1972? If so, is it still valid? Is there still a divide between the young postdoc’s passionate quest for rapid discovery and fast publication, on the one hand, and the older professor’s slower and more detached search for insight, on the other? And if so, is it only a question of psychology and individual ageing, or are there other, structural, factors at play?

collections, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, teaching

How to use museum collections in teaching history?

Of course you can, but few history teachers actually take the opportunity. Museum collections remain a remarkably underutilised resource in academic history teaching. And the history of science, technology and medicine is no exception.

Here at Medical Museion we have occasionally brought material objects into our medical history courses and also into the course we’re giving on medical science and technology studies for medical engineering students. We have plans to do much more, especially when it comes to integrating traditional academic and curatorial perspectives on material objects, and we are very eager to learn about other university museums with more teaching experience than we have.

Therefore, the initiative taken by The Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies to organise a ‘Using Museum Collections in Teaching History of Science, Technology and Medicine’ workshop on 14 June is much welcomed. The aim is to bring together people teaching history of STM in higher education with staff from major science, technology and medicine museums throughout the UK. The workshop will look at how the study of museum collections can be incorporated into standard taught courses and used for dissertation purposes. Confirmed speakers include Claire Jones (Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick); Jo Booth (National Media Museum); Delphi Tatarus (Thackray Museum); John Beckerson (Manchester Museum of Science and Industry); Tim Procter (National Railway Museum); Alison Watson (Royal Armouries); and Richard Dunn (National Maritime Museum and Subject Centre for PRS)

Attendance is free of charge, but places are limited. Register here, before 1 June.

blogging, history of medicine, history of science

Blog on the history of neurology and the neurosciences

Cannot understand why I haven’t come across The Neuro Times blog — a historical blog dedicated to neurology and the neurosciences — before. Full of good stuff and a good example to follow.

history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, jobs/grants, recent biomed

Fellowships for research on the biomedical science and technology since 1945

The NIH Office of History has just announced a new batch of Stetten Fellowship for postdoctoral historical research on the biomedical sciences and technology since 1945. The stipends are ~$45,000 per year, include health insurance and office accommodation, computer and phone, and can be renewable to a maximum of 24 months. Application deadline is 31 December 2010. Full announcement here.

acquisition, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, medical scientific instruments, medical technology

The history of the microplate — a ubiquitous biomedical lab technology

One of my favourite objects for acquisition and display from the world of biomedical and clinical laboratories is the microplate (microtiter plate, microwell plate).

A microplate is simply a series of small test tubes (‘wells’) arranged in a regular matrix pattern on a plastic plate, usually made from transparent polystyrene.

The little plate makes it possible to handle many samples in parallell—the most common size is 96 wells, but there are plates with several thousand wells—and the results can be read in an automated plate reader. In addition, the small size of the wells reduces sample volumes (from milliliter scale to nanoliter scale), which in turn saves money spent on reagents, like enzymes, which can be forbiddingly expensive.

So it’s simple, low-tech, modest, cheap and cost-saving—no doubt the main reasons why the microplate is a ubiquitous tool in laboratories around the world for all kinds of biomedical research and clinical diagnostics. Most of today’s high-throughput analysis in genomics and proteomics is unthinkable without microplates.

In other words—the perfect lab technology.

What about the history of the microplate? Professional historians of medicine and/or technology haven’t paid much attention to the unassuming plastic lab device. After a few minutes on the web, however, I found out that the earliest microplate seems to have been constructed by the Hungarian medical microbiologist Gyula Takácsy (1914-1980). The Hungarian National Center for Epidemiology writes on their website that:

To respond to the shortage in laboratory supplies and a severe influenza outbreak in the early 50s in Hungary, Dr. Takácsy developed several excellent innovative lab supplies and techniques much ahead of his age. Describing his technical innovation, the spiral loop instead of pipette and glass-plates with wells instead of tubes, he used the term micromethods published in Hungarian in 1952 and in 1955 in English. He was the first to have the notion to apply calibrated spiral wire loops for multiple simultaneous serial dilutions in plastic multiwell strips.

“… very small volumes of blood taken from the fingertip or from laboratory animals can be taken up and diluted for quantitative work. The technique has been found particularly useful in virus research, since it is not negligible how much has to be used from costly immune sera and antigens”.

