Plenary Lectures – Programme

2020 Neuenschwander Prize Lecture

“The Sisyphean Fate of Historians of Science” – Kostas Gavroglu

Wednesday 7 September 13:30-14:15 CEST

Chair: Ana Simões & Erwin Neuenschwander

The Sisyphean tale is often thought of as the punishment which expresses the perpetuity of pointlessness: Sisyphus cannot put the boulder on the hill, since every time it reaches its destination, it tumbles back, and Sisyphus is obliged to push it uphill again. This part of the Sisyphean tale is known to almost everyone. What, however, is not known is what caused the outrage of the gods to give him such a punishment. Sisyphus having gone to the underworld, managed to trick death not once but twice, and succeeded to return to our world. He, thus, gained fame for his trickery and intelligence, and Homer referred to him as the “most cunning of men”. But the gods could not tolerate a human to be more cunning than themselves, they thought this was a wrong message to the rest of the humans, and so they punished Sisyphus.

History of science during its 150-year history, just like Sisyphus, has managed to trick death twice. For many decades almost all scholarship produced in history of science was intended for an audience of scientists. But decades of the most sophisticated scholarship was met by benign neglect on the part of the scientists. It was not an insignificant part of the community of historians of science who time and again raised the question “who are we writing for”, “who is listening to us”, “who is reading what we write”, “what effect our findings are having on the education of scientists”…

The answers to these questions were depressingly clear and the work of historians of science was repeatedly confused by the scientists as either being philosophy or some kind of popularisation of past scientific achievements. Our community’s attempts to talk to scientists and to engage them in our discussions, came to a dead end. Facing the insistent rejection of its intended audience did not provide any heart-warming prospects for the survival of our discipline.

Yet, despite being mistaken for philosophy or popularisation, despite the passive stance of the scientists towards it, history of science managed to trick death, by slowly and painstakingly creating its own audience. Our relations with the scientists is an evolving relationship, and, thus, it is, indeed, a pressing issue to provide some answers as to “who is reading what we write.”

2020 Presidential Lecture

“History of Science and its Interlocutors in the Humanities” – Theodore Arabatzis

Wednesday 7 September 14:15-15:00 CEST

Chair: Ana Simões

From the early days of its professionalisation, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the history of science has been seen as a bridge between the natural sciences and the humanities. However, only one aspect of this triadic nexus, the relations between the history of science and the natural sciences, has been extensively discussed. Another aspect, the relations between the history of science and the humanities, has been less commented upon.

With this talk I hope to make a small step towards redressing this imbalance, by discussing the relationships between the history of science and two other humanistic disciplines that have been historically and institutionally associated with it: the philosophy of science and general history. I will argue that both of these relationships are marked by the characteristics of an unrequited friendship: on the one hand, historians of science have ignored, for the most part, calls of collaboration from their philosopher colleagues; and, on the other hand, historians specializing in other branches of history have been rather indifferent, again for the most part, to the efforts of historians of science to understand science as a historical phenomenon. I will attempt to offer a diagnosis of this regrettable situation and some suggestions for overcoming it.

Early Career Lecture 1

“Data Stories: Satellites, History, and the Making of a Digital Climate” – Gemma Cirac-Claveras

Wednesday 7 September 2022, 15:30–16:20 CEST

Chair: Roberto Lalli

Our current understanding of what climate is (including its changes and its policy implications), relies enourmously on data provided with remote-sensing satellites orbiting the Earth. What do we know exactly about how this data is generated, shared, mantained and used – and about the implications of satellite data production infrastructures in making climate knowledge?

Just like all forms of data, satellite data are cultural artefacts, historically situated and profoundly marked by the institutional configurations and socio-technical arrangements from which they emerge. They form the nexus of various economic, diplomatic, regulatory, scientific and communication interests, whose practices, dynamics and configurations are still unexplored.

In this talk, I will suggest to use the history of satellite data production, circulation and use in order to better understand the recent history of climate science and policy – what I tentatively call Digital Climate. Ultimately, this talk is an invitation to reflect on what happens when we take scientific data seriously and put it into historical consideration.

Early Career Lecture 2

“Ocean Science Diplomacy: The History of a Fluid Concept” – Sam Robinson

Wednesday 7 September 2022, 16:20–17:10 CEST

Chair: Simone Turchetti

Science Diplomacy as a concept of geopolitics has exploded over the past fifteen years. But the vagueness of its history and evolution of its use – by practitioners and politicians and scholars – has made this fluid concept difficult to contain.  The claims to historical precedent for Science Diplomacy made in the oft-cited Royal Society/AAAS 2010 Report into Science Diplomacy provides no actual details of what that history might be.

In my talk, I will explain why historians of science must engage with this practice and the misunderstanding and appropriation of a concept that is nevertheless shaping international science and diplomacy in the 21st century. The unsubstantiated historical claims made in the Royal Society/AAAS report reinforce the vagueness of the concept itself, allowing for practically every past international scientific endeavour to be retrospectively co-opted as Science Diplomacy.

