Tag: History of Science (Page 1 of 3)

Sometimes I Do History

Last week, my second article was published. Like the first, it is in an open access journal, this time Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science. While I now spend most of my time writing code or thinking about pedagogy, I still occasionally crack open a book and think about eighteenth-century history.

Lately, I’ve been reading and writing about how the basic stuff of nature, dirt, water, and air became tradable commodities. How did we go from understanding earth, water, fire, and air as the four basic elements to commodities that could be classified, measured, and traded in markets around the world.

The eighteenth-century is an interesting time period in this story, because of the simultaneous and mutually supportive advances in science and economics. Chemists like Joseph Black were working through new theories about the importance of different kinds of soil for agriculture and how the various solutes in water affected their taste, industrial uses, and medical efficacy. At the same time, his good friend, Adam Smith, was working through the foundations of modern economics.

In a digression away from chemistry and commodification, my article focused on the philosophical and religious beliefs of the economist Thomas Malthus and his famous Essay on the Principle of Population. This is the text that said that humans develop resources at a geometric rate while they, like most animals, reproduce at an exponential rate. Malthus thought it was inevitable that population would increase faster than food, and thus people would always want for food and other resources.

A diagram of the Malthusian Curve depicting the inevitable of want

Malthus’s theory has been used since the publication of his theory in 1798 to not only explain deprivation but also to justify it. Charles Darwin used the theory in the formulation of his theory of evolution by the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer extended the point to say that because deprivation is inevitable, it is the duty of the strongest people and strongest societies to lead.

In the 20th century, the memory of Malthus became intertwined with this Spencerian concept of might makes right. Imperialists used these theories to justify colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eugenicists pointed to Malthus and Spencer to justify their theories of racial and class supremacy in the 1930s. From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul, this concept of social evolution has continued into the modern day with the bootstrapping, individualist economic theory that casts poverty as inevitable and the poor as undeserving.

In my paper, I returned to Thomas Malthus’s personal religious and philosophical beliefs to see whether he shared this belief that the inevitability of need is justification for social inequality. I found a Malthus that did not match the common memory. I’ll close this rambling bit of self promotion with the abstract for the paper and a link to the article.

The first edition of Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is best understood as an exploration of human nature and the role of necessity in shaping the individual and society.  The author’s liberal education, both from his father and his tutors at Warrington and Cambridge, is evident in his heterodox views on hell, his Lockean conceptualization of the mind, and his Foxite Whig politics.  Malthus’ unpublished essay, “Crises,” his sermons, and the the last two chapters of the Essay (which were excised from subsequent editions) reveal a pragmatic, compassionate side of the young author that was under appreciated by both his contemporary critics and modern historians.  The Essay has been mischaracterized by David McNally (2000) as a “Whig response to Radicalism” and by Patricia James (1979) as a reaction by Malthus against his father’s liberalism.  This article argues that when he wrote the first edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus was himself a liberal dissenter and Foxite Whig rather than an orthodox Anglican or a Burkean defender of traditional class relations.

John Stewart, “Reform and religious heterodoxy in Thomas Robert Malthus’s first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science 19 (2017), pp. 1-17.

Open Letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe

I have been using the Resist Bot to write faxes to my congressional representatives every time I’m outraged by something congress or the White House does – so nearly daily for the last 133 days. Today, I wrote a fax to my senator Jim Inhofe, who is one of the most noted climate deniers in congress. His ‘Snowball’ speech was a particular low point in the American political speech craft.

I try to keep the word-count short in these faxes in the hopes that maybe one of Inhofe’s staffers will actually read it and put another tick in the column of angry correspondence. Here’s the text of today’s fax and a sentence-by-sentence set of supporting notes:

I teach history. John Tyndall discovered greenhouse gases in 1859. Charles Keeling published his work on the Keeling curve in 1958. President Nixon recognized the threat of climate change. I had to stop including the ‘Snowball Speech’ last year, because my students said I was straw manning the climate-denier cause by featuring extremist, absurd arguments. This speech and our state are already being included in history books as the rearguard of an already decided debate. Your continued denial of plain fact (just visit any coastline in America) encouraged the Trump administration along a path to global destruction. You clearly feel no shame, but you will be remembered as a laughing stock in your own time and one of the great threats to our world.

