Agendas in the Historiography of Science

By Jon Agar, on 8 June 2012

I’ve been reviewing a very good edited collection of the historian of computing Michael Mahoney’s papers. Mahoney died in 2008, but he left behind a series of papers filled with good advice to historians of science. One of his best tips is that we should pay attention to what he calls the “agenda” of a discipline or specialty if we want to understand it.

Here’s Mahoney’s definition and development of the idea:

“In tracing the emergence of a discipline, it is useful to think it terms of its agenda, that is, what practitioners of the discipline agree ought to be done, a consensus concerning the problems of the field, their order of importance or priority, the means of solving them, and perhaps most importantly, what constitute solutions. Becoming a recognized practitioner of a discipline means learning the agenda and then helping to carry it out. Knowing what questions to ask is the mark of a full-fledged practioner, as is teh capacity to distinguish between trivial and profound problems. Whatever specific meaning may attach to ‘profound’, generally it means moving the agenda forward. One acquires standing in the field by solving the problems with high priority, and especially by doing so in a way that extends or reshapes teh agenda, or by posing profound problems. The standing of the field may be measured by its capacity to set its own agenda. New disciplines emerge by acquiring that autonomy. Conflicts within a discipline often come down to disagreements over the agenda: what are the really important problems? Irresolvable conflict may lead to new disciplines in the form of separate agendas.

As the Latin root indicates, agendas are about action: what is to be done?”

(Michael Mahoney, ‘Computer science: the search for a mathematical theory’, originally published in Krige and Pestre (eds), Science in the 20th Century, reprinted in Histories of Computing, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 130)

I thought it worth abstracting this long quotation for two reasons.

First, this seems to be a really good, concrete proposal for what makes a discipline, and who is considered to be a valid practitioner. That’s a useful historiographical tool for historians of science.

Second, we might like to ask, as historians of science, what is our agenda? What do we agree ought to be done? What are the problems of the field? How should we rank them?


The Geekocratic Tendency

By Jon Agar, on 25 May 2012

A new social movement in science is gathering, and it is time to give it a name. It’s a mutation of an older tradition of scientific lobbying, but it has new features and deserves some analysis.

What is it?

Let’s describe its components and features. We would include organisations like Science is Vital, which formed to campaign against cuts in science during the present austerity. There are campaigns, such as Simon Singh’s anti-libel wars against the chiropracters.

There is a cultural wing – we are thinking of the spectrum of mutual regard that spans Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, Wired magazine in the UK, and the comedians Robin Ince and Tim Minchin. These are the geek-tastic “skeptics”, all with an immense following via social and other media which extends now into real world grassroots events such as Skeptics in the Pub.

But the geekocratic tendency is not just about love of the values of science, or protecting the resources and funds for science, or even securing greater respect for science or worrying about public understanding. None of these features are especially unique, indeed we can identify many as having long historical roots tied up with the professionalisation, and popularisation, of science. The novelty is partly a stronger political focus (and especially a fetishisation of evidence-based policy-making), but presented as an ‘outsider’ view while being articulated in fact by well-connected ‘insiders’.

The key text is Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto, published this month. It not only serves as a rallying cry for all these groups but also as an attempt to reappropriate the term ‘geek’. Yet, Mark is no DIY science activist. He is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, one of the leviathans of UK science funding. ‘Geek’, as Steve Cross has pointed out, has changed its meaning quite radically.

This social movement has other features. It has its own heroes (teenagers bravely standing up against anti-vivisectionists) and villains (homoeopathists, creationists, politicians who don’t ‘get’ science). It is self-policing – the criticism of the recent ‘death of British science’ campaign is an interesting example. The embarrassment and derision stemmed from the fact that this is a social movement that is much more politically savvy than some of grassroots.



A social movement needs a name so that it can be tracked, discussed and perhaps supported or criticised. Hauke Riesch has described “science activists”. Proposals kicked around included “grabby geeks”, “science botherers”, the “SciNet” (a la SkyNet of Terminator fame), and the “Geek Establishment”. We like the “Geekocracy”.

So how do we account for this social movement? Is it merely, for example, a manifestation of a network? Certainly social media have provided older science lobby networks with a visibility and an immediacy of communication which is new. Perhaps without social networks the constituency of this social movement would remain local or individual and largely invisible. We in STS@UCL will be watching with interest.


(This post combines the collective thoughts of STS’s SASsy group.)