Without a nuanced understanding of the history of both the positive and negative antecedents of this concept, Science Diplomacy risks losing its legitimacy as a tool for tackling global challenges collectively and openly. It is the argument of this lecture that Science Diplomacy as we know it today was fundamentally shaped not by scientific developments alone but by the wider global changes that took place in the first decade of globalisation: the 1970s. 

Early Career Lecture 3

“From Transport to Mobility: Alternatives, Resistance, Justice, and the Mobilization of the History of Science and Technology” – M. Luísa Sousa

Wednesday 7 September 2022, 17:10–18:00 CEST

Chair: Maria Paula Diogo

Crossing history of mobility with the history of science and technology is a fruitful way to rethink one of today’s “grand societal challenges”: people’s mobilities and immobilities. Shared key topics range from socio-technical systems, to the making and circulation of knowledge and ignorance, and its spatial co-shaping, the role of experts, lay experts, mediators, activists, and users, to the technoscientific and cultural politics of mobility. 

Working on these topics, in the past twenty years historians – and particularly of science and technology influenced by the mobilities studies – have reshaped the traditional field of history of transport, calling for a mobility history that includes the relations between different forms of mobility (e.g. walking, cycling, public transit, automobility), that is more transnational, and with a greater emphasis on the lenses of technology, on techno-scientific expertise, and on the technologies in use. Recent pleas have been made for looking historically at present-day “mobility justice” issues at an inter-scalar perspective, framing intersectional questions, and urban, migration, and planetary crises. In this sense, these crossings offer a fecund dialogue with concepts such as “usable past”, the ”Anthropocene” and “sustainability”.

Drawing on these historiographical developments, the on-going research project “Hi-BicLab. History Lab for Sustainable Urban Mobilities: Lisbon’s cycling policies” aims at mobilising history for academic and non-academic audiences, engaging them in historical thinking for identifying key socio-cultural-technical factors that have shaped how people moved (and did not move) and how these might suggest ways to intervene in the present to promote more sustainable and inclusive urban mobilities.

2022 Neuenschwander Prize Lecture

“Orientations and Disorientations in History of the Sciences” – Simon Schaffer

Thursday 8 September 2022, 9:00-9:45 CEST

Chair: Theodore Arabatzis & Erwin Neuenschwander

Historians of the sciences have paid great attention to the ways faith in what has been called the quantitative spirit emerged as a dominant feature of the politics of science, a theme of obvious salience in current epidemiological and climate crises. There may be connexions between measurement practices and orientation towards other cultures – as though scientific modernity somehow emerged through robust quantification’s primacy over subaltern, past and exotic worlds, where merely provisional judgment allegedly still operated. This highly simplistic orientalist distinction accompanied assumptions that the remote was best understood as the ancient, a viewpoint common at the same late enlightenment moment as the apparent institutionalisation of the regime of the exact sciences within European polities.

Under this regime, precision surveys – the way the state saw – have often been understood as integral for European societies and even more so in colonised territories. This version of what might be called metrological orientalism can be disoriented through excellent recent scholarship that explores complex entanglements of measurement practices circulating across very different scientific cultures; and that shows how precision devices that claimed merely to represent phenomena often helped produce them. Studies of select cases of relations between European practitioners and indigenous experts, in fields such as Egyptian hydraulics or Indian astronomy, can reveal even more: the role that judgment and exactitude played in forging very different, politically significant, versions of the past history of the sciences. These disorientations can aid novel forms of historical understanding of the politics of science. 

2022 Presidential Lecture

“The Fictional Politics of Scientific Collaboration: Solomon Houses in Early Modern Europe” – Dana Jalobeanu

Thursday 8 September 2022, 9:45-10:30 CEST

Chair: Theodore Arabatzis

In the past decades, scholars generally agreed that Francis Bacon’s model-society for the production of knowledge – Solomon’s House, as depicted in the fable of the New Atlantis – constituted a sort of blueprint, or at least an imaginary reference for the newly formed scientific societies of the Early Modern Europe. In this talk I would like to both question and qualify this general agreement. I argue, first, that Bacon’s fable provided not so much a blueprint for actual scientific societies, as an incentive for the production of a new genre: stories and fables depicting emblems of knowledge-production and collaborative learning. Second, I show that several such stories which claim to be continuations of the New Atlantis read, in fact, as interpretations of it, contextualizing the Solomon House model to different institutional settings of the late seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth century. Third, and perhaps more important, I discuss the general appeal of these early modern stories of science, knowledge production and the advancement of learning. My main claim in this talk is that these fables and stories of science constitute an intrinsic element of the institutional set-up of science in modern world. They offer alluring and imaginative models of collaboration. Models which, perhaps, are still interesting and useful today.

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