His paper focused on the use of spiral loops for serial dilutions and the testing methods for haemagglutination and complement fixation, however, the “8×12 grooves” that “can take up to 0.15 ml fluid” could describe the modern microplate.

So disease and shortage of supplies was apparently the mother of microplate invention. Also in the 1950s, US inventor John Liner (who founded a company called Linbro, which was later merged into Flow Laboratories Inc, which in turn was swallowed by ICN Flow, which is taken has been over by MTX Lab Systems; mergers and acquisitions in the medical and laboratory device industry is an extremely interesting history in its own right) introduced a vacuum-formed panel with 96 wells. Looking back in the late 1990′s, Liner wrote that “I consider myself  the grandfather to the disposable microplate, about 1953 I used a white styrene vacuum formed panel …”. Yet another case of multiple invention.

I also found some technical details about the early development of microplate automation here, and I found a reference to a web publication (Ray Manns, Microplate history. 2nd ed. 1999; in L.J. Kricka and S.R. Master, ‘Quality Control and Protein Microarrays’, Clinical Chemistry vol. 55: 1053–1055 (2009)—but the publication seems to be removed from the site.

So the microplate is almost untrodden territory for historians of medical technology. Maybe a medical student would like to explore its history and importance for the development of genomics and proteomics in a term paper?

art and biomed, displays/exhibits, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, medical scientific instruments, news

Intro to ‘The Chemistry of Life’ exhibition as a joint science and art exhibition (beta version)

logo trykWe’ve just opened our new exhibition, ‘The Chemistry of Life’, in our satellite exhibition area in the main building of the Faculty of Health Sciences (the Panum Building). For the record, here’s the talk I gave at the opening (for images from the opening, see here):

The occasion for Medical Museion’s new exhibition, ’The Chemistry of Life’, is the new Center for Basic Metabolic Research here at the Faculty of Health Sciences.

But the Center is only the occasion. What you will see in a few minutes is not an exhibition about any of the aspects of metabolism—diabetes, or obesity, or insulin resistance, or the metabolic syndrome—which the Center will be focus on in the years to come.

Instead, we have chosen to take a look at the long research tradition that the Center has grown out of. We are presenting four snapshots from the long and complex history of metabolic research. Each snapshot represents a constellation of people, things and ideas from a significant phase in this history. And to make it easier for you to differentiate between these four constellations, we have given them different colours: green, orange, blue and lilac.

santoriolilleWe begin in Italy back in the early 17th century, where we examplify an early approach to metabolism with Santorio Santorio, a medical doctor in Padua, who made his way into the hall of fame of medical history, because he applied Galileo Galilei’s quantitative principle to physiology: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not”. For example, Santorio famously put himself in a chair balance to measure how his body lost weight even when no excretions could be registered.

Unfortunately, our tight budget hasn’t allowed us pay the insurance costs for borrowing original 17th century instruments from our Italian science museum colleagues. So to illustrate Santorio’s quantitative spirit, we had to find objects—balances, pulse meters, and thermometers—from later periods, in our own collections.

panumlilleThen we make a leap forward, more than 200 years in time, to Copenhagen in the mid-19th century, when Peter Ludvig Panum laid the foundation of the strong Danish tradition for experimental physiology. Medical Museion has a wonderful collection of instruments used by mid- and late century Danish physiologists—it’s every historical instrument collector’s dream-come-true (and one of the reasons why we soon need to strengthen the fire security around these internationally unique collections even more).

kroghlilleAgain a leap, now another 50 years, to the Nobel winning research done by August Krogh and by his wife Marie Krogh in the first decades of the 20th century. August Krogh was a pioneer in the study of whole-body gas exchange and also a very prolific inventor of instruments. We actually have quite a few of these in Medical Museion’s collections, and we are very proud to be able to display some of these in this show, for example this balance spirometer, which Marie Krogh used in her clinical studies of basic metabolic rates:


And finally, the last leap. In the fourth (lilac) theme we are entering a territory, which historians so far have largely stayed away from, namely contemporary research in molecular metabolism, genomic research, genome-wide association studies and so forth. We are shaky grounds here, because we don’t have the historical distance to the events. molecularlilleAs historians, we don’t really know yet which the significant breakthroughs have been. We don’t know who the Santorios, the Panums and the Kroghs of contemporary molecular metabolic studies are. For us, these people are still Nomina Nescimus (unknown names), and therefore we need your help to identify them and their contributions. I’ll get back to this in a few minutes.