Probability of nuclear accidents in a country with 19 nuclear reactors

By Thomas Rose, on 28 March 2011

There are a lot of studies on the probability of accidents in a nuclear power plant. As far as I understand they use methods of risk analysis to calculate the failure probability of the nuclear reactor.
Here I tried a very simple empirical approach: We know the number of nuclear power reactors in the world, we know (probably) the number of severe accidents up to now, so we can calculate the empirical failure probability of a single reactor per year. Thus we are able to calculate the probability that no reactor in the world, in UK or in another country, will have an accident within the next 5, 10 or 20 years.Or that at least on reactor will fail severely. This can be done by using the Poisson distribution.
Up to now there are at least 4 reactor accidents on INES scale 5 or more. Chernobyl (1986) is the only one on level 7, Three Miles Island(1979), Windscale (1957) are on level 5. Also the present Fukushima accident (or accidents?) is level 5, at least at the moment (27.03.2011). On level 5 there are some more accidents and on level 6 is only one, but they were in other nuclear facilities, not in power reactors. One could argue that Windscale was not a civil but a military reactor, but then in Fukushima there is probably more than one reactor involved. So the number of 4 severe accidents seems quite reasonable.
The number of nuclear reactors worldwide increased drastically from 1955 until 1988, from which date the number is nearly constant. Up to the Fukushima accident there were 443 reactors operating worldwide.
By a simple graphical piecewise interpolation of the number of reactors per year a total of 15.000 reactoryears can be estimated. This crude number should be sufficient for the present purpose.
So the probalilty for one severe accident per reactoryear (ry)is
If there are N reactors in operation, the Poisson distribution gives the probability for x severe accidents within the next y years. In order to apply the Poisson distribution the expected mean number of accidents m within this time has to be estimated:
Then the probality to have x accidents when we expect a mean value of m accidents is given by
Thus the probality for no accident is (x=0)
and the probality for at least one accident is
Regarding the worldwide situation for the next 20 years, the number of reactors is 443, we expect an average number of severe accidents
so 2.34 accidents within any period of 20 years somewhere in the world. The probability for one or more severe accidents worldwide is
How is the situation for a single country? We simply have to count the number of reactors within this country and calculate the respective reactoryears.
                                      World        UK               US            D
reactors                       443           19              104           17
reactoryears             8860        380            2080         340
mean # acc                 2.34         0.100       0.549         0.089
p(≥1                              90.36%    9.55%      42.26%       8.59%
On the average more than 2 accidents are expected worldwide, the probality for at least one accident ist 90% worldwide, more than 9% for the UK and more than 40% for the US.
Do you think these estimations are reasonable? Do you think a 9% probability for a Chernobyl or Fukushima accident in the UK within the next 20 years is acceptable?

I am looking forward to your comments.

Ten Problems in History and Philosophy of Science

By Matthew Paskins, on 3 December 2010

The second meeting of the History of Science reading group discussed Peter Galison’s paper “ten problems in history and philosophy of science.” It was a larger group, of philosophers historians and sociologists: whatever the merits of Galison’s specific proposals, his name and his example certainly bring different disciplinary approaches together.

The ten problems described in the paper are as follows:

Problem 1 – what is context – how does a contextual explanation work?

Problem 2 – purity and fundamentality – what counts, at different times, as a ‘pure’ science?

Problem 3 – historical argumentation – when the foucs is on scientific practices, what are the concepts tools and procedures needed at a given time to construct an acceptable scientific argument?

Problems 4 & 5 Fabricated Fundamentals –

  1. Making things: it is increasingly hard to separate the made from the found

  2. What should we make?

In Galison’s view this seems to be a new change brought about by nanotechnology and genetic-modification. We wondered about what the role of historical analysis would be for understanding fabricated funamentals: would we want to relate genetic modification to earlier examples of animal and plant breeding, or nanotechnology to synthetic chemistry or other techniques of making new natural things? What is the role of the ‘break’, the terrible beauty which is born with new techniques of modification? And what does this have to do with the ethical turn of problem five? Do history and philosophy of science have meaningful things to say about the ethics of artificiality in this sense? Some of us felt it would be hard to base ethical arguments about fabricated fundamentals on an historical basis.

Problem 6 Political Technologies – privacy/ surveillance // what is politics of these new technologies

Problem 7 Locality: what do microhistories towards, or add up to?

We recognised this as ‘bar-talk’ for historians and philosophers of science – that very local studies have proliferated and it is sometimes hard to see how to fit them into broader arguments and patterns. Some of us felt this was less of a problem for historians, who are perhaps more willing to contextualise – than micro-philosophers.

Problem 8 – globality – what aspects of scientific practice simply do not reduce to the local

We wondered what aspects were not captured by local studies: perhaps legal and regulatory aspects, as a broader field of action? And the way in which the claims made about different historical periods fit together, or fail to.

Problem 9 Relentless Historicism – is it possible to write a history and philosophy of science in which the story told truly I historical?

Problem 10: Scientific Doubt.


