With summer drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Albany, Oregon to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’d never taken the train for such a long trip, 28 hours each way. On such a long trip landscapes pass by, fixed in their space but transient in the rider’s experience. Each moment on the train creates a snapshot of the land. Being a rider is significantly different than being a driver on the interstate – not having to worry about truck traffic frees the mind to wander. As my mind wandered, four snapshots of human interaction with the passing terrain leapt out at me.
The trip starts in Albany, Oregon. Seat of Linn County (‘The Grass Seed Capital of the World’), Albany quickly gives way to the rural Willamette Valley. Sheep, hay, and grass seed accompany the rider all the way to Eugene. In Oregon’s third city the tracks turn southeast to climb the Cascades through the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. The transition from an agricultural landscape to a logging landscape is abrupt. Evergreen stands of varying ages blanket the landscape along with clearcuts and a web of logging roads. The Willamette played a part in the bitter spotted owl and old growth forest controversies. But, to a layman’s eyes on the train, the forest looks like a forest, not an historically controversial landscape. In this case, the train delves into the depths of environmental conflict but also shrouds it with the trappings of a scenic landscape. One hundred years ago, Einstein used the train to teach physicists the hidden truths of relativity. Today, as the train runs through the forest, it teaches us the often hidden truth that aesthetic beauty can obscure the extent of human alteration to an ecosystem. Continue reading →
by Tamara Caulkins* On May 20, 2014, the OSU Department of Mathematics sponsored a history lecture by Dr. David Pengelley, of New Mexico State University. Dr. Pengelley presented an animated lecture on the French mathematician, Sophie Germain (1776-1831). Dr. Pengelley’s interest in Germain was sparked by his use of primary historical sources in his teaching of mathematics. This led him to a store of Germain’s original manuscripts at the National Library of France, which had not been studied in over two hundred years. Revisiting Germain’s work as a mathematician, Dr. Pengelley found that Germain had developed a sophisticated plan for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, making significant contributions to number theory. Until recently, her work was known only via a footnote in another mathematician’s treatise (Legendre, Essai sur la Théorie des Nombres, 1823). Particularly in an age when women were not well-educated and when they were excluded from scientific academies, Germain’s substantial achievements were indeed remarkable.
Sophie Germain was only thirteen when the French Revolution broke out, forcing her to spend most of her time indoors. During that period, she turned to her father’s library. Fascinated by books on mathematics, she taught herself against her parent’s wishes (Pengelley relates that at one point they even took away her clothes and candles to prevent her from studying at night!). Germain’s father was a silk merchant so it was not through his mentorship that she developed her abilities but rather through her own effort and perseverance. At one point, Germain took on the identity of a student at the École Polytechnique who had died (Antoine-August LeBlanc). When the professor discovered that it was really a woman who was submitting such fine work under LeBlanc’s name, he was astonished. Germain eventually corresponded with Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) in Göttingen, one of the most celebrated mathematicians of the time. Pengelley recounts that upon receiving a letter from Germain, Gauss praised the way she contributed to the “charms of this sublime science,” as giving him great joy. Continue reading →
What images does wilderness evoke? For many, wilderness means pristine landscapes, scenic vistas, quietude, and wide open spaces. Many Americans may be surprised to know that, legally, wilderness has only been enshrined as a public reality for 50 years. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, surrounded by an unlikely coalition of elected officials and preservationists. To celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary, Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project hosted a panel discussion on 2 May to consider the Act’s genesis, life, and future.
Dr. Jacob Hamblin discussed important environmental moments leading up to the act. He particularly singled out public outcry over the Bureau of Reclamation’s Echo Park Project. The Bureau planned to build a series of dams along the Colorado, including within Grand Canyon National Park. Hamblin argued that potential incursions into ‘protected’ federal lands raised popular environmental consciousness and incentivized politicians to support preservation measures. With this background in mind, he asked the question “Is it possible to have a community of sincerity without common purpose?” That the Wilderness Act passed, with a variety of definitions for ‘wilderness’ built into its text, seems to indicate that such a community did in fact coalesce in the early 1960’s. Continue reading →
These reflections result from a February 2014 address at OSU’s Center for the Humanities delivered by Mary Jo Nye, Professor Emerita of History at OSU. Professor Nye, who spoke on “Biography and the History of Science,” has written biographies of many scientists including the English physicist and Nobel laureate P.M.S. Blackett (2004) and the Hungarian chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (2011). Professor Nye suggested that there are three principal forms of biography in which the subject is a scientist: the life of the scientist, the scientific life, and the life of scientific collaboration.
