Thursday, December 18, 2008

The landscape of history

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, How Historian Map the Past, Oxford 2002.

It all started with an answer I gave, in a typical pragmatic style of scientific proposals, to Professor K’s question what my paper would contribute to history of Tang or history of science. “The paper should be a critique of industrialized life, to inform the western world with an alternative living style,” I said. The answer obviously did not satisfy, but seemingly astonished him. Since then, I was looking for what really defines a history work, other than how to make a use of it, like what social scientists, economists etc. do.

Professor J recommended me to read The Landscape of History written by John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis is a famous Cold War historian. He wrote The Landscape during the year spent in Oxford with no specific obligations. This precious year was made possible by a big fellowship called George Eastman Visiting Professorship that has accommodated other celebrity scholars like Linus Pauling and Felix Frankfurter. A professor set free indeed, Gaddis set out to discuss what history is about and how historians do it. The Landscape is dedicated for historian cubs and more generally for his fellow historians, because not all of them can articulate what history is about, or think this articulation is of any importance.

Gaddis provides a timely lesson. For my case, surrounded by scientists and social scientists, I did suspect if history has any methodological rigor. Anyway, telling a story based on manuscripts and correspondences can not really be regarded scientific, but I guessed trying to judge history as scientific or not is off the point – history has its own value as a record system and an art. Nevertheless, the “science envy” became a promoter to increase methodological rigor in humanities for the last several decades. That is why social sciences have been obsessed with “teasing out” independent variables from the dependent ones, while Gaddis himself just could not imagine the possibility that any social factor in reality exists in an “independent” mode. In defending history, Gaddis used a quirky way in defining science first. He says, look, while the social scientists are drudgingly emulating natural science by their awkward models which are far from reality, several branches of natural science have found the importance of narratives and become more history like, such as cosmology, ecology and paleontology. What defines science, consequently, is not its experimental methodology but its fitting representation about reality. With this methodological “passing of ships in the night”, historians should be proud because, first, they do not inflict themselves with erroneous assumptions about the existence of “independent variables” or concern themselves with the impossible task of making history a precise science; second, by doing so, they have already resembled some of the most interesting branches of natural science.

Comparing those history-like sciences with history, Gaddis brings a lot of analogies between history methods and those from other fields into his book. There is always danger of overusing analogies, and he is quite aware of it. He absolves himself from the guilty of overuse, or sometimes, misuse of analogies by saying that anyway, these comparisons serve only as metaphors. Thus when he compares historical scales to the structure of fractals, or when he tells a parable about historians’ work by describing how paleontologists design a representative skin according to the remaining skeleton of a dinosaur, we would forgive his impreciseness, or even learn to appreciate his pedagogical elegancy to make abstractions empirical. After all, Gaddis’ initial aim is to name the unnamed or the assumedly unnamable in the discipline of history. In light of the difficulty of the task, metaphors are invaluable helps to import the link from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Caspar D. Friedrich’s art The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog serves as the main metaphor for history study and also the cover of the book. A man standing on the rocks, facing the fog covered terra, contemplates on what are happening before him. By gazing the vast terra from high, he would probably feel both empowered and diminished. I felt a sense of mission staring at this man’s back, assuming he is indeed a historian. After all, not all people climb to the rock, the vantage point, where historians stand, and try to grasp the past.

Final thanks to Gaddis for providing what I was looking for.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Deciphering a personalized history of telomere research

Book review: Catherine Brady, Elizabeth Blackburn and the story of telomeres, MIT press 2007.

In Brady’s biography, Elizabeth Blackburn’s life is depicted with two thematic threads: what does it mean to do science for Blackburn; and what does being a woman add to this particular career. The nature of science and the gender discrimination in scientific fields has been discussed and contested by philosophers, sociologists of science for several decades. Intently or not, Brady seems to enter this discourse by her particular approach of a biographer, with a narrative of Blackburn’s career which overlaps with a developmental period of molecular biology as well as an outcry of gender issues in the scientific arena. As an extra, juxtaposing scientific discussion with concerns about a woman in science also provides an outlet to bypass the difficulty scientific biographers often face with – the difficulty in balancing a scientist’s professional life with his/her unique passion, personality and experience, to avoid telling a “Hamlet without the Denmark prince”.

Biography as an important genre of public rhetoric on science is a tradition which can be traced to the eighteenth century. Since mid-twentieth century, however, with positivists’ definition of science as a detachment from individual practitioners, and sociologists’ analysis in picturing science as economic and political processes, biographical approach has been gradually marginalized in academia. In a trend of reviving the tradition scientific biography as a revealing source about science, Brady’s account provides an example how the features and problems of a scientific field can be revealed by the scientist’s specific life story.

Blackburn has done her graduate study in renowned Sanger’s lab. Remembering how Sanger influenced her in the early career, Blackburn mentioned that she learned how to just “wade in and try” using a “curiosity-driven, pragmatic approach”. She was reluctant to theorize extravagantly about the replication mechanisms of the end of the chromosome after she uncovered the repeating sequences and the varying lengths of Tetrahymena’s telomeres. Instead, based on the results, she “frame(d) new questions in highly specific terms”. After all, unlike physics, biology is essentially not a hypothesis driven field. As what Darwin did before his theorizing work, painstaking observations and collections on species, modern biologists’ task, after a novel discovery, resides in conducting meticulous experiments to confirm, to exclude any influence of artifacts and to test a variety of other organisms to examine certain phenomena’s universality. Brady phrases the judicious choice of what to experiment on, according to the features of the organism and the experimental tools, as an outcome of opportunist’s insight.

