Archive for the ‘History’ category

A Shuttered Past

November 21, 2015

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:


That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:


And in old age:


Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.


1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

For A Good Time In Cambridge (This Thursday)

October 6, 2015

Yo! Local Juicers — if you’ve reserved Thursday evening for watching paint dry, I have an alternative.

I’m going to be moderating a really excellent iteration of the MIT Communications Forum — this time co-sponsored by our city-wide celebration Hub Week.

I’ll be very lightly riding herd on Annalee Newitz and Charles C. Mann as they wonder about how (and whether) study of the past can help us prepare for the future — with the possibility of apocalypse included.


Both are wonderful writers and thinkers.  Annalee was the founding editor of io9, and is now Gizmodo’s Grand Poobah.  She’s written Scatter, Adapt and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was, inter alia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She’s at work now on a history of the city (and its possible future) — and more besides.

Charles  has been producing erudite and elegant science writing for yonks*. He’s perhaps best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus which won the the National Academies of Sciences Keck award as best popular science book of the year.  He followed that up with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdand is at work now on The Wizard and the Prophet, which he describes as a book about the future which makes no predictions. (Yogi would approve.)

Time:  5-7 p.m., Thursday, October 8.

Place:  MIT Building 3, room 270.  Interactive map here.

PS:  If you’re into some long distance planning, I’ve got a couple of events coming up in support of my long-teased new book, The Hunt for Vulcan: and how Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.  The book is timed to the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, which he completed in November, 1915, and it gets to that striking moment through a marvelous oddity of a story from 19th century solar-system astronomy, the repeated discovery of a planet that should have existed, but didn’t.  The appearance and then vanishing of the planet Vulcan is not just a curiosity, (or so it seems to me), as its history reveals a great deal about what it takes for science really to change under the pressure of inconvenient fact.

Anyway — the book comes out on Tuesday, November 3, and we are in the midst of planning a launch event at the MIT Museum.  That will most likely run from 6-7:30, with details to come soon.

Then, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my local:  Brookline Booksmith.  Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Yonks being a unit of measure of time roughly equal to more than you thought.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Paul Revere’s Metadata

June 10, 2013

This is a sophisticated audience, so I’ve no doubt folks here grasp how intrusive (i.e. revealing) metadata can be.  But even those fully up on network analysis and related crafts may find this from  Kieren Healy amusing — and useful in explaining why this stuff does matter to your friends and family who may be in the “if they’re not listening in, I don’t care” crowd:


London, 1772.

I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relational manner.

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.

Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects. I have been asked, on the basis of this poor information, to present some names for our field agents in the Colonies to work with. It seems an unlikely task.

So what did our humble toiler in the fields find?

…Mr Revere—along with Messrs Urann, Proctor, and Barber—appears towards the top or our list.

So, there you have it.  From a table of membership in different groups we have gotten a picture of a kind of social network between individuals, a sense of the degree of connection between organizations, and some strong hints of who the key players are in this world. And all this—all of it!—from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people…

I admit that, in addition to the possibilities for finding something interesting, there may also be the prospect of discovering suggestive but ultimately incorrect or misleading patterns. But I feel this problem would surely be greatly ameliorated by more and better metadata. At the present time, alas, the technology required to automatically collect the required information is beyond our capacity. But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

Much more good stuff at the link, showing the steps of a simple network analysis (and offering further links to the underlying data, if anyone wants to play with the idea a bit themselves.  Also, Healy pointed to this paper by Shin-Kap Han (PDF), which performs a similar analysis on the roles of Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in much greater depth.

Image:  Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931

Happy Emancipation Day

January 1, 2013

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.


Here’s the money quote:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

The proclamation was limited, as the National Archives’ online exhibit on the document (linked above) makes clear:

It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

It was, however, critical:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.