Like all serious science exhibitions, ‘The Chemistry of Life’ is actually research-based. The two main curators—postdoc Adam Bencard and former consultant Sven Erik Hansen—have read quite a lot from the 19th and 20th physiological literature, and spent months looking at objects and images in our collection. Every word in this exhibition has been chosen with great care, from both medical, historical and philosophical points of view. In one sense then (in terms of the making of it) this is a research-based exhibition. But in another sense (in terms of the way it presents itself to the spectator), we think of it rather as a work of art.

Not just as a display of works of art, like this painting by David Goodsell at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (which we commissioned from him specifically for this occasion):


We also see the exhibition itself as an art installation. By taking things out of their laboratory context and placing them in this new setting, they are transformed, from being scientific objects to becoming art objects. Taken as a whole they constitute a joint science and art exhibition. Not sci-art, but joint science and art.

By thinking exhibitions about science in terms of art installations and art exhibitions, Medical Museion in joining a growing trend within the world of museums of science, technology and medicine. Most of these mueums still understand themselves as informal learning institutions. They want to make people, including students, interested in science by teaching the history of science.

But what we at Medical Museion – and some of our good colleagues, like the Wellcome Collection in London – are increasingly trying to do, is to work out an alternative to this didactical understanding of what science museums and their exhibitions are good for.

Instead of making exhibitions that teach and explain science and the history of science, we rather want to engage the audience to reflect. Not because we don’t believe in the importance of learning about science and its history. But because we believe learning is done much better by other means—in teaching laboratories, by reading books, or through the internet—than by means of exhibitions. What the exhibition medium is good at, is to engage people’s aesthetic sensibilities. By whetting the appetite of the senses, exhibitions can evoke a more subjective, personal-based and thereby deeper reflection about science, its history and its future.

Back to the fourth theme (the lilac one) about today’s metabolic research. Like a growing number of museums—but not necessarily the same museums who think in terms of art installations—we believe that exhibition making has to be built on participation. Of course, museum professionals take a lot of pride in trying to produce perfectly researched and perfectly designed exhibitions (and we at Medical Museion are no exception). Yet, we must realize that such pride in perfection does not necessarily result in engaged visitors.

And for that reason, some museums around the world have begun to ask their visitors and peers to contribute more actively to the museum functions. In analogy to social web media, some museums are now thinking in terms of the ‘participatory museum’ (‘museum 2.0’).

With respect to collections, the idea of a participatory museum is not a particularly new one. For example, our museum here in Copenhagen has been participatory since its foundation in 1907, in the sense that most objects in our rich collections have been donated by medical doctors. Also for ‘The Chemistry of Life’ we have collected from scientists and medical device companies.

With respect to exhibitions, however, few science museums have so far thought these in terms of participation. But this is about change. ‘The Chemistry of Life’ is an experiment in participatory exhibition making. 5208427115_6bb07abd80_mLike software, which is never really finished, but is improved by the responses from the customers, we have thought it—especially the fourth chapter on ‘Molecular Metabolism—as a ‘beta version’.

By labeling it ‘beta’ we are inviting all faculty, technical staff and students at the University of Copenhagen to help us developing ‘The Chemistry of Life’. Instead of us telling you what is going on in metabolic research, we want you to educate us. For example, we will invite scientists, who have been part of the development of the last decades of metabolic research to a seminar, where we will ask them to tell us what they think are the most important idas, events and people in the history of the field. They may not agree among themselves, but we will nevertheless be more knowledgeable after the seminar.

We are also planning an ‘object’-day, where we invite scientists and medical doctors from the entire region to bring images of their favourite objects, or (even better) bring in the objects themselves. The result should hopefully be that, at the official opening of the Center for Basic Metabolic Research in the spring, we can show a revised version of ‘The Chemistry of Life’, especially a much more interesting and thought-provoking fourth theme.

The notion of ‘beta’ also indicates how Medical Museion will work together with the Center in the years to come. We are right now making plans for a series of exhibitions about diabetes, obesity and the new metabolic syndrome—to be shown both in Denmark and abroad, both to professionals and to the general public—and we very much want to do this in close co-operation with scientists and students here at the Faculty.

