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Monthly Archives

June 2011

Morbid Anatomy — a satanist blog?

By Biomedicine in museums

Just got an email from a certain Faith Swanson titled “The blog shares webspace with satanists”:

Did you know that when you host with blogspot, wordpress or many other common hosting providers, you are sharing space with drug pushers, satanists, pornographers and those who practice bestiality?

and suggests that we move hosting site to, a site that “does not tolerate drug dealers, satanists, and pornographers”.
Deep inside, I sort of always suspected Joanna Ebenstein to be a satanist. Now it’s gone public! Great to have friends out there who can provide decent advice against the forces that darken our minds.

Nu går Nordisk netværk for studier i narrativitet og medicin igang

By Biomedicine in museums

Dagens gode nyhed: Nordisk netværk for studier i narrativitet og medicin (som jeg fortalte om her på bloggen i januar) har fået 239.000 norske kroner fra Nordisk samarbejdsnævn for humanistisk og samfundsvidenskabelig forskning (NOS-HS) for at organisere tre eksplorative workshops og seminarer i 2012 og 2013.
Initiativtageren til netværket, Jens Lohfert Jørgensen, vil gerne arrangere det første seminar i København enten sent i 2011 eller tidligt i 2012. Midlerne fra NOS-HS skal bruges til at dække deltagernes rejse- og opholdsomkostninger.

Jeg glæder mig — narrativitet har længet været et ‘hype’-ord i medicinske og medicinhistoriske udstillinger, og det vil være på tide at sætte den kritisk-analytiske skovl ind under det. Man taler tit om fortællinger i udstillinger uden egentlig at reflektere over om det nu virkelig er fortælling man egentlig mener. Det vil jeg vende tilbage til.

Museum objects and poetry

By Biomedicine in museums

I spend much time reading and absorbing good initiatives that other science, technology and medical museums around the world are taking. It’s dizzying.

Take for example, our sister (brother?) museum in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum, who has had a writer-in-residence Kelley Swain (right) running workshops and events to encourage visitors, among them poet Lesley Saunders (below), writing poems inspired by objects in the museum’s collections.

Wish I could be in Cambridge on Tuesday 26 July at 3 pm, to hear Kelley and Lesley read from their poems and discuss how Whipple’s collections have inspired their writings.

The reading will be held in the museum’s newly refurbished Main Gallery. You don’t need to pay anything, but make sure you book ahead through the Whipple events page (coming up soonish).

Here at Medical Museion we have invited visual artists and sound artists to work with us — but so far we haven’t worked together with poets. It’s a very good idea.

Impatient discovery vs. mature understanding — revisiting Ragnar Granit's view of the goal of scientific work

By Biomedicine in museums

Prompted by a recent guest blog post on the Scientific American site, I’ve just revisited an almost 40 year old essay titled “Discovery and understanding” by the Finland-Swedish neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize Winner Ragnar Granit.

Growing out of a talk (see video here) that Granit gave at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 1972, the essay was published in the Annual Review of Physiology later the same year. I remember dimly having read it when I was a PhD student a few years after it was published, but apparently I didn’t really appreciate it then — and didn’t understand the deeper significance of the message either.

But now I think I’ve got it. And it’s quite interesting for discussions about the culture of science, especially the contemporary political emphasis on scientific competition and race for publication.

The thrust of Granit’s argument is the distinction between discovery and understanding (and later insight) as two separate modes of scientific work that are differentially distributed throughout a scientist’s life-course. Discovery is all-important in the younger, passionate, phase of a scientist’s life, he suggests, whereas understanding and insight is the mark of more mature and detached scientists (which is probably why I didn’t understand the deeper significance of his essay when I was 30).

Young scientist are, he writes, characterised by an “impatient passion” to make discoveries. They want to “see something that others have not seen”. They are on the outlook for what’s new, unexpected, and exciting, they are “ruled by ambition”, they crave for “immediate satisfaction” and “instantaneous excitement”.

It’s easy to believe, he continues, that this passionate quest for discovery is the goal of science, partly because discoveries perpetually initiate new lines of experimental work, but partly also because they are more visible through popular media: “It catches the eye and, in the present age [1972] is pushed in the limelight by various journals devoted to the popularization of science”.

But even if the history of science is full of important discoveries that have “led to major advances”, they are nevertheless not what science is fundamentally about; they are just the means for the “real goal” of scientific work, which is “to try to realize some fundamental ideas about biological structures and their functions, that is to promote understanding”. And “gradually understanding will ripen into insight”.

If Granit had lived today he would probably have been horrified by the fetishisation of long publication lists, impact factors, and bibliometrics:

This attitude [understanding and insight] toward scientific work has the advantage of permitting the experimenters to devote themselves quietly to their labors without filling various journals with preliminary notes to obtain minor priorities

Was the distinction between discovery and understanding valid back in 1972? If so, is it still valid? Is there still a divide between the young postdoc’s passionate quest for rapid discovery and fast publication, on the one hand, and the older professor’s slower and more detached search for insight, on the other? And if so, is it only a question of psychology and individual ageing, or are there other, structural, factors at play?

Museum Boerhaave is threatened

By Biomedicine in museums

Museum Boerhaave — the famous science museum in Leiden — is threatened. Last Friday, the Dutch Minister of Culture presented budget cuts to the effect that the museum will have to bring in substantial external funding to cover the costs for collections and exhibitions. If the museum cannot do this, it will be closed by the end of next year.

