by Miranda Paton*

It’s an exceptional history of science meeting indeed when discussion of a paper turns to the possibility of requesting someone’s FBI file.  No more can be said without blowing a fellow researcher’s cover.

The occasion for this recommendation was the group discussion of a paper given at 30th annual meeting of the Columbia History of Science Group that convened at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on March 9-11, 2012.  Thirty or so historians, some with partners and children in tow, enjoyed a program of 12 papers, good eats and intense competitions for various prizes with strict—if sometimes obscure—criteria.


David Kaiser (MIT) opened the meeting on Friday with the keynote address, “Calculating Times: Testing Einstein’s Relativity in the Cold War.”  Kaiser set the pace in a paper that offered an alternative to the usual parsing of a pretty, abstract science from its surrounding fraught politics.  Einstein’s own pacifism and the Nazi Party’s rejection of Einstein’s challenge to Newtonian thought, Kaiser argues, do not tell the whole story.  Instead, we were treated to an accessible history of Einstein’s Field Equations—the mathematics used to express his theory of General Relativity—as that part of Einstein’s work was disseminated, confirmed and then applied between the 1910s and late 1960s.

A rich set of papers provided the rest of the weekend’s entertainment.  The set nicely reflected the continuing expansion of “what counts” as science open to inspection and the increasing methodological creativity of historians.

Sciences ranged from 18th-century botany (Rachel Koroloff (University of Illinois) “Seeds of Exchange: The Russian Tradition of Apothecary and Botanical Gardens in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century”) to the unlikely collaboration behind Robert Trivers’ 2011 book on the evolution of our species’ ability to lie to ourselves, The Folly of Fools, (Erika Milam (University of Maryland) “Robert Trivers, Huey Newton, and the Evolution of Self-Deception”).

The history of Medicine was represented as well. Tulley Long, (University of Minnesota) described the cooperation between biochemists and physiologists in the isolation of the steroid, Cortisone in her well-researched paper, “Before ‘Cortin’ Became Cortisone: Dwight J. Ingle, the Mayo Foundation , and the Physiology of the Adrenal Cortex.”   Oregon State University’s own Barbara C. Canavan treated us to an insightful analysis of the 1976 Swine Flu epidemic—which never materialized except in the form of the largest public vaccination program in history.  Canavan’s presentation was aptly named, “History of High Politics and Pandemic Predictions.”

The methodological diversity in the weekend’s papers was stunning.  Methods of analysis ranged from a look at the rhetoric used by the Human Genome’s enthusiasts (Leah Ceccarelli, University of Washington, “Exploring the Book of Life: The Natural Theology of Francis Collins”) to a paper that eschewed text and looked entirely at photographs (Denzil Ford, University of British Columbia,  “Oceanography, Photography, and Possession in the South East Pacific, Chile and Peru”).

Megan Raby (University of Wisconsin) told the story of just one place—an expensive research station– in “The Cinchona Botanical Station: American Botany in British Jamaica.”   Meredith Beck Sayre (University of Wisconsin) looked at papers deposited in a state historical society in her talk, “Reading Culture: Problems with the Social Scientific Interpretation of the Jesuit Relations as Ethnography.”

The most charming papers of the weekend could be described as “subaltern history.”  The “others” restored to prominence included a British monarch and some dead fish.  Don Opitz (De Paul University) re-inserted Princess- then Queen Victoria into her era in “The sceptre of her pow’r: Nymphs, Nobility, and Nomenclature in Early Victorian Science.”  Giving more than a nod to the emerging field of Animal Studies, Samantha Muka (Smithsonian Institution and University of Pennsylvania) found that fish—living but also dead—formed important commodities that linked early 20th-century American biologists in “Sharing the Catch: The New York Aquarium and the Scientific Specimen network, 1902-1935.”

The Event

The Columbia History of Science Group was once described as the “soggiest subsection of the history of science.”  I prefer to think of it as marinated in a rich tradition.

The meeting has its own distinct look and feel, one quite different from the Joint Atlantic Seminars, which are the East Coast’s answer to the CHSG.  Saturday night’s “Milosian Banquet”—named for the cook who produced an inedible first feast—is just one of the traditions that keeps CHSG’s great atmosphere intact.  The invitation reads, “Black Tie Optional.”  Keith Benson honored us with his appearance in a tuxedo, showing the young, the uninformed and the hopelessly casual “how it is done.”

Prizes and rules keep the meeting true to form, sort of.  They proliferate and get broken with equal frequency.  “No power point presentations!” has become the modern addendum to “No papers shall be read.”  Happily, most presenters do not know that following the rules at a CHSG meeting is quite optional. Mindy Gormley, now removed to Notre Dame, brought style to the job of emcee/scholar wrangler.

Historians on this weekend were far more respectful of the rules governing the meeting’s prize competitions.  “The Aztec Potato” perpetual trophy—given to the scholar who most deftly incorporates references to some kind of South American tuber into his or her talk—was established to honor an apparently remarkable paper given 13 or 14 years ago.  The trophy—consisting of a more or less potato-shaped rock glued to a stand with a rather full set of engraved names—“must be displayed prominently on the recipient’s desk until the following meeting.”  The trophy is currently broken.  Similarly, the “Beaver Award” (a cheesy porcelain statue) serves as an olive branch extended to the friendliest Canadian.  One foot of the beaver is broken as well.  Apparently TSA officials, doubting its provenance and purpose, subjected it to an unacceptably rough search.

Erika Milam (University of Maryland) cleaned up, winning two prizes.  One was for furthest distance traveled and earned Erika an apron.  Also a perpetual trophy, the thing has been signed by its past recipients and has not been washed, ever.  No less special, Erika took home the prize for “Coolest Paper About Self-Deception.”  That trophy, an airplane frozen in water, honors those who died in 1982 on Air Florida’s flight 90 when a co-pilot deferred to his captain rather than what he believed to be true about their dangerously iced-up airplane.  The trophy, were it not designed to melt, would most certainly become a coveted one.  Instead, the trophy remains nicely fluid and a classic example of the way quality is maintained at this meeting.

Oregon State Representin’

Oregon State sent a strong contingent.  Mike Osborne (who knows how to road trip and wring speed out of a dinghy even with short oars), Paul and Vreneli Farber represented the faculty.  Barbara Canavan was backed by her husband who showed game interest in all things history of science, as well graduate student colleagues Laura Cray, Linda Richards, Jindan Chen, and Mahdieh Tavakol.   Mike has been elected Chair for the next meeting, aka “Holder of the Golden Weenie” and was sent home with the trophy for that dubious award, a hand-turned, hand spray-painted hotdog made by an early CHSG member.  Look for it on his desk in Milam Hall.

For some background on the CHSG, see Keith R. Benson, “Flail on, Columbia: An Irreverent Look at HSS’s Soggiest Subsection, the Columbia History of Science Group,” Isis 90, issue supplement Catching Up with the Vision: Essays on the Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Founding of the History of Science Society (1999), S240-S245.

*Miranda Paton holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and is the Horning Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Oregon State University for 2011-2012.

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One thought on “History of Science, Pacific Northwest Style

  1. Oregon State University’s graduate program in History of Science was also represented by its alumni. Melinda Gormley, Kristin Johnson, and Erik Ellis were organizers of the meeting. Rachel Koroloff and Tulley Long presented papers.

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