(As a side note to my aging research, Blackburn’s cautious attitude of drawing theory had much to do with her refusal to link telomere shortening with cell senescence as causal relationship. In stark contrast, Geron, a biotech company, rushed in venturing the elongation of telomeres as an anti-aging drug development. The contrast of attitudes towards theorizing has constituted a general tension in scientific culture. This tension has been only intensified by the advent of medical research funded by private sectors, in that the immature theorizing can be taken further by biotech companies to venture a technological medical “fix”.)
The theme of gender issues Blackburn encountered through her and her woman colleague’s life stretches in a more dramatic pattern. Regarding a time when woman began to enter scientific professional realm, Brady put Blackburn’s experience as a demonstration how gender problems were manifested and coped with on an individual level. Here the author’s sensitivity and sympathy as a woman biographer came into play. In Brady’s account, as a young girl, Blackburn used to hide her ambitions and determinations under a crust of gentle, well-behaved demeanor – a “protective coloration”. When she entered the scientific profession, a men-constructed field, she evaded the gender issues by working single-mindedly, assuming the gender difference as irrelevant to science – a “protective discoloration”. Although Blackburn understated the discrimination towards women during her early career near to null, she nevertheless mentioned how Gall celebrated Pardue’s tenure promotion because it was rarely given to women. The incoherence of Blackburn’s narrative betrayed the real situation which she strategically or inadvertently neglected. These protective “discoloration”, however, turned out not helpful when she took the post of a department chair in UCSF. Her want of political maneuver and sensitivity towards gender nuances made the power exercise as a department chair a stark frustration. By taking both the strength and limitation of her “discoloration”, the character of an introspective researcher is brought out by Brady vividly.

Brady also touches on the merits of varied model organisms, the organizations of scientific community, such as the peer review tradition and many other disputed topics when Blackburn’s scientific life encountered relevant episodes. Her particular biographical approach, with respect of using her material, is also an opportunistic one. Therefore we may doubt if her stress on Blackburn’s opportunism in science was due to her original embracement of opportunism by herself. This drives us back to the lasting question about biography: to what extent do biographers select certain features to depict because these features reflect themselves?

As implied before, Brady not only attempts to depict this scientific heroine’s life, but also to shed lights on discourses on sociology, philosophy of science with her biographical approach. In a moderate sense, her work used “collage, narrative discontinuity, multigenre narratives, unsuspected time-shifts”, as Söderqvist suggested, in order to illuminate the links between a significant individual’s life events and scientific development in larger scale. An invaluable experimental attempt as it is, however, Elizabeth Blackburn probably will not fully satisfy either public readers or historians of science, due to its ambivalence between a person and a career as the subject matter. The most-likely readers may remain in the scientific community itself, if the latter would pardon Brady’s public oriented treatment of technical terms. Especially, to read and contemplate on the messages about scientific excellence Brady brings out can be more than helpful to a novice of molecular biology and biochemistry.
Reference: Michael Shortland & Richard Yeo (Ed), Telling lives in science, Cambridge, 1996
Dec 6th 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Last Scattering Surface and other marriages of science and art

Artist Josiah McElheny and cosmologist David Weinberg gave a public lecture on Tuesday night about the former’s sculpture, Last Scattering Surface. This new installation has a glowing core with many dazzling glass globes and discs shooting from it, much like a bizarrely decorated, shiny hedgehog. The artist tries to capture a representation of Big Bang processes through this design. The surface of the bright core stands for the black scattering surface, where universe transforms from the opaque state filled with dense electrons to the transparent form. The many glass globes and discs surrounding the bright core symbolize many galaxies – the current state of the universe.

Their talk attempted to grasp tremendous ideas not only because this work is about the creation of the universe. By building his art based on scientific knowledge, McElheny’s first effort is to negotiate how art can be constructed according to precise models, as science has been done. He also tries to convey the ideas derived from science in a way that they can shed lights on the nature of humanity. If, as the Big Bang proposes, the universe has no absolute center and everywhere can be seen as a relative center of the universe, what does it tell about humanity? How can any system of places, people or thoughts gain supremacy to others, if the places they reside in are equal? Also, if the universe was made possible by its imperfection, maybe we should not try to define a perfect state and tag humanity as nature’s corruption or its ascension. By presenting the equality and plurality of galaxies, he tried to overturn hierarchical, utopian world views, which may be what he means by “modernism”.

In light of both intriguing and confusing feature of the “Big Bang”, it was no wonder that the cosmologist Weinberg attracted most of the questions. (Hooray, Science!) When people realized the faithfulness of the sculpture’s design in presenting cosmology and how little was added for art’s sake, the philosophical, ideological notions the artist argues seemed a little bit arbitrary. Consequently, the artist seemed rather like an “under labor” of science, as philosopher F put it, although the artist must think differently.

However, there are other artists who claim themselves as labors for science. Some of them, such as Felice Frankel, even do not categorize their profession as artist. (Thank Professor J for her introduction.) Frankel views her photographs as “phenomena” rather than art. How the hydrophobic and hydrophilic material forms regular grids (right), for example, assumes more a question to investigate than an esthetic experience. As such, she may never have to label her work as modern or post-modern under the mantle of a research scientist. Ironically, these “artistic scientists” are more likely to use generic scientific processes as a tool to create arts (e.g. “brainbow”) than those self-claimed scientific artists.

Too bad that I do not know much about Monet, Picasso and other experimental pioneer's works. Due to this and many other ignorance, I can only post some pictures as instances of marriage between science and art here, rather than give a fuller account of its spectrum.

Galelio: Saturn's rings -- Art as minimal as a scientific shorthand.

Mitosis won the first prize in Princeton's Art and Science Competetion. It was created in superimposing a microscopic cell image and a floral pattern, overlaying elements of art on science.

Art by Jennifer Rea.

Kepler's Platonic solid model. How blissful he would have felt if he had an opportunity, like what McElheny provided to Big Bang, to build this into a concrete form.