SciCombinator

Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: British journal for the history of science

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Often overlooked by historians, specialist gardeners with an expert understanding of both native and exotic plant material were central to the teaching and research activities of university botanic gardens. In this article various interrelationships in the late Georgian period will be examined: between the gardener, the garden, the botanic collection, the medical school and ways of knowing. Foregrounding gardeners' narratives will shed light on the ways in which botanic material was gathered and utilized for teaching and research purposes, particularly for medical students, as well as highlighting the importance of the garden as a repository of botanic material for the classroom. In this way, the blurred lines between art and science, skill and scholarly activity, and shared pedagogic practices between botany and anatomy will be revealed.

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The ‘Rothschild reforms’ of the early 1970s established a new framework for the management of government-funded science. The subsequent dismantling of the Rothschild system for biomedical research and the return of funds to the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1981 were a notable departure from this framework and ran contrary to the direction of national science policy. The exceptionalism of these measures was justified at the time with reference to the ‘particular circumstances’ of biomedical research. Conventional explanations for the reversal in biomedical research include the alleged greater competence and higher authority of the MRC, together with its claimed practical difficulties. Although they contain some elements of truth, such explanations are not wholly convincing. Alternative explanations hinge on the behaviour of senior medical administrators, who closed ranks to ensure that de facto control was yielded to the MRC. This created an accountability deficit, which the two organizations jointly resolved by dismantling the system for commissioning biomedical research. The nature and working of medical elites were central to this outcome.

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The provision of standardized hearing aids is now considered to be a crucial part of the UK National Health Service. Yet this is only explicable through reference to the career of a woman who has, until now, been entirely forgotten. Dr Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge (1901-1940) was an authoritative figure in a variety of fields: medicine, physiology, otology and the construction of scientific apparatus. The astounding breadth of her professional qualifications allowed her to combine features of these fields and, later in her career, to position herself as a specialist to shape the discipline of audiometry. Rather than framing Kerridge in the classic ‘heroic-woman’ narrative, in this article we draw out the complexities of her career by focusing on her pursuit of standardization of hearing tests. Collaboration afforded her the necessary networks to explore the intricacies of accuracy in the measurement of hearing acuity, but her influence was enhanced by her ownership of Britain’s first Western Electric (pure-tone) audiometer, which she placed in a specially designed and unique ‘silence room’. The room became the centre of Kerridge’s hearing aid clinic that, for the first time, allowed people to access free and impartial advice on hearing aid prescription. In becoming the guardian expert and advocate of the audiometer, Kerridge achieved an objectively quantified approach to hearing loss that eventually made the latter an object of technocratic intervention.

Concepts: Otology, Tinnitus, Standardization, Audiogram, Hearing, Audiology, Standards organization, Harvey Fletcher

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Between 1916 and 1927, botanists in several countries independently resolved three problems that had mystified earlier naturalists - including Charles Darwin: how did the many species of orchid that did not produce nectar persuade insects to pollinate them? Why did some orchid flowers seem to mimic insects? And why should a native British orchid suffer ‘attacks’ from a bee? Half a century after Darwin’s death, these three mysteries were shown to be aspects of a phenomenon now known as pseudocopulation, whereby male insects are deceived into attempting to mate with the orchid’s flowers, which mimic female insects; the males then carry the flower’s pollen with them when they move on to try the next deceptive orchid. Early twentieth-century botanists were able to see what their predecessors had not because orchids (along with other plants) had undergone an imaginative re-creation: Darwin’s science was appropriated by popular interpreters of science, including the novelist Grant Allen; then H.G. Wells imagined orchids as killers (inspiring a number of imitators), to produce a genre of orchid stories that reflected significant cultural shifts, not least in the presentation of female sexuality. It was only after these changes that scientists were able to see plants as equipped with agency, actively able to pursue their own, cunning reproductive strategies - and to outwit animals in the process. This paper traces the movement of a set of ideas that were created in a context that was recognizably scientific; they then became popular non-fiction, then popular fiction, and then inspired a new science, which in turn inspired a new generation of fiction writers. Long after clear barriers between elite and popular science had supposedly been established in the early twentieth century, they remained porous because a variety of imaginative writers kept destabilizing them. The fluidity of the boundaries between makers, interpreters and publics of scientific knowledge was a highly productive one; it helped biology become a vital part of public culture in the twentieth century and beyond.