Lincoln faced criticism at the time for the proclamation — from the Confederacy, of course, who threatened all kinds of terrors for any captured black soldiers and their officers, black or white — and also from some of his own supporters, for whom the cautious limitations of the document seemed weak in the face of an obvious moral imperative.  Most famously, in the autumn of 1862, Lincoln himself disavowed overt abolitionism in the most public of possible ways in a letter to Horace Greeley, the great abolitionist publisher and editor of the The New York Tribune. Historian Eugene Berwanger writes:

Between the cabinet meeting in July and the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Lincoln sought to prepare the citizenry for its impact. Hence the letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, in which Lincoln offered ample justification of his views on slavery vis à vis the Union. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by Page  [End Page 31] freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about salvery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.”…

Caution, constraint, a limited view of ends — all on display there, in what seems as clear as could be an indictment of the limits of Lincoln’s moral universe.  Except, of course, that Lincoln was no Elijah, a prophet alone, with no duty but to the compulsion within.  Berwanger continues:

However, when the letter is given proper chronological context, showing that Lincoln had already formulated the Emancipation Proclamation and was merely awaiting the propitious moment for its announcement, the statement takes on a different tone. It was Lincoln’s own way of softening the blow of military emancipation for the conservative elements. In a sense, he was preparing the public for what he knew was to come. By stressing the Union as his primary concern, Lincoln hoped to make emancipation more palatable for those opposing it. And, of course, the best way to reach as wide an audience as possible was through the New York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the nation. Even as he issued the final document to the nation in 1863, Lincoln continued to stress the theme of military necessity for emancipation.

And what of the actual limits of the Proclamation, most notably the refusal to free slaves already under Union authority?  Here’s a reminder of the circumstances in which Lincoln constructed his document:

… Lincoln, ever the careful lawyer, knew that his presidential `war powers’ only ran as far as actual warfare ran, and neither the border states nor the occupied districts were at war with federal authority on January 1, 1863. Making the proclamation legally challenge-proof forced him to restrain “my oft expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free,” as well as muting any flights of eloquence about justice. Still, the Proclamation not only provided the legal title to freedom that slaves could claim once the Union armies arrived, it also opened the gates to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And once in the uniform of the Union, Lincoln could no longer keep up the pretense of denying blacks equal civil rights. “As I live,” Lincoln promised a crowd of jubilant blacks in Richmond in April, 1865, “no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”

I’ll leave as a sermon unsaid the resonance Lincoln’s reticence in the face of political realities may have during the presidency of his first African-American successor.  Better, I think, simply to celebrate the day when the United States took one step — a great one, but only one — towards its ideal of a more perfect Union.

A lagniappe:  I heard on the radio today that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society performed yesterday at the Museum of African American History in town, singing selections from their concert in 1863 celebrating the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  According to the report I heard, the program included this piece.

(and yes — I know that this performance is not from H & H.  I liked some of the other associations.  Sue me.)

Images: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, 1864

Unknown artist, lithograph portrait of Major Martin R. Delaney, the highest ranking black officer in the Union Army 1865.

The Uses of the Past: Science/Science Writing Talk

January 17, 2012

I’ve always found that the best way to tackle a complicated story – in science or anything else, for that matter – is to think historically.  But even if I’m right in seeing a historical approach as an essential tool for writers, that’s not obviously true, however well (or not) it may work for me.  Science news is or ought to be new; science itself, some argue, is devoted to the task of relentlessly replacing older, less complete, sometimes simply wrong results with present-tense, more comprehensive, and right (or right-er) findings.

Thinking about this, I put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.  The panelists – Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker led a  discussion that was lively and very supportive of the history-is-useful position (not to mention valuable in itself).  But the conversation was far from complete.

So we’re going to do it again, this time at Science Online 2012. (You can follow all the fun by tracking what will be in a few days a tsunami on Twitter, tagged as #scio12).  This is an “unconference,” which means that I and my co-moderator, Eric Michael Johnson, will each present what amounts to a prompt – really a goad – for the audience/participants to run away with.  As Eric and I have discussed this session, one thing has stood out:  where I’ve thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, Eric has been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind.  So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Eric and I thought we’d try to exchange some views.  Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel, in which we try to think about the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

So.  Here goes…


Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in the search for where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be.   As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of <a href=””>my latest (January 6) digital issue of <em>Science</em></a>. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion.  Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim:  we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come).  We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, <em>C. elegans</em>, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news.  Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story.  Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law.  You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface.  You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before.  This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course.  Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand:  the next measurement, the next story.