Biographies of scientists, something not often encountered by undergraduate science majors like me, can enrich our knowledge of scientific practice and methods. Good biographies can help us learn about and remember complex scientific concepts. I have come to think that the biography itself is a kind of science. Provided they are well-written and can hold the reader’s interest, biographies of scientists contribute to scientific literacy and allow for increased dissemination of information through the avenue of art. A biographer must be critical, aware, and objective in their work in order to produce writings that fully encompass the life and impact of the subject. Thus biography conveys scientific concepts in a way that this marine biology student and many non-scientists can grasp. Continue reading →
On Wednesday, February 19th, Dr. Dagmar Herzog, of the City University of New York, graced Oregon State with her lecture, “Sexuality in Europe: A 20th-Century History and a History of the Present.” She offered a lighthearted but academically thorough treatment of themes in European understandings of sexuality. In her lecture, Dr. Herzog focused on two concerns: first, the history and periodization of sexuality in the 20th Century and second, recent history and the path into the future.
After noting that “people are still made tense by a free and open discussion of sexuality,” Dr. Herzog launched into her talk, reminding the audience that the 20th Century has been called the “century of sex.” As such, the century has been characterized by a general liberalizing trend punctuated with sexually conservative backlashes. Sex, Dr. Herzog argued, became built into everything. Identity, privacy, civil rights, secularization, commerce and politics have internalized sex as a key theme. “Sex ends up annexing” almost every part of life in 20th Century Europe.
On Thursday November 21, Oregon State’s School of History, Philosophy, and Religion was privileged to welcome esteemed scholar of American religious history Jon Butler as part of the Horning Lecture Series. His presentation God in Gotham is an interesting re-interpretation of the relationship between religious and secular aspects of life in New York City between the 1880s and 1960s. He provides a variety of evidence to upturn the common idea of New York City’s standing as the capital of American secularism–from the culture of various religious communities, changes in immigration patterns, to the prominence of well-known religious architecture within the city.
New York City is a critical example of a fundamental problem that Dr. Butler sees in interpreting the history of religion. How do we draw strict lines between what is a secular age and what is a religious age? To argue against the notion that the world of religion has fallen to secular society, Dr. Butler first re-evaluates the state of harmony that we often see when Western religious influence was at its peak-the medieval period. According to Dr. Butler, there has never been a point in history where religion was not a disputed issue. The total unity of ideas within medieval society is a myth.
Last Tuesday the Horning Lecture Series was pleased to present James Moore’s engrossing lecture on Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Moore, along with Adrian Desmond, penned one of the classic biographies of Darwin (1991’s Darwin). As Moore related in his opening remarks on Tuesday, when the two had finished with Darwin, they were left with a nagging question: Given Darwin’s reclusive, gentlemanly, and non-confrontational personality, what could possibly have motivated him to produce and publish a theory so guaranteed to bring conflict down upon his head? In his talk on Tuesday, Moore presented his answer, explained in rich detail in Moore and Desmond’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause (2009).
“Why did Darwin risk his reputation to promote an heretical theory?”
Moore argues that it was Darwin’s hatred of the institution of slavery, instilled in him from early childhood that provided the motivating passion behind the scientific breakthrough. Through expert use of textual and visual materials, Moore led the audience through a brief overview of Darwin’s progress toward his theories of evolution through natural selection and the descent of man and sexual selection from the point of view of his connections to the world of anti-slavery activism.
As a self-professed library nerd, I was excited to attend Robert Fox’s lecture, Mapping the Universe of Knowledge, on Monday, May 6, 2013. The lecture focused on work of Paul Otlet, Henri La Fontaine, and Hendrick Christian Andersen and their vision for a world united by knowledge. Robert Fox is professor emeritus from Oxford University and currently visiting Oregon State University as this year’s Horning Visiting Scholar. Monday’s lecture was the first installment in his three part series of lectures entitled, Science International: Universalism and National Interest in the Industrial Age.
Having spent most of my life in the age of Google, I think that it is easy to take Otlet’s vision for the Bibliographic Institute founded in Brussels in 1895 for granted. But, his incredibly detailed Universal Bibliographic Repertory (a variation of the Dewey Decimal System) and the over 15 million entries in his card catalogue represent a vision which extended far beyond his ordered library shelves. As Fox argues, Continue reading →
Congratulations to Mina Carson, whose biography of Ava Helen Pauling provides a long-awaited study of a crucial yet often-neglected figure in the history of science and peace activism. Among its many merits is how well the book highlights the rich collections we have at Oregon State University. Here’s the book the description. It is so wonderful to see this book come to fruition. Thank you, Mina Carson!
The story of Ava Helen Pauling—her rich career as an activist first for civil rights and liberties, then against nuclear testing, and finally for peace, feminism, and environmental stewardship—is best told in the context of her enduring partnership with her famous husband, Linus Pauling. In this long-awaited first biography of Ava Helen Pauling, Mina Carson reveals the complex and fascinating history behind one of the great love stories of the twentieth century. Continue reading →
Oregon State’s Valley Library is home to many resources, including the Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC). There, students (and the curious-at-large) can find archives covering the university’s history, as well as a number of rare books, many of which are notable in the history of science. The two volumes of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie (originally published in 1789) are among these delicate old tomes, and these books provide an insight into the beginnings of modern chemistry. Continue reading →
This blog keeps track of recent activities among faculty and students in Oregon State's unique program in History of Science. We have numerous course offerings for undergraduates, and we offer opportunities to pursue Master's and Doctoral degrees. Have fun reading!