From Imitation to Invention

By Matthew Paskins, on 3 December 2010

The STS Department’s new History of Science reading group has had two meetings so far, and very lively discussions. In the first, we discussed Maxine Berg’s paper “From Imitation to Invention”. Berg’s paper takes the question of ‘imitation’ as part of a consumer-focused and global history of processes of industrialisation. It builds on De Vries’ notion of the ‘industrious revolution’, a reorientation of households towards newly intensified forms of production, and the connection of this to the consumption of new commodities. It is an account of the interrelations between consumerism and production. Berg rescues the idea of imitation as a creative process – not mere copying, but a translation and transformation of materials and processes which she traces across the world. Inventive imitation is an ancient and vital part of the trade of processes and ideas: from bronze age skeuomorphs – objects or features which copy the designs of similar artefact in different materials – described by archaeologists, to the attempt to develop a distinctively English style of luxury in imitation of Chinese and Japanese imports.

With no economists in the group we weren’t completely clear on the use of hedonic, another technical term which Berg employs. The way Berg seems to intend it is to describe the different pleasure-giving properties of commodities, and to analyze commodities as bundles of these proprties. We were taken with this emphasis on the experience of physical properties, and the central place this account gives to aesthetics.

Some of us felt parts of Berg’s argument were over-extended and too Eurocentric. For example, Berg argues that the changes in materials in Etruscan burial goods led to the spread of new luxury techniques. This is perhaps a partial and luxuriant way to analyze the burial goods themselves, which in their own cultural setting are ‘essential luxuries’, indispensable to the rites of mourning and the dead. The meaning and attraction of materials – and their transmission from one place to another – may have cultural meanings which are poorly captured by economic histories and a very sunnily aesthetic approach. We speculated on other ways in which you might capture other properties and relations between human bodies, cultures, and materials – this suggested some future reading, but we came to no conclusions.

STS doomed?

By Jon Agar, on 29 November 2010

The pessimistic view of anti-cuts protesters…

Science on barricades I

By Kajsa Magnusson, on 19 October 2010

Photos say more than a thousand words, though their meassage may depend on what we want to see (see Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the pain of others’). Here are more than three thousand words from the rally for Science at Whitehall on the 9th. The blog does not allow me to publish more than one picture per go, for some reason.

Deep concentration

test post: Teller patting the Bomb

By Jon Agar, on 13 October 2010

 This is a test to check that the blog image publication is working. JA

Science policy campaigns

By Norma Morris, on 12 October 2010

There’s been an unusual opportunity over the last few weeks for scientists (and even some science policy buffs) to get involved in some practical efforts at science policy making. I am talking about the recent eruption of scientific political consciousness over expected cutbacks in government investment in research. Apart from the usual pronouncements from the Royal Society, anguished Vice-Chancellors and the like, there’s been a well aimed campaign from CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) and a grass-roots movement ‘Science is Vital’.

The latter two are currently working together to organise a petition (26 000 signatures so far and still open for signing); held a rally in Whitehall (with STS and ex-STS participants –observers): and on Tuesday 12 October a mass lobby of Parliament. The activity itself is remarkable: veterans say it hasn’t happened since the ‘Save British Science’ movement, provoked by Mrs Thatcher’s cuts (and worse, her disrespect) in the nineteen-eighties. What I find interesting about the current campaign is that there is a glimmer of something more than affronted scientists fighting to preserve science’s authority and argue its benefits. I detect more of a political consciousness: science, especially after the investment of the past decade or more, recognises itself as an industry, that like other industries can be a political force. There is a new meaning to ‘the Science Vote’. Is this the ultimate manifestation of ‘epistemic drift’, following from Relevance, Accountability, Impact and all that? Or is the prospect of cuts and resulting campaign just a boundary object that enables a temporary alliance with science-based industry, and charitable funders reliant on a science budget subsidy, and politicians needing a cause to fight for, but with each component retaining its own unadulterated identity. Can the historians of science tell us if it was like this in the eighties – for example was the support of industrialists (as well as Nobelists) as important then as it is today?

Meanwhile, some links for the curious

Declaration of interest: I am a member of the CaSE Executive Committee

Norma Morris

Eureka 100: the Science List

By Jon Agar, on 7 October 2010

So, as Alice Bell hinted in her comment on the key concepts team’s recent post on the most influential people in UK science policy here on the STS Observatory, The Times produced its own list: the Eureka 100. It’s behind a pay-wall, but here it is:

  1. Paul Nurse
  2. Mark Walport
  3. Stephen Hawking
  4. Alex Jeffreys
  5. Jonathan Ive
  6. John Sulston
  7. David Attenborough (note!)
  8. Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal, President of the RS)
  9. Andre Geim (a very late entry, or just good timing?)
  10. Nancy Rothwell (VC of Manchester)
  11. John Rose (Rolls-Royce)
  12. Iain Lobban (director of GCHQ)
  13. Philip Campbell (Editor, Nature)
  14. Andrew Witty (on our list too, CEO of GSK)
  15. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pulsars, a long time ago)
  16. John Beddington (GCSA)
  17. Richard Friend (plastics)
  18. David Mackay (CSA, Department of Energy and Climate Change)
  19. Ross Brawn (Formula 1, boys toys)
  20. John Bell (Oxford medical science)
  21. James Dyson (polulist inventor, Conservative advisor)
  22. Fred Sanger (Cambridge sequencer)
  23. Sally Davies (CMO)
  24. Brian Cox (not just a pretty face)
  25. Richard Dawkins (‘atheist campaigner’ ho ho)
  26. Wendy Hall (computer science)
  27. Paul Davies (SETI)
  28. Peter Mansfield (MRI scanning)
  29. Kay Davies (Oxford gene therapy)
  30. Martin Evans (stem cells)
  31. Simon Campbell (viagra)
  32. David Bulcombe (Cambridge botany)
  33. Simon Singh (science writer, accidental libel campaigner)
  34. Peter Higgs (of possible particle fame)
  35. Tim Hunt (Nobellist, cancer research)
  36. Mike Stratton (cancer research)
  37. Ann Dowling (Cambridge engineer)
  38. Harry Kroto (Nobellist, carbon)
  39. Anthony Hollander (stem cells)
  40. Chris Whitty (chief scientist, DFID)
  41. Andrew Wiles (top mathmo)
  42. John Houghton (IPCC)
  43. Phil Jones (UEA climate scientist)
  44. Kim Shillinglaw (BBC science head)
  45. David Brennan (CEO AstraZeneca)
  46. Greg Winter (Cambridge molecular biology/medicine)
  47. Leszek Borysiewicz (VC Cambridge)
  48. John Pendry (Imperial invisibility cloak)
  49. Steven Ley (Cambridge organic chemist)
  50. Adrian Owen (neuroscience)
  51. Hermann Hauser (cambridge IT)
  52. Tim Berners-Lee (WWW)
  53. Chris Stringer (very ancient humans)
  54. David King (ex-GCSA, pro-nuclear)
  55. Philip Cohen (Dundee biochemist, note recent Willetts speech)
  56. David Payne (optic fibres)
  57. John Young (Pfizer UK)
  58. Steven Cowley (Culham fusion)
  59. Harpal Kumar (on our list too, CEO Cancer Research UK)
  60. Peter Ratcliffe (Oxford medical science)
  61. Ian King (CEO BAE Systems – rather low?)
  62. Jim Virdee (CERN)
  63. Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre)
  64. Colin Blakemore (Oxford neuroscience – rather low too, or maybe had more influence under Labour?)
  65. Graham Richards (Isis Innovations)
  66. James Lovelock (Gaia, pro-nuclear)
  67. Peter Knight (quantum optics)
  68. John Browne (President of RAE, ex-BP)
  69. George Efstathiou (Cambridge astronomer)
  70. Adrian Smith (BIS civil servant)
  71. John Krebs (one of science’s great and good)
  72. John McCloskey (earthquakes)
  73. Heston Blumenthal (super science chef)
  74. Robin Millar (Association for Science Education)
  75. Simon Donaldson (mathematician)
  76. Marcus du Sautoy (popular mathematician)
  77. Ben Goldacre (bad science, bad hair)
  78. David Sainsbury (former science minister)
  79. David Nutt (former drugs advisor)
  80. Fiona Goldlee (editor, BMJ)
  81. Robert Winston (fertility)
  82. Steve O’Rahilly (Cambridge clinical biochem)
  83. Guang-zhong Yang (robotic surgery)
  84. Mark Welland (nano, CSA to MoD, should be much higher)
  85. Mike Richards (cancer research)
  86. Janet Thornton (genetics)
  87. Steve Sparks (volcanoes)
  88. Ottoline Leyser (plant genetics)
  89. Mark Miodownik(KCL materials)
  90. Michael Rawlins (chair of NICE)
  91. Callum Roberts (marine biology)
  92. John Armitt (Olympics engineer)
  93. Paul Smith (Millennium Seed Bank)
  94. Prince Charles (oh yes)
  95. Shankar Balasubramanian (sequencing)
  96. Sue Ion (BNFL)
  97. Paul Westerbury (more big tent engineering)
  98. Richard Fortey (writer, NHM)
  99. Steve Bramwell (magnetricity)
  100. Roy Anderson (remember foot and mouth?)

Plenty to talk about there. UCL does not do well in the Eureka 100 but does spectacularly well in the also-ran ‘just missed out’ column…

The list was chosen by Lord Waldegrave, Alice Bell, Dame Athene Donald and Dr Evan Harris.