Before I give the word back to the Dean, I want to express my gratitude to the individuals, institutions and companies, who have made this exhibition possible:

  • Arne Astrup, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Lene Berlick, Illumina, Little Chesterford
  • Jan Fahrenkrug, Bispebjerg Hospital, Copenhagen
  • Pia Gåsland, Agilent Technologies, Hørsholm
  • David Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla
  • Jens Juul Holst, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Anders Johnsen, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen
  • John Gargul Lind, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Oluf Borbye Pedersen, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Jens F. Rehfeldt, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen
  • Thue Schwartz, Faculty of Health Science, University of Copenhagen
  • Anna Smith, The Wellcome Collection, London
  • Mao Tanabe, Kanehisa Laboratory, Kyoto

and to the Novo Nordisk Foundation for its generous economic support.

And finally the exhibition team. If this was a scientific article, the team would be presented somewhat like this:

Bencard A, Hansen SE, Thorsted M, Madsen H, Gerdes N, Vilstrup-Møller NC, Meyer I, Pedersen BV, Soderqvist T. The chemistry of life: four chapters in the history of metabolic research. Panum Building 2010; 4:1

Or more conventionally like this:

  • Curators: Adam Bencard, Sven Erik Hansen
  • Collection staff: Nanna Gerdes, Niels Christian Vilstrup-Møller, Ion Meyer
  • Architect: Mikael Thorsted
  • Graphic design: Helle Madsen
  • Graphic production: Exponent Stougaard A/S
  • Producers: Bente Vinge Pedersen, Thomas Söderqvist

Here we are:


Speaking for all of us: I hope you will enjoy this appetizer to a future co-operative science communication programme here at the Faculty which shall engage both scientists and the public in what has been going on in metabolic research in the past, what is going on today, and what we might expect from the future.

collections, history of medicine, history of science, recent biomed, science communication studies, university museums

Building new museums

When a new museum is established, it is formed both by ideas of what the role of the medical history museum in society is, and by the context out of which that specific museum comes. The challenge of building new museums was approached from three very different angles at the Copenhagen conference in September.

Kerstin Hulter Åsberg shared her vision of exhibiting the contemporary part of the history of medical sciences in the research centers where it happened and is happening. As it is the researchers and students who are at the same time the audience for the historical exhibitions and the makers of the future of medical science, they should be involved in the making of the museum from the very beginning. Read Kerstin’s full abstract here.

Wendy Atkinson expressed that for her the mission of the new health museum in Lyon she is working on is to demystify the technical side of medicine and focus on the contact between people through aspects of care and healing. Read Wendy’s full abstract here.

Robert Martensen addressed the issue of how to chose what to collect from the enormous corpus of stuff produced in the field of contemporary medical science. He suggested that the challenge of making these collected objects aesthetically appealing to an audience of grown-up academics and scientists might often be solved through displaying them in interesting contexts. Read Robert’s full abstract here.

The discussion afterwards included comments from Thomas Söderqvist, Danny Birchall, Judy Chelnik, Karen Ingham and Silvia Casini.

See a list of the abstracts here. Read more about the EAMHMS video clip project here.

art and biomed, displays/exhibits, history of science


Cannot wait to see the new exhibition WeltWissen (World Knowledge) which opened yesterday at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

ww_regal_8_72dpiOrganised by the Humboldt University, the Charité Hospital, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Sciences and Humanities and the Max Planck Society, it is announced as the highlight of the Berlin Year of Science with more than 3,200 square meters exhibition space containing 1,500 original things, installations and media stations crossing time periods, institutional and disciplinary boundaries.

One of the highlights is yet another of Mark Dion’s typical installations that “highlights the system behind scientific activity as well as its fragmentary nature” — a 500 square metre shelf structure with objects Dion collected “while wandering through Berlin’s scientific storage rooms”.

See more here: Closes 9 January.

blogging, history of medicine, history of science

Blogging about history of science and medicine

If you write or read blogs that include history of science and medicine, you may be interested in filling in this short online survey posted by Jaipreet Virdi, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto — it only takes a minute or two. Jaipreet explains the background for the survey here.

