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1/2 idea No. 34: Experimental History of Science (or Nature Writing) Conference

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This is not a research idea, but it is an idea about how to try research out.

You might have noticed that several of my 1/2 research ideas are proposals to experiment in terms of method or form. (For example, here, here and here.)

What I would like to see happen is a forum to host trials of experimental historiography.

Who is up for an experimental history of science conference?

It would be a space to take a risk, try something out, and get a response. It would aim to find new historiographical paths and possibilities. Some might work in hoped for, or, even better, unexpected ways.  It might shake things up. It would most definitely applaud interesting flops. It would be fun.

I think I can organise the basics of time and space. In other words, I can find rooms and equipment for a day workshop.

Beyond that I think a few guidelines are necessary:

  1. Proposals are sought for ‘papers’, ‘events’, ‘interventions’, that have an explicit aim to experiment in how history of science is conducted or presented, ie experiments in method or form.
  2. Experiments in research question are moot, since they might be answered through conventional methods or presented in conventional forms, but more radical proposals might be considered.
  3. The method, form or question should depart from usual practice in interesting and bold ways.
  4. The choice of the method, form or question should be justifiable and reasoned. Mere anarchy is boring.
  5. The experimental aim should be articulable and clear.
  6. The apparatus should be realistically achievable, although a challenge is welcome.
  7. There should be a criterion for ‘success’, even if it is not met in practice.

That’s a start. Might need tweaking.

If such a conference or workshop sounds exciting then contact me. Happy to collaborate in putting it together.


(I’ve suggested history of science because that, along with history of technology, is my main research area. But the idea would also be good to try in the genre of nature writing, not least because it has its own entrapping conventions and well-trodden paths.)


7 Responses to “1/2 idea No. 34: Experimental History of Science (or Nature Writing) Conference”

  • 1
    Gregory Radick wrote on 31 March 2022:

    Hi Jon, My book Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendel and the Future of Biology, out with Chicago in January, concludes with an entry from a counterfactual edition of the DSB — and the book itself reports and reflects on that classroom experiment I talked about in my BSHS address, teaching genetics as if history had taken a different path in the early C20 — for my part, I’ve thought of both of the above as experimental forms of history of science — if you prefer to file them under your “Markov chains” proposal,that’s fine too — best wishes, Greg

  • 2
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    thanks Greg. yes, I do agree that your great classroom experiment was experimental. do you have any new experiments up your sleeve, things you might want to try? cheers Jon

  • 3
    Tim wrote on 31 March 2022:

    Let’s do this conference.

  • 4
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    yes, will email

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