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t.  From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science:  doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade.  I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise.  Here’s a question for you:  while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives.  What does someone pounding on <em>C. elegans</em> stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?




Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel <em>The Go-Between</em> with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was <em><a href=””>Nature’s Body</a></em> by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after <a href=”″>Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,”</a> was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of <a href=””>Hamilton’s theory of kin selection</a>). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.




Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it.  But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems.  That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line.  There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s <em><a href=”″>The Rings of Saturn</a></em>.  There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the <a href=”″>dissection of the left</a> hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers.  Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas:  the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer:  yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday).  First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at <a href=””>A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark</a> from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story.  There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding.  A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas.  If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience.  For just one last, very quick example:  general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.




Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of <em>why</em> this question matters or tapping into contemporary <em>attitudes</em> that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach <a href=””>goes wrong</a> happens to be one of my <a href=””>favorite</a&gt; topics of critique, one that is <a href=””>unfortunately</a&gt; an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the <em>he said-she said</em> model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,


Eric Michael Johnson
Department of History
University of British Columbia

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letterbetw. 1665 and 1666.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

Nicholaes Tulp,  “Homo sylvestris” Observationes Medicae, Book III, 56th Observation, 1641

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

In Praise of Footnotes (Polar Bear Cub/Anything But The Republicans Dept.)

January 11, 2012

Because more or less anything is better than contemplating ten more months of Romney’s self-congratulatory predation of the electorate, I thought I’d try to counter (in some minor way, a jot or a tittle)  the quadrennial sense of despair that comes with the mention of Dixville Notch.

My antidote?

The treasures to be found in those pre-digitized lodes of easter eggs, footnotes in books written by generous minds.

In today’s case, that would be what I found as I finally got my crack at a book I had given my wife this Chanukah, Verdi’s Shakespeare, by one of our national treasures, Garry Wills.  There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

That’s one of those bits of theatrical trivia that I can’t remember learning. I think my father was the first person I heard say it, misquoting to “exit hurridly,” whenever he wanted to be gone from something dull — or to get his wild and wired son to bed.  And like most folks (I guess) I always assumed (at least from the time I realized it had something to do with a play, and not a playacting dad) that any action on stage would have been between an actor and some guy in a bear suit.

But no, Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare’s troupe] had a  young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”

That was curious enough.  A polar bear?  In London.  In 1610?

Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:

It used to be thought that the “bear’ was a man in costume.  But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their  young state.”

Well, that explains that.  But Wills is a kind and giving writer…and so there’s more:

Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the king even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings.*

Oh, joy! So much out of so little — and what a reward for the virtuous act of actually looking at the endnotes!**  There’s threads of all kinds of historical ideas to pull there — everything from thoughts about the extended pre- or early history of globalizing media to the power of spectacle as social glue, then as now — and much more, of course.  But what pleased me more, I think, as I retold this factoid to the unwary all day, is simply the images that Wills evoked, playing across my mind’s eye.

Which is to say that nothing here has much to do with the price of eggs. But my brain and my world are enriched, just a little, by the thought of a shambling cub, coat too big for its limbs, rising up on its hind legs to glare at the squealing, hooting, transfixed and terrified audience clamoring just beyond the edge of the stage.

Just thought I’d share…

*Wills directs those with yet more interest in the performing beast of Winter’s Tale to Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ Henslowe’s White Bears,” ELR 32 (2202), pp. 287-323 and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances, The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002.

**To declare what is, I hope, obvious:  I’m no fan of bear baiting.  Torturing animals for sport is not my idea of a good time or a good act.  But I dearly love gaining glimpses into the past, and it is always important to remember:  that’s a different country, and they do things differently there.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt, Bears in the Wilderness, c. 1870.

Just One Moment to Remember…June 6, 1944.

June 6, 2011

Because there are things that happened in the world before most of us were born, a belated remembrance of the longest day:

H/t for a reminder of the date to Paul Krugman, whose pun on this I cannot top.

Images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, official U.S. Coast Guard photograph, 6 June 1944.

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. SC193082 {PD-USGov-Military}

Photograph by Taylor, American assault troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, injured while storming Omaha Beach, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Tristan Nitot, The Omaha Beach Cemetery, aka World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Colleville-sur-mer in Normandy, France


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