Concepts: Male, Reproduction, Female, Sex, Mimicry, 20th century, Flower, Orchidaceae

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The Scopes trial (1925) fuelled discussion in the United States on the social and political implications of Darwinism. For the defenders of the 1925 Tennessee law - which prohibited the teaching of Darwinism in schools - Darwinism was, amongst other things, responsible for the German militarism which eventually led to the First World War. This view was supported by İsmail Fennî, a late Ottoman intellectual, who authored a book immediately after the trial which aimed to debunk scientific materialism. In it, he claimed that Darwinism blurred the distinction between man and beast and thus destroyed the foundations of morality. However, despite his anti-Darwinist stance, İsmail Fennî argued against laws forbidding the teaching of Darwinism in schools, and emphasized that even false theories contributed to scientific improvement. Indeed, because of his belief in science he claimed that Muslims should not reject Darwinism if it were supported by future scientific evidence. If this turned out to be the case, then religious interpretations should be revised accordingly. This article contributes to the literature on early Muslim reactions to Darwinism by examining the views of İsmail Fennî, which were notably sophisticated when compared with those of the anti-religious Darwinist and anti-Darwinist religious camps that dominated late Ottoman intellectual life.

Concepts: Scientific method, Evolution, Religion, Islam, Creationism, World War I, Scopes Trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

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This paper explores the assimilation of the flightless dodo into early modern natural history. The dodo was first described by Dutch sailors landing on Mauritius in 1598, and became extinct in the 1680s or 1690s. Despite this brief period of encounter, the bird was a popular subject in natural-history works and a range of other genres. The dodo will be used here as a counterexample to the historical narratives of taxonomic crisis and abrupt shifts in natural history caused by exotic creatures coming to Europe. Though this bird had a bizarre form, early modern naturalists integrated the dodo and other flightless birds through several levels of conceptual categorization, including the geographical, morphological and symbolic. Naturalists such as Charles L'Ecluse produced a set of typical descriptive tropes that helped make up the European dodo. These long-lived images were used for a variety of symbolic purposes, demonstrated by the depiction of the Dutch East India enterprise in Willem Piso’s 1658 publication. The case of the dodo shows that, far from there being a dramatic shift away from emblematics in the seventeenth century, the implicit symbolic roles attributed to exotic beasts by naturalists constructing them from scant information and specimens remained integral to natural history.

Concepts: Natural environment, Modern history, Nature, History, History of science, Natural science, Natural history, Dodo

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Liber de orbe, attributed to Māshā'allāh (d. c.815), a court astrologer of the Abbasid dynasty, was one of the earliest Latin sources of Aristotelian physics. Until recently, its Arabic original could not be identified among Arabic works. Through extensive examination of Arabic manuscripts on exact sciences, I found two manuscripts containing the Arabic text of this Latin work, although neither of them is ascribed to Māshā'allāh: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms. or. oct. 273, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Library, MS LJS 439. In this paper, I describe these two manuscripts in great detail, so that I confirm their originality of the Liber de orbe, and then by analysing the contents of the Arabic text, I deny the attribution to Māshā'allāh, and identify the title and author as Book on the Configuration of the Orb by Dūnash ibn Tamīm, a disciple of Isaac Israeli (c.855-c.955).

Concepts: Al-Andalus, Aristotle, Latin, Arabic language, Iraq, Originality, The Orb, Abbasid Caliphate

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Two aerodynamic concepts theorized in the early twentieth century - laminar-flow control and flying wings - offer the potential for more efficient aircraft. However, despite compelling advantages on paper and optimistic predictions, the fuel-saving benefits of these technologies have not yet been fully realized. This paper documents British work on these concepts, with a particular focus on laminar-flow control. Faced with an increasingly difficult funding context and a lack of a clear military rationale, these potentially significant advances in aircraft efficiency were stymied by a catch-22: the government was only prepared to provide financial support for the development of an operational prototype if operational performance had already been demonstrated. This case also highlights the challenges faced in the commercial uptake of radical aviation technologies, even when they appear to offer greater efficiency and environmental benefits.

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In the wake of Stalin’s death, many Soviet scientists saw the opportunity to promote their methods as tools for the engineering of economic prosperity in the socialist state. The mathematician Leonid Kantorovich (1912-1986) was a key activist in academic politics that led to the increasing acceptance of what emerged as a new scientific persona in the Soviet Union. Rather than thinking of his work in terms of success or failure, we propose to see his career as exemplifying a distinct form of scholarship, as a partisan technocrat, characteristic of the Soviet system of knowledge production. Confronting the class of orthodox economists, many factors were at work, including Kantorovich’s cautious character and his allies in the Academy of Sciences. Drawing on archival and oral sources, we demonstrate how Kantorovich, throughout his career, negotiated the relations between mathematics and economics, reinterpreted political and ideological frames, and reshaped the balance of power in the Soviet academic landscape.

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In fin de siècle Argentina a secularist ideology of science was part of the positivist world view espoused by liberals and socialists. Between the years 1910 and 1935, a period in which the Catholic Church experienced a significant cultural expansion, the activities of the Catholic naturalist Ángel Gallardo and the astronomer and priest Fortunato Devoto challenged the so far prevailing idea of science as opposed to religion. This paper explores the connections between the scientific, religious and political aspects of those figures in order to get some insights into the complexity of the relationships between science and secularization in societies with a Catholic majority.