“I teach history.” I got my PhD in History of Science from OU in 2013 and have taught history of science courses since I was a graduate student. I’ll be teaching an intro course this fall and will include a unit on climate change.

“John Tyndall discovered greenhouse gases in 1859.” Tyndall started studying the Greenhouse Effect in 1859 and published on it in May of that year. Here’s a short, 3-page paper on his work from the Royal Meteorological Society.

“Charles Keeling published his work on the Keeling curve in 1958.” Charles Keeling began measuring the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in 1957 and published his results in 1960 showing the seasonal variations and year over year increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. When he began measuring it, there were 310 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Keeling Curve twitter account now shows there are 410 parts per million. This ted talk by former NASA scientist James Hansen clearly describes why this is so horrific:

“President Nixon recognized the threat of climate change.” Here’s an internal White House memo from the Nixon administration acknowledging the existential threat that climate change posed for the US.

“I had to stop including the ‘Snowball Speech’ last year, because my students said I was straw manning the climate-denier cause by featuring extremist, absurd arguments.” My students recognized that Inhofe’s argument from a snowball is such a logical fallacy that it’s nonsensical. They thought that I was prejudicing the argument by presenting the history of science and the current scientific consensus and juxtaposing it with this nonsense. The problem is, there are no real scientists arguing against the science. You have to turn to politicians and their buffoonery if you want to present any argument against climate change.

“This speech and our state are already being included in history books as the rearguard of an already decided debate.” In a survey level Introduction to Anthropology, the authors Robert Jurmain, Lynn Kilgore, Wenda Trevathan, Russell L. Ciochon, Eric Bartelink call the speech “a cheap shot based on ignorance” (p. 496).

“Your continued denial of plain fact (just visit any coastline in America) encouraged the Trump administration along a path to global destruction.” Here’s an article from one Florida newspaper detailing the problems already occurring due to rising sea levels and what various Florida towns are doing about it. Here’s a similar NY Times article.The Washington Post wrote about Inhofe’s influence on the Trump administration in April. This week Inhofe wrote a letter with 21 GOP senate cosigners urging Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

You clearly feel no shame, but you will be remembered as a laughing stock in your own time and one of the great threats to our world.” My namesake, Jon Stewart, literally made a laughing stock out of Inhofe:

Salon’s scathing op-ed, entitled The twisted morality of climate denial: How religion and American exceptionalism are undermining our future, demonstrated the threat of Inhofe’s views. Wendy Lynne Lee’s recent book Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse is a monograph length exposition of the threat posed by Inhofe (mentioned 43 times in the book) and his ilk.

I know my fax will get tossed in a pile or straight into the trash, but I want some record that even here in Oklahoma, we know that what Inhofe and our current government are doing is wrong. If my curation of a couple of articles and videos can help people recognize the long history of our understanding of climate change and the existential threat that climate-deniers like Inhofe pose, all the better.

Open Note Databases & the Promise of the Memex

Vannevar Bush’s Memex

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote a now famous piece for The Atlantic called “As We May Think.” In it, he proposed the development of a machine called the Memex. This desk shaped machine would be able to display printed and handwritten texts and would be able to record notes made with a special stylus. The machine would be able to record meta-data noting connections between various sources and all of this information could be stored on removable cards.

The Memex served as inspiration in the development of the modern personal computer. Hundreds of articles in the 1990s pointed to the invention of the World Wide Web as the culmination of Bush’s vision, and those comparisons have continued into the new millennium with the modern Internet. But while the stylus-touch interfaces of modern tablets and the proliferation of online media do fulfill much of Bush’s technological vision, the key underlying epistemic concept put forth by Bush has been largely neglected.

The rapid sharing of ideas was an obvious use of the Memex, but Bush proposed that the educational value of the tool would be the ability to retrace the thought processes and connective strands that others had made through the ever growing sea of data. Bush said, “The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” While academia is slowly moving towards open access models of publication, this deeper level of sharing the cognitive “scaffolding” of our theories has received far less consideration.

On Wednesday, Jeremy Dean and Jon Udell of Hypothes.is joined with Gardner Campbell as part of #openlearning17 to discuss how web annotation is allowing us to record and retrace our thoughts as we move from one website to the next. The collective pooling of reading notes, along with the ability to retrace the steps of an individual go a long way to fulfilling the epistemological vision of Bush’s Memex.

Here though I want to propose a different kind of database as an alternative and complimentary implementation of Bush’s vision. I have been working on an open note database called Situating Chemistry for a couple of years now. The concept is that researchers interested in the history of chemistry (don’t laugh, we exist) can come together to share a wide variety of notes. In addition to reading notes, the system can be used to create a profile of a historical person to record biographical notes compiled from both archival and secondary sources. These people can then be linked to each other to show familial, business, educational or any other type of relationship. Users can also record notes on the places that chemistry was done. A record can be created for a paritcular factory site, a university lab or lecture hall, or the site of an important conference. These sites can be linked back to the people who used them and mapped. Here we see a map from the 18th century of Paris with clustered pins representing the sites in our database:

A screen shot of the world map in the Situating Chemistry database featuring data about 18th century Paris

In addition to people and places, users can use the system to record notes on organizations, events, courses, sources, objects, collections, processes, and theories. The key is that researchers can use the database to take notes on any facet of their studies and then connect that facet to both its particular context and the broader population of notes within the system. Users can choose to put a password on their records, but the default and usual practice is to leave the note sets open to all users so that we can extend each others’ individual records and pool our collective research.

Designing an Open-Notes Database

Web-based databases of historical people like the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) and the Prosopography of the Byzantine World were produced as conclusive publications of completed research. As such, the developers could accommodate, truncate, or omit problematic pieces of data. Published databases can also choose data visualizations that best highlight key records or insights. Researchers with Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, put together this beautiful dashboard to explore the correspondence of Enlightenment thinkers.

Screenshot of the Republic of Letters Visualization dashboard

Unlike these published databases, an open note system is designed to accommodate active note taking. Rather than structuring database fields to best present the data already collected, Situating Chemistry was built to be flexible. Because a researcher will more often than not have incomplete data, the only required field is the title of the record. The fields to record dates of birth and death can be partially filled out when only a year or year and month are known. They can also be marked approximate to indicate ambiguity in the historical record. Similarly, visualizations are employed to bring the researcher’s attention to interesting data and suggest new pathways for research.

Within any prosopographical project, the amount of biographical information available for the research subjects can vary widely. One project in Situating Chemistry focuses on the students of the noted Scottish professor William Cullen (1710-1790). In 1756, fifty-nine students attended Cullen’s chemistry course at the University of Edinburgh. Amongst them was George Fordyce (1736-1802) of Aberdeen who would go on to earn his medical degree from Edinburgh and become a lecturer of chemistry and medicine in London. Although there is no monograph length biography of Fordyce, he has entries in the Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and is a relatively well-documented individual.

The other fifty-eight attendees of the course are less known. We know from Cullen’s notes that Robert Cumming was from Edinburgh, that John Richardson was from Northumberland, and that Henry Dunston was from some unspecified part of England. More surprisingly, at least two of the attendees were from Virginia—Thomas Clayton and James Taylor—and one was from Antigua—Christopher Hodge. Clayton, Fordyce, and eight other students would go on to earn their MDs from Edinburgh.

In designing Situating Chemistry database we wanted to ensure that we could capture structured, machine-readable data on someone like George Fordyce, or for that matter William Cullen. Additionally, we also wanted to be able to create records for people like Henry Dunston, for whom we had only a name and relationships of interest, in this case that he was a student in Cullen’s chemistry course, in Edinburgh, in 1756, with these other people, and he was from England.