(Thanks, Rebekah, for the tip. Rebekah also recommends this link to a good list of blogs and twitter accounts with history of science content).

aesthetics of biomedicine, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, material studies

Science as a material and sensuous world vs. history of science as a textual and disembodied world

Here’s the introduction to a talk titled ‘Cultures of Meaning and Cultures of Presence: The use of material objects in the history of science, medicine and technology’ that I gave at the Museo da Ciencia da Universidade Lisboa two weeks ago (see flyer here and resumé in Portuguese here); the images are from the web and for general illustration only:

Before I went into history of science and medicine (and then medical museology), I took a Masters in chemistry, zoology and historical geology (major).

Today, when I look back on my student years at a distance, I realise these disciplines were very much about the handling of tangible material stuff, involving all five senses. Chemistry, zoology and geology students were not just thinking about or viewing the world — we were also listening to it, smelling, tasting and touching it.

Chemistry was (at least when I was a student) about reactions between palpable chemical substances; it involved handling glassware and physical measuring instruments; lots of stuff was pretty smelly, we were constantly exposed to the sounds of boiling liquids and suction pumps; experiencing glowing heat and freezing cold were parts of the daily experience in the lab.

Zoology was very material too. We observed birds in the field, collected insects and marine animals, killed and dissected them, made microscopical thin sections and grinded organs down to cells and molecular extracts. Animal beings weren’t just genomic code — they were sometimes smelly, often noisy, always tangible. 

Historical geology, finally, was about handling real stones, minerals and sediments with axes, spades, knives and brushes. We spent weeks in the  field working outcrops and long hours in the lab afterwards, sorting out physical fossil specimens.

After this undergraduate immersion in the material world of science, I started in a PhD-programme in biochemistry at Karolinska Institute. I collected blood from animals which I had killed with my own hands, stood in the lab’s cold room for hours purifying blood proteins, degraded them with chemicals, separated the fragments in chromatography columns which I had packed myself, and then handled different kinds of lab glassware and measuring instruments to elucidate their amino acid sequences. The protein laboratory was a very physical place with lots of machines and chemicals — and again it involved all the senses.

So science was a very material and sensory practice. And if I hadn’t been confronted with its potentially deadly consequences — one day I swallowed a radioactively labelled substance by mistake (always remember to use a pipette bulb!) — I might have become a real scientist.

Instead, I left science to pursue my high school philosophical interests — what is classification? what’s a concept? what’s the relation between a name, a concept and reality? what’s stuff made of? (all classical epistemological and ontological questions) — took courses in philosophy of science and history of ideas, and then started a new PhD project on the historiography of 20th century science, more precisely the historiography of ecology.

Dibner Library reading room, National Museum of American History

The history and philosophy of science was, I realise now, an entirely different experience. Instead of manipulating and being surrounded by material objects, I found myself sitting at a desk, reading old scientific papers and books. I visited archives to look for handwritten documents and interviewed elderly scientists about their past.

In other words, history and philosophy of science was a world of words and texts (written or spoken). There were actually no material objects in my new disciplinary identity, except for the pulp the texts were written on.

Shifting from PhD-studies of the historiography of ecology to postdoc studies of the historiography of immunology, didn’t change my textual practice. True, I sometimes met practicing immunologists in conferences about the history and philosophy of immunology, but these meetings still revolved around texts and words. People read conference papers based on readings of other texts. Again — text, text, text.

My own research practice was also totally text-based. I spent eight years of my life going through the huge archive of a contemporary immunologist, and spent hundreds of hours talking with him. And when I visited his former colleagues to interview them, we talked and inspected documents and photographs together. We never went to their labs to handle a piece of immunological lab equipment together.

It was as if the material and sensory world of science which I had been so thoroughly immersed in on a daily basis when I was a student totally disappeared when I entered history and philosophy of science. From a world of stuff, smells, sounds, tastes and manual touch I had stepped into a world of disembodied text.

What is most remarkable, now when I look back on it, is that I wasn’t at all aware of the gulf that separated the material and sensuous world of science, and the textual and disembodied world of history and philosophy of science. It was as if I had lost the ability to experience the material and sensory qualities of the laboratory, as if I saw the world of science through the textual spectacles of history and philosophy of science. To the extent that when, occasionally, I visited laboratories, I only ‘saw’ papers, inscriptions and documents, maybe a few images here and there.

(thanks to Martha Lourenco at the Museu da Ciencia da Universidade Lisboa for inviting me to give the talk — this post contains the introduction only, the rest needs revision before being put online).

acquisition, collections, conservation, curation, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, seminars

Reading artefacts — do we really read them?

