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History of IT at the History of Science Society 2013 Boston

The History of Science Society held its annual meeting two weeks ago (November 21st to November 24th) in Boston MA. The meeting celebrated among other things the centenary of the journal Isis, