Organized Session

Ephemeral Phenomena: Science and Technology in Experimental and Observational Research

Sponsor

Physical Sciences Forum

Organizer

Amy Fisher

University of Puget Sound

Chair

Gregory Good

Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics

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Session Abstract

This session explores the intricate relationship between science and technology in experimental and observational research. As Jennifer Alexander (2012, 519) notes, "many historians of technology have decisively rejected 'applied science' as a useful term, already seeing in it precisely the subordination to science that [Paul] Forman describes," e.g., in his 2007 article 'The Primacy of Science in Modernity, of Technology in Postmodernity, and of Ideology in the History of Technology,' "and thus a denial of the intellectual autonomy of their subject." In contrast, this session investigates themes from the history of technology and the history of science on equal footing. It shows the complex interplay between the development of new instruments, experimental techniques, and scientific discovery. It focuses on understanding phenomena that are transitory and about which evidence has disappeared. By combining the history of science and technology, it illuminates not only the ways in which technological development contributed to the study of ephemeral phenomena but also how it broadened the accessibility of some areas of scientific research.
Sponsored by the HSS Physical Sciences Forum.

Alexander, Jennifer Karns. "Thinking Again about Science in Technology." Isis 103, no. 3 (2012): 518-26.

Forman, Paul. "The Primacy of Science in Modernity, of Technology in Postmodernity, and of Ideology in the History of Technology." History and Technology 23, no. 1-2 (2007): 1-152.

Presenter 1

Storm Snapshots: The Use of Amateur Photography in Tornado Science

Kathryn B. Carpenter

Princeton University

Abstract

To many, visualizations of meteorological phenomena conjure satellite and radar imagery. For tornado researchers, though, the handheld camera has played a significant role in advancing the understanding of tornado formation and movement. Tornadoes, notoriously hard both to predict and spot due to their speed, danger, and ephemerality, continued to puzzle meteorologists through the twentieth century. Researchers used not only radar and satellite technology, but also the contributions of everyday citizens who were lucky enough to capture tornadoes on their cameras. Scientists, too, took their cameras in search of tornadoes. As consumer photographic technology changed, so did the information these images could offer, from single still images to second-by-second shots of tornadic development. Historians studying the role of photography in science have tended to focus on the production of images in the course of scientific observation, and on the way such images obscure their situatedness. The use of photography in tornado science complicates this history; it includes photographs taken by non-scientists for their own purposes that doubled as scientific evidence, and the very situatedness of the photographs made them useful for researchers who used photogrammetry to map the behavior of tornadoes. Exploring the role of photography in tornado science in the mid-twentieth century U.S., this paper brings together histories of scientific photography and citizen science to argue that tornado photography blurred the line between scientist and citizen in the quest by both groups to capture and understand the fleeting tornadoes that dramatically impacted their lives.

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Presenter 2

The Animal Furnace: Technological Analogs of Natural Systems in Nineteenth Century Chemistry

Amy Fisher

University of Puget Sound

Abstract

This presentation examines the creative ways in which early nineteenth-century natural philosophers and chemists, such as Robert Hare and Justus Liebig, appropriated and adapted existing technologies to explain biological phenomena, such as respiration and animal electricity. It shows not only that the creation of new instruments and machines affected how scientists understood and described the natural world, but also how technological development informed new areas of scientific inquiry. Moving beyond machine-body metaphors, natural philosophers and chemists often grappled with the unexpected ways in which the technology itself manifested new phenomena. By analyzing the role of technological analogs of natural systems specifically in chemistry, this talk sheds light on the relationship between science and technology in experimental research.

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Presenter 3

Rivers of the Bomb: Modeling Historical Doses of Radiation After the Cold War in the United States and Russia

Jacob D. Hamblin

Oregon State University

Abstract

In the 1990s, victims of thyroid cancer joined numerous lawsuits against the operators of the Hanford nuclear weapons site, in the US state of Washington. Documents declassified in the late 1980s suggested that since World War II the nuclear facility had ejected radioactive debris into the atmosphere, and released radionuclides into the Columbia River, at levels beyond any previous disclosures. Direct evidence of radioactivity had disappeared, yet the cancers were very real. To provide historical data to be used in the courts, the site operators launched the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project (HEDR). The project itself was deeply controversial among activists and other stakeholders in the lawsuits. That scientific work on Hanford and the nearby Columbia River was among the first to use computer programming in environmental modeling of exposure pathways, and the methods would soon be adopted elsewhere.
Some of the far-reaching implications of such scientific work was the collaboration among former enemies after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Several of the Hanford scientists began to collaborate with Russian colleagues to make estimates of past exposures in the Techa River basin, near the Mayak nuclear weapons site. The scientific knowledge about these two river basins would draw from the principles and techniques developed during the HEDR project. The present paper explores the origins of this joint work in the 1990s. It analyzes how scientists developed methods and aligned principles to study the Cold War-era pathways of radiation in two distinct river basins, even as the science itself remained contested by activists in both countries.

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Presenter 4

Teaching Microscopy at the Limits of Optical Interpretation: The Zeiss Vacation Courses, 1904-1924

Daniel Liu

ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry

Abstract

In 1873 the physicists Ernst Abbe and Hermann Helmholtz discovered that the microscope is diffraction limited, and that the laws of physics limited microscopic resolution to one half of the wavelength of light, or about 200 nm. This limit was even attainable by contemporary microscopes with some difficulty. Between the 1880s and the 1930s new microscope optics as well as the practices of microscopy changed dramatically to make it easier for microscopists to reach-and make usable images at-the microscope's theoretical limit. In 1907 the Carl Zeiss optical firm began holding 6-8 day-long "vacation courses" to introduce the principles and techniques of scientific microscopy, eventually holding 19 such courses in Germany, Holland, Austria, and Hungary by 1924. By teaching advanced microscopy to a wide range of scientists, physicians, technicians, and engineers across many disciplinary boundaries, the Zeiss firm sought to expand the potential market for optical instruments beyond elite scientific laboratories, as well as to secure Zeiss' near-monopoly position as the dominant global manufacturer of microscope lenses, accessories, and consumable supplies. Manuscripts, pamphlets, sales catalogs, and participant attendance lists from 1907-1924 held at the Zeiss Archiv in Jena will be examined to reconstruct the audience for advanced microscopy in the early 20th century, and to show how "looking through the microscope" was both extended and simplified at the microscope's physical limits.

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