Category Archives: History of Science

Learn the past. Speak the present. Guide the future.

Lake Victoria, sitting just below the equator in eastern Africa, shared between the countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. To put that into

Early 20th century map of Lake Victoria

Colonial territories surrounding Lake Victoria in the early 20th Century

perspective, at 68,800 square kilometers, Lake Victoria is larger than the country of Switzerland (41,285 sq. km.). Beyond its immense size and grandeur, it is also one of the most important sites on earth for our current understanding of evolution because of one rapidly-diversifying group of fishes: the cichlids, which include both tilapia, an important food source, and aquarium fish such as angelfish.

 

The cichlids in Lake Victoria are especially interesting because that body of water dried out and refilled less than 15,000 years ago. This may seem like a long time, but on a geologic and evolutionary timescale, that’s less than the blink of an eye. Consider that before 1980, itwas estimated that there were over 500 species of cichlids in Lake Victoria. To contrast that with our own timeframe, the speciation time from our last common ancestor with chimps was on the order of millions of years ago. The fish in this lake are evolving at record speeds.

Traditionally haplochromines were harvested and dried as a food source for indigenous peoples Most of these practices were outlawed in 1908 Most subsistence fishing on Lake Victoria today is illegal

Traditionally haplochromines were harvested and dried as a food source for indigenous peoples Most of these practices were outlawed in 1908 Most subsistence fishing on Lake Victoria today is illegal

Today, the populations of cichlids in Lake Victoria have plummeted and many species are either endangered or extinct. The extinction was due to environmental pressures and invasive species such as the nile perch, a large predator game fish with an appetite for a group of small cichlid fish known as Haplochromis. Like many invasive species, the introduction of the nile perch was no accident. It was introduced to stem the overfishing of tilapia in the 1920s. This worked, but at the price of hundreds of species of Haplochromis. Now that the biodiversity in the lake is reduced, there are efforts to protect these species that are informed by scientific inquiry, but who gets a say in how management decisions are made? How did the focus of inquisition change over the past hundred years?

 

Cat. Man. Do.

Matt his cat work on writing Matt’s thesis

Our guest, Matt McConnell, is trying to answer these questions and trying to understand how communication between scientists and non-scientists affect how science is done. As a Masters Student in the History of Science department or Oregon State University, he is digging through the archives, trying to understand the changing scientific values surrounding Lake Victoria in the 20th century. Is the lake important as a resource or as a haven for species? Why should we care? Our current notion of science is that it is objective, but as we look into its history, science is value-driven, which is culturally laden; the question is, who’s culture is asking the questions and who’s culture is affected? In our current time, we are hearing about resource management and those are informed by scientific inquiry. Science is the answer, but it affects farmers and fishermen and their opinions are often denigrated in favor of science. Science is considered an objective measure, but it is really a cultural decision. Practitioners of science not only need to communicate their values, but they need to listen.

Matt and the 2016 History of Science cohort enjoy a day in the sun in Seattle at an Environmental Humanities Conference

Matt and the 2016 History of Science cohort enjoy a day in the sun in Seattle at an Environmental Humanities Conference

Tune in Sunday, July 3rd at 7PM PDT on 88.7FM or live stream to hear Matt talk about his journey with the history of science and science communication.

The Earliest X-file: Mysterious Killer of the Tudor Era

Edwin, Ed, Wollert hails from the History of Science Department in Oregon State’s School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. Ed is a third year PhD student and is currently preparing his dissertation. His topic? A mysterious disease that affected Europe during the reign of House Tudor. Symptoms include: an intense episode of chills, giddiness, and pain followed by a stage of perceived heat, sweating, headache, delirium, unquenchable thirst, and exhaustion. Fatalities from this disease were swift with many deaths occurring within twenty-four hours. The unknown killer still evades historians today and is known as Sweating Sickness.

After pouring over documents at the British Library and National Archives last summer, Ed visited The George and Pilgrims Inn in Glastonbury. This is the site where the local abbot had to face the wrath of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s...

After pouring over documents at the British Library and National Archives last summer, Ed visited The George and Pilgrims Inn in Glastonbury. This is the site where the local abbot had to face the wrath of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s…

Imagine the challenge of studying a disease that has not affected Europe since its last outbreak in 1551. In his research, Ed works as a detective slowly uncovering clues about Sweating Sickness amid thousands of legal documents. Late fifteenth and early sixteenth century documents were constructed before a published unified code of grammar. Ed sifts through handwritten documents sometimes with a rough guidebook for deciphering vague descriptions of symptoms piecing together a possible agent or vector in retrospect.

Ed has dabbled in just about every field and his academic journey has lead him to many different locations around the United States and Internationally. He describes his pursuit of history as obeying an annoying curiosity. Originally trained in Philosophy with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from midwestern universities, Ed has served the past 13 years as an adjunct professor in Philosophy at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. That’s not all, he has a second Master’s in Medieval History from American Public History, and has authored two novels. When applying to Oregon State for his PhD, Ed came prepared with a proposal to ignite the curiosity of his major advisor Paul Kopperman. And the rest… is history.

Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM this Sunday at 7PM PST to hear from a true detective or stream the show live.