Friends of Museum Boerhaave are encouraged to write letters of support to show that the museum is an important part of the international community of science museums. Send your letters to the museum’s head of collections, Hans Hooijmaijers,

Fluttering brains

By Biomedicine in museums

I’m not sure if Suzanne Anker‘s “Biota” (Porcelain, rapid prototype figurines, 2011) is fun, imaginative, engaging or plainly irritating (the fluttering movements are not kind to my overstimulated synapses):


Anyway, it’s an illustration to a talk titled “Fundamentally Human: Contemporary Art and Neuroscience”, which Suzanne Anker is giving at the Suna Kıraç Conferences on Neurodegeneration in Istanbul on 25 June.

In addition to scientific value, neuroscientific images, concepts and theories reflect shifts in perception and expression. In part, brought about by technological intervention, what was once thought to be the stuff of science fiction is now actually real. Fundamentally Human: Contemporary Art and Neuroscience, explores the ways in which state-of-the art technologies are intersecting and augmenting the artist’s imagination in the 21st century. From algorithmic computation, to robotic drawing to rapid-prototype sculpture, high-tech ways and means transform data into aesthetic experience.

More here: and

Want to do short-time (

By Biomedicine in museums

Science Museum in London announces two short-term Visiting Research Fellowships, 2011-2012. The Science Museum very large collection relating to the history of science, technology and medicine.  They welcome proposals for any topic which makes good use of the museum’s collections. The fellowships are available to both established scholars and newly qualified PhDs. The stipend will be £1,600 per month for a maximum of three months, covering travel, accommodation and subsistence and up to £500 will be available for attendance at a conference in connection with the fellowship. The successful candidate’s institution has to accept the stipend to cover the Fellow’s leave of absence. The fellowship shall take place between August 2011 and March 2012. Send CV and a covering letter with a brief explanation of why this research is appropriate for this Fellowship, and the names and addresses of two academic referees + outline of the proposed research, not to exceed two pages of A4, with a timetable for its completion and proposals for the dissemination of the research. Applicants should send a copy of their application to their chosen referees before submission, asking their referees to comment on the professional knowledge of the applicant and the contribution the proposed research would make to scholarship. They should tell their referees to send their references to the email address below by Friday 8th July 2011. As there may not be formal interviews, applicants should ensure that they provide all the information needed to make a decision. The deadline for applications is Friday 1st July 2011; send them to No applications will be accepted by mail. They hope to inform the successful candidates by email by 22nd July 2011. More info from Peter Morris at

The DIY biotech movement is working up steam

By Biomedicine in museums

Back in 2006, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) about the possibility for an emerging DIY biotech movement, concluding that although most science, technology and medicine today originates in ’Empire’, not in ‘Multitude‘, the Multitude nevertheless has the potential to build its own biotech future.

Since then, not only has garage biotech worked up steam, it’s also beginning to receive some institutional recognition. Especially here in 2011: In April, Marcus Wohlsen published Biopunk: Kitchen-Counter Scientists Hack the Software of Life, an overview of the DIY biotech movement, and in May-June (which started in 2008) has organised conferences in San Fransisco and in London. And next week, Science Gallery in Dublin hosts a 5 day workshop with DIY biotech specialist and “bio-hacker” Cathal Garvey. Wish I could be there!

Promoting best practice in academic meetings

By Biomedicine in museums

Apropos Daniel’s blog post the other day about a not-so-well organised conference at the university here in Copenhagen — I’m afraid badly organised academic meetings are the rule rather than the exception.

The usual conference format — a number of plenaries with 20-40 minutes presentations (with powerpoints) in a theatre, followed by a few minutes of questions from the audience, followed by a 20 minutes coffee break in an ugly lobby, followed by another excruciating plenary — is a cognitive, emotional and social killer, and a major reason why I, for one, rarely attend conferences any more.

The entrenched format is rarely transcended. Even “workshops” and “seminars” are often organised in the same traditional way. Few meeting organisers ask the participants for longer predistributed written presentations; few pay attention to the physical space and routinely seat people in a theatre; few consider using other media than powerpoint; almost no organisers utilise social media as a tool to enhance the meeting; and generally there is a deep unwillingness to experiment with new formats, or just break up the monotonous time pattern. Humanities meetings are hardly better than science meetings; and Scandinavian and Dutch meetings are rarely better than German and American.

For sure, I have attended a few conferences that were memorable exceptions to the usual format. Usually they were small meetings of 15-25 people, but occasionally I’ve attended meetings of 50-75 people that were organised in a way that stimulated interaction and engagement. And I guess most of us have positive experiences that stand out as oases in the usual conference desert.

But few of us take the effort to summarise our experiences publicly. This recent report from a workshop on ‘Personhood and Identity in Medicine’  organised by Elselijn Kingma and MM McCabe at King’s College in March this year, is a rare exception:

In order to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and engagement, attendance had been limited to a maximum of 30 participants. Following the success of this format in the previous workshop, the day was divided into four topics, each of which was briefly introduced by two participants, one with a predominantly medical and one with a predominantly philosophical background. After these introductions followed 45 minutes of chaired group discussion […].

The aim of facilitating genuine discussion and interaction between people with very different backgrounds was met, and an improvement was noticed in comparison with the previous workshop. Group continuity – which meant many people had experience communicating in this format and knew what to expect – undoubtedly helped, as did explicit instructions to interrupt discussions for clarificatory questions.

It would be great to see more such experiences of good meeting formats published online. I’m looking forward to a blog called “Best practice in conference organisation” or something (maybe there already is one?).

I’ve also discussed with a few colleagues in Denmark and Sweden that we should organise a conference about good conference formats! Let’s get started!