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Monthly Archives

September 2006

History of forensic medicine (IRL- and web-exhibitions)

By Biomedicine in museums

Another on-line exhibition — “Visible Proofs – Forensic Views of the Body” — produced by the National Library of Medicine is much more impressive. It is almost as reluctant to use hyperlinks as “From ‘Monsters’¨to Modern Medical Miracles” (see my earlier review here), but the curators have made some serious efforts to use the web-medium optimally. The images are fascinating. It can be seen IRL on the first floor of the NLM (on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md) until 16 February 2008.

History of conjoined twins

By Biomedicine in museums

The National Library of Medicine has just launched an on-line exhibiton about conjoined (‘Siamese’) twins called “From ‘Monsters’ to Modern Medical Miracles“. It contains a number of fine images from the 15h century to the present, with short accompanying texts, based on a careful selection of the most autoritative primary and secondary sources.

Yet I’m not that impressed, because it is far from using the potential of the medium. After all, the strength of web-based exhibitions, compared to IRL exhibitions, is the possibility of using hypertext links. This NLM product does not even make use of internal links to its own bibliography. One has to guess which image is taken from which source.

“From ‘Monsters’ to Modern Medical Miracles” sustains my general impression that libraries are good at finding books and images, but often poor web-designers. Please, send it back to the web curator and ask him/her to revise it!

Lægestuderende om at skrive opgave om psykiatriens nutidshistorie

By Biomedicine in museums

Her er en tilbageblik på et studieforløb fra en af de medicinstuderende, som hvert år skriver opgaver på Medicinsk Museion. Mikkel Myatt skrev sin OSVAL II-opgave (en 8 ugers skriftlig opgave på lægestudiets 10 – 12. semester) om ”Psykiatriens historie fra 1970’erne til i dag – oplæg til en udstilling”. Ideen var at undersøge hvilken slags genstande, billeder og dokumenter der vil kunne indsamles fra psykiatriske afdelinger, hvis man vil give et billede af psykiatriens nutidshistorie, som jo i høj grad er præget af den såkaldte ’psykofarmakologiske revolution’.
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My best online English-English dictionary choice

By Biomedicine in museums

After trying some of the free online English-English dictionaries on the net I’ve concluded that the one I like best is Free Dictionary. Maybe because you can hear many words in a ‘real’ (?) voice recording, an excellent feature for all of us who want to know how useful words like armamentarium and anthropomorphize are pronounced in standard American English. (But why not Australian or Scottish voices? I would have loved to hear some Sean Connery-sound-alike pronounce ‘armamentarium’.) Has anybody found another good English-English dictionary?

Jameson on Zizek and dialectics — applied to the biomedical 'past'

By Biomedicine in museums

How shall we relate to ‘reality’ of the recent biomedical past? Is there a ‘real’ past or a narratively constructed past? And which past is most ‘real’? Or is the concept ‘real’ out of of question here? Fredric Jameson indirectly makes a nice point with reference to Hegelian dialectics in his recent review (in the last issue of London Review of Books, 7 September 2006, p.7) of Slavoj Zizek’s The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2006) when he says that

There is a tripartite movement in the Hegelian dialectic, and in fact, Zizek goes on, he has just illustrated it: stupid stereotype, or the ‘appearance’; ingenious correction, the underlying reality or ‘essence’; finally, after all, the return to the reality of the appearance, so that it was the appearance that was ‘true’ after all.

The argument, as transferred to the problem of historical past, then goes:
1) ‘thesis’: there used to be a stupid stereotype about the ‘past’, namely that it appears as ‘real’.
2) ‘antithesis’: then new historicist ingenious corrction is that the underlying reality/essence of history is that it is a non-essentialist cultural construct
3) ‘synthesis’: finally, after all, we return to the reality of the appearance, which is: what the historical past appears like, (i.e., real) was true after all.

New reading group/PhD course: "Towards a New Materialism? Exploring Artifactuality and Material Culture in History of Science, Technology and Medicine"

By Biomedicine in museums

A reading group/PhD course with the title “Towards a New Materialism? Exploring Artifactuality and Material Culture in History of Science, Technology and Medicine”, is starting next month in Copenhagen and Lund.

The seminar is arranged by the History of Technology Division at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, and the Research Policy Institute at Lund University. Here is the announcement:
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Garage biomedical technology

By Biomedicine in museums

Remember Michael Crichton’s science fiction thriller Prey (2002)? In which the bad guys created swarms of nanorobots, and the good guy lost his wife (but saved his kids) in his struggle to counter the swarms that left their secret lab environment somewhere in the Nevada desert to start replicating in a Darwinian fashion and thus potentially threatening to take over the earth. The book had no special literary qualities, but it was efficiently narrated, and too close to real biology to be dismissed as pure fiction.

Technology Review had a good report on the progress of the Crichtonian future made real almost two years ago. (See also the MIT-Harvard based Synthetic Biology working group.) Now The Economist too is catching up with the events. A Special Report in last week’s issue (2-8 September) gives an overview of how far the new science and technology of synthetic biology has come (see here and here). As the leader writer (alas, behind paywall) says, it is considered impolite among biologists to mention the ‘F’ word (‘F’ for Frankenstein, of course :-). Yet, we are not that far away any more, and historians of biology and medicine and biotech STS scholars should begin to prepare for the much needed reflexive work that needs to be done the very day after the reports announcing that the first artificial life form has been created.

The Special Report brings up one very interesting aspect about the new synthetic biology/artificial life field which I haven’t thought about before, viz., the similarity between the history of computer technology and the possible future history of synthetic biology.

We usually think about biomedicine and biotechnology as a Big Science/Big Pharma/Big Agro business thing; biology in the hands of Empire as it were. But to a growing extent biomedicine and biotechnology is beginning to germinate (sic!) in the garages. The number of biotech hobbyists is not overwhelming yet, but the large numbers of students graduating from universities with degrees in the new technologies is likely to increase the ranks of homegrown bio-hackers. And in the same way as there were electronic companies that sold components for computer hackers in the 1970 and 1980s, there are now a growing number of bio-suppliers that provide all the necessary utensils and reagents for garage biotech. Websites like help you make your own DNA.

Bioterrorism is one outcome of this scenario of course. But another outcome is an exponential increase in the number of benign and creative biohackers who want to change the world for the better. Bioartists like Oron Catts are already building their own tissue culture labs. The democratic potential is enormous (biology and medicine in the hands of the Multitude as it were), while the ethical issues have not really reached the media yet (although it has been an issue among bioethicists for a while).