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May 2010

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

By Biomedicine in museums

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).

Craig Venter's new step towards synthetic life

By Biomedicine in museums

Will this become the abstract of the 2010s?

We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including “watermark” sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

From Gibson et. al., “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome” in today’s issue of Science. Et al. in this case of course includes Craig Venter, who has now made an important step towards synthetic life.

It’s not really synthetic life yet— it’s ‘just’ a synthetic genome, which has been designed in the computer, assembled from chemically synthesised oligonucelotides, and then put into a recipient cell, where the new synthetic genome took over control, thereby creating a new Mycoplasma species. Nevertheless — it’s pretty mindblowing.

In this video, Venter shortly explains the work behind the paper, and then discusses the many possible applications, including vaccine production. He predicts, for example, that the production of flu vaccine can be speeded up considerably, making it both cheaper, more reliable, and more on-demand.

Tons of ethical, religious, environmental etc. issues will of course be raised in the wake of this.

Medical Museum Competition

By Biomedicine in museums

One of my favourite medical technology websites, Medgadget, is launching a Medical Museum Competition.


They suggest you visit your local medical museum:

Chances are that no matter where you live, there is a medical museum nearby. Maybe it’s an overlooked building in the center of your city, or a hospital library. Inside, you’ll find bizarre specimens, important documents, and yes, medical gadgets.

So, write a report about it, showcase its treasures, explain how it grew out of the contributions of  scientists and clinicians in the local area, etc. To this end, Medgadget has implemented a dynamic website where you create an online presentation — upload pictures, file a report, embed videos, etc. to “impress the judges”.

The museum presentation shall be finalised not later than Sunday, June 13. The grand prize is an Apple iPad — and the honour, of course.

More here.

Postdoc project for the study of the production of images of the interior of the human body on the cellular level

By Biomedicine in museums

Just got an email saying that the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim has announced a postdoc position to study “the production of images of the interior of the human body on the cellular level”. See more about the background for the project here: The salary is splendid: 438.500 NKK annually. More info from Merete Lie, Deadline is 20 June, 2010.

Medical photographer at Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Large bladder stone, encased in silver and carried by the patient (1652). Medical Museion, public exhibition.

Oslo-based medical photographer Øystein Horgmo (The Sterile Eye) made an incognito visit to Medical Museion two weekends ago — and has now written a very nice travel report + slide show, which includes some of the best photos of our artefacts on display that we’ve ever seen in the public domain.

I’ve never had a chance to meet Øystein in real life — hope he will be back less incognito soonish!

Facebook — just another uncool site

By Biomedicine in museums

Medical Museion is on Facebook. Not because because we love it, but because we follow the siren calls of other museums that believe they need this part of the social media spectrum to be visisble online.

Personally, I just hate Facebook. It’s not just the sneaky way they treat their customers (see the long list of their objectionable activities here), it’s also their business idea — to commercialise the need of human social interaction — which turns me off. For a short period I had a profile on it but left when I realised Facebook has effectively made the word ‘friend’ devoid of any useful meaning.

Micah White suggests that earlier protests against Facebook (like the outrage against the Beacon system) were made under the assumption that it was a cool hangout community that could be changed from the inside.

But with the new ‘social plug-in’-system that gives commercial websites access to your personal information through ‘I like’-buttons this myth is about to be shattered. White describes it as a sinister reinvention of Beacon. The bottom line is that Facebook is about to cash in its former reputation as a hip online social medium and is turning into just another MySpace.

University heritage is back

By Biomedicine in museums

The 11th Universeum network meeting, titled ‘University Heritage: Present and Future’, will be held in the university museum of Uppsala University (Museum Gustavianum), on 17-20 June.

The organisers say that none of the previous ten network meetings has received so much interest. Why this surge in the interest in the history of universities?

Is it the gradual implementation of New Public Management in universities that is eventually giving rise to a reaction? Are university people becoming so frustrated with managerial governance, new evaluation schemes and assessment procedures, and the nauseating hype of their central communication offices that we are looking back to those times when universites were still universities? Is the renewed interest in university heritage an expression of our longing for the good old days of university self-governance?

I would have loved to discuss these and other questions with colleagues from all over Europe (and my abstract for the meeting has been accepted). However, I must admit that the programme doesn’t look particularly enticing; the titles of many individual papers look quite interesting, but the organisers haven’t been restrictive enough when putting it together.

The result of accepting too many of the submitted papers is a terribly crowded programme — one damned presentation after the other for three long days, a mere 15 minutes allotted to each speaker and only a few minutes for questions afterward, short and inevitably rushed coffee breaks, etc. This doesn’t promise well for reflection or for networking.

More generally, academic conference culture is in dire need of meeting formats that invite to dialogue and creativity. Tech conferences are sometimes more inspiring (boot camps etc.), but academic conferences are often still held as in the 1980s when I first attended this kind of academic rituals.

The future of philosophy of science

By Biomedicine in museums

Massimi Pigliucci’s essay ‘The Future of Philosopy of Science’ makes me think that articles (or meetings) titled ‘The future of X-logy’ may in fact be a symptom of X-logy being in a crisis. If scholars are really busy innovating, they will probably not think of their joint activities in these terms. They will practice the future, not talk about it — and especially not in terms of X-logy, because if their joint activities are really moving into something interesting the future discipline will not yet have an established name to be defended. If anything they will probably call it Y-ology to mark out their intentions to do something new and interesting.

The existential importance of feeling stupid

By Biomedicine in museums

I’m intrigued by a post by Ayusman Sen — a professor in chemistry at Penn State and a specialist in catalytically driven nanomotors (cool stuff!) — who writes that he spends most of his time in the lab “feeling fairly stupid”.

He says he continually feels that

either I am not asking the big questions or I am not designing the right experiments to answer them. And, to add to my predicament, I deliberately keep getting into fields that I know very little about! Small wonder that I feel frustrated so much of the time!!

I know the feeling! Always moving into something new with the feeling that the ground is always shaky.

Sen was in turn stimulated to think in terms of his perpetual stupidity by an article by cell biologist Martin Schwartz about the existential importance of stupidity in science. What makes research difficult, Schwartz reminds us, is that it is “immersion in the unknown”, which means that it:

involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.

The more comfortable researchers become with being stupid, he suggests, the further they will move into the unknown and the more likely they are to do something new and interesting.

Not the ordinary unvoluntary stupidness, though. It is important to be “productively stupid”, i.e., “being ignorant by choice”:

Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time

I believe Schwartz and Sen are making an important point about one of the existential conditions for creative research work — a point which would probably be quite easy to put to test.

But — can you make exhibitions about feeling stuped?