I just got a mail saying that the Canada Science and Technology Museum is organising a summer institute in material culture research on the theme ‘Reading Artefacts’, in Ottawa, 16-20 August.

Anyone interested in material research and museum artefacts — grad students, postdocs, faculty “teaching history through artifacts” and historians who are “looking to expand their research methods” — are welcome to attend. Because of the venue, there will probably be a lot of focus on sci, tech and med museum artefacts.

Great initative. xxMy only hesitation is the title — Reading Artefacts. What do the organisers actually mean by reading an artefact?

In my understanding of reading, there is a text to be read. But an artefact is not a text (unless there is a label glued on to it), so there is nothing to read.

The only way I can make sense of the title is that they use the verb ‘read’ metaphorically. That is, they probably don’t believe that an artefact is a literal text which is read like the text you are reading now. What they probably mean is that curators and historians engage with artefacts in a way that is analogous to the way readers read texts, and they use the verb ‘read’ as a short-hand for this analogy.

But how useful is it to think about our engagement with artefacts in analogy with reading texts? Granted, it may be useful as a rhetorical device, or for science journalism purposes. But I’m afraid the analogy is counterproductive from a scholarly point of view, because it draws one’s attention away from the epistemologically thorny issues at stake:

How do we actually engage with material artefacts? How do we make sense of them? How do they actually influence us? Is there any kind of seimotic interaction going on between humans and dead material things, or is it ‘merely’ physical interaction?

In other words, ‘reading artefacts’ is not one of those metaphors that curators ‘live by’. On the contrary, I suggest it’s one of those metaphors that kills the curatorial imagination.

That said, however, the course looks very useful; it will give the participants an opportunity to:

  • investigate artifacts, trade literature and photographic collections as resources for research, teaching, and the public presentation of history
  • work with leading collection scholars in a national museum setting to explore material culture methodologies and approaches
  • use artifacts as the centre of discussion and hands-on activities
  • immerse themselves in a material culture perspective of the technological past
  • learn the basics of conservation, cataloguing and developing collections in local environments – a growing and essential resource for history studies.

Tuition fee is 250 Can. $ for students, 350 for postdocs and 450 for faculty and professionals (but it includes breaks, lunches, and a field trip; and students can get some financial support). Register here before 16 June, but do it long before then, because they can only accomodate 30 participants. Further info from Anna Adamek, One can also join the Google Group here.

conferences, general, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, material studies, medical technology, philosophy of medicine, recent biomed

Neuroscience in the 21st century and beyond — great expectations

As mentioned in a previous blogpost, I’m currently doing a ph.d.-project here at Medical Museion concerning the history of the concept of successful aging in neuroscience and its relation to ideas about cognitive enhancement.

Part of my work, therefore, is going to conferences like this one, held in Copenhagen last week:

The conference was arranged by the Danish research center GNOSIS, and featured both neuroscientists and philosophers – as an attempt to bridge the disciplinary boundaries and maybe produce some kind of synergy.

The first day especially had that feeling. Themed under the headline ‘Brain Plasticity’ and featuring, among others, the English philosophical-minded neuroscientist Steven Rose, German phenomenological philosopher and psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs, and Danish biologist and anthropologist Andreas Roepstorff, there was a real feel of cross-disciplinary science communication. A science communication which was also a communication of the immense complexity of the brain and of the production of knowledge concerning it.

As Steven Rose pointed out, neuroscience is ‘data rich, but theory poor’, needing some theorizing on how best to manage the complexities of the huge amount of collected data. One common perspective to most of the talks at the conference were that the brain’s workings can best be understood viewed as a complex, irreducible and indeterminate, continuously developing process. This was conceptualized from both phenomenology, developmental systems theory (or autopoiesis, as Rose termed it), and biosemiotics – all in one way or the other emphasizing the brain as embodied (or the body as ‘embrained’, as someone smartly put it), and emphasizing the body’s embeddedness in the world (emworlded). Dichotomies and dualisms, determinacy and reductionism were (with maybe one exception) not only forcibly opposed, they were long left behind, it seemed.