Screen shot of the Situating Chemistry Database depicting the fields available for recording data about a person

The record for any individual can be linked to other individuals in several different ways. In addition to familial relations, we also have structured fields to collect information on instructor-student relationships and correspondents. There is also a somewhat generic person-to-person connection field that offers a list of relationships that can be expanded when needed. We designed the database such that every individual is the subject of their own record. A field denoting that a person was active in chemistry is automatically checked for every new record, but can be deactivated for familial relations, business partners, and others who are of interest but were not actively ‘doing’ chemistry even in the broadest definition.

In addition to linking a person to other individuals within the system, a person can also be linked to many other kinds of data. The database was initially conceived of as a way to catalogue sites of chemistry. We thus started the database with a table to collect information on apothecary shops, lecture halls, pharmaceutical manufactories, bleach fields, labs, etc. For a given site, the latitude and longitude of the site along with a modern address can be recorded along with information about the ownership and financial history of the site, the chemical activities associated with it, the organizational history, related images, documents, sources, etc. For each individual in the system, we display the sites that they owned and operated and also those additional sites that they were associated with.

After developing tables for the sites and people involved in chemistry, we developed further tables for chemical substances collections, courses, documents, events, images, letters, objects, organizations, primary and secondary sources, processes and techniques of chemistry, and archival and museum repositories. Any two records can be connected with an extensible series of subject-predicate-object relationships. For example a given individual could be a member of an organization or might have studied a particular chemical substance or been a practitioner of a particular process or technique of chemistry. Every record, whether it be for a person or any other type of data, can and should be sourced by linking it to primary and/or secondary sources. For the system as a whole then, we have tables for more than a dozen types of information and hundreds of structured data fields, all strung together into a relational web of information.

Interoperability & Extensibility

In its first conception, the Situating Chemistry database was thought of as a single table for sites with about a dozen fields. However, this variety of tables and fields grew organically through discussion of the research questions and practices that we, as historians of chemistry, conduct. The goal for the project was not to publish a completed set of sites or records, but rather to facilitate active research. A researcher could enter the data that they were collecting for a research project to organize and analyze the information, and they could take the database with them into the archives to continue to collect information. Researchers can access their records and add new records to Situating Chemistry from a laptop, tablet, or even a phone.

To accommodate both offline note-taking and the rapid upload of external data sets, the database has also been designed so that users can upload CSV files (excel-type tables). Any data in the system can in turn be downloaded as a CSV or in other structured formats including XML, RDF, and JSON. Because Situating Chemistry was designed as a research tool rather than a data-publication, the goal of the database is to allow users to both enter and access whatever fields and records sets they consider interesting. Several visualizations including tables, graphs, and a timeline are built into the system. The user can also extract whatever structured data they want to pull from the system, so that she can also generate her own visualizations using tools like Tableau or programming languages like Python and R.

The schema of the database is not specific to our current project, nor to the period 1760-1840. It could be readily adapted for use by other historians of chemistry (and alchemy) and historians of other sciences.  If you were to dump out the 5000 records that we have input into the system, you could convert the project into a Sites of Archeology database and record the digs of the 19th and 20th century.  You could just as easily record the observatories, telescopes, and astronomers of the 16th and 17th centuries or plot the biological specimens collected by Linnaeus’s correspondents.

While we certainly hope that our database will be used by and be useful to historians of chemistry, the real point of the project is to enable the collaborative epistemology proposed by Vannevar Bush.  History and humanities more generally are dominated by the single-author article and monograph, so a system built to pool research notes may seem counterintuitive. However, we need to remember that the point of these publications is to share our knowledge. If we all share our coffee stained notebooks, idiosyncratic excel files, and shoeboxes full of notecards, we can engage in deeper and more nuanced studies in the history of chemistry and science more broadly. Without sacrificing traditional academic products, we can collectively populate searchable, interlinked reference guides that will accelerate research and model our methodologies for the generations to come.

Please visit our site to learn more about the project and let me know if you would like to set up an account or get a copy of the code.

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