But still there was a sense that, despite agreement on the general perspective, this did not solve the concrete methodological challenge of, for instance, going from correlates to causality, inducing from the particular to the common, or explaining the relationship between brain and mind/consciousness/awareness/attention etc. Neuroscience, it seems, brings new attention to a lot of old philosophical problems. The multidisciplinary collaborations within the field of neuroscience, and the demand for new theoretical developments and new conceptualizations, may not find a solution to these problems, but it sure sets the stage for interesting theoretical developments in the years to come.

As for the link to my project on successful aging, this development in neuroscience seems to run almost parallel to the overall development of the field of gerontology and aging research in the last couple of decades from around the time that the concept of successful aging was introduced. Many of the same philosophical problems are also seen in other parts of aging research than the parts including the neurosciences.

Aging research (as well as maybe most other fields in the health sciences?) is becoming a multidisciplinary field where dichotomies and dualisms between brain-mind, body-world, and individual-society are being tested and challenged.

biotech, draft papers etc, general, history of medicine, history of science, history of technology, medical technology, philosophy of medicine, recent biomed

A genealogical study of the concept of successful aging — III: ’Successful aging’ in the neurosciences and the link to ‘cognitive enhancement’

This is the last part of my project description for the Ph.D.-project called “A genealogical study of the concept of ’successful aging’ and its relation to the idea of ‘human enhancement”. See the first two parts here and here.

 ’Successful aging’ in the neurosciences and the link to ‘cognitive enhancement’
In order to narrow the problem field, the project will look closely at how the notion of ‘successful aging’ has been understood and defined in the field of neuroscience in the last decades, and how ‘successful cognitive aging’ has played together with discussions — both in the scientific literature, in science policy documents and in general public discourse — about the possibility for so called ‘cognitive enhancement’ (‘neuro-enhancement’) [12][13][14][17]. Both in the scientific literature and in policy documents on ‘successful aging’ and ‘human enhancement’, the neurosciences are considered as the primary field of research; neuroscience also figures prominently in the corresponding public discourse [7][21][23], cf. [25]. The brain and cognition are ascribed significant cultural value in the emerging ‘knowledge society’; healthy cognitive abilities are considered necessary for a life-long contribution to the labour market and for well-being in everyday life, and not surprisingly some of the exponents for the notion of ‘knowledge society’ are also exponents for ‘converging technologies’ [17][21].

Current developments in the field of aging research also have strong discursive links to cognitive enhancement. As the aforementioned EU parliament study argues: “The growing problem of neurodegenerative diseases in ageing societies has turned research and development in therapeutic cognitive enhancers into a very dynamic field with significant resources” [21:26]. Likewise, in enhancement discussions special attention is being ascribed to cognitive enhancement: “’neuro/ brain enhancement’ as a research field stands at the centre of the CT [converging technologies] debate. It attracts the largest share of attention due to its plans to simulate and manipulate brain processes, which – if realized successfully – could directly affect our concepts of the human self and identity” [17:382], cf. [21][23][25]. Also here there may be a significant aspect of user-driven innovation: medications developed in research into age related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease is already being used by young, healthy individuals to (presumably) enhance their cognitive abilities [14][17][21], and, conversely, one could therefore expect that the market for cognitive enhancement may stimulate research in the prevention and treatment of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

These interconnected arenas of aging research, enhancement discourse and general ideas about successful aging will be the focus point of this project. The point of departure is that the connection between the discussion about successful aging and the discussion about human enhancement has been overlooked in the scientific literature and that the two discourses are more closely related than usually presumed. Shedding light on the historical relation between the two notions both in the scientific and popular discourses will potentially have significant consequences for future research, for research politics and for the public understanding of successful aging.

7. Kirk, H. (2008). Med hjernen i behold – Kognition, træning og seniorkompetencer. København: Akademisk Forlag.
12. Balling, G. (2002) (ed.). Homo Sapiens 2.0. Når teknologien kryber ind under huden. København: Gads Forlag.
13. Balling, G og Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006). Det menneskelige eksperiment. København: Museum Tusculanums Forlag.
14. Greely et al. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456, 702-705.
17. Beckert, B., Blümel, C and Friedewald, M (2007). Visions and realities in converging technologies. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20(4), 375-395.
21. European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment (2009). Human Enhancement Study. Awailable at (14.08.09)
23. (14.08.09)
25. Dumit, Joseph (2004). Picturing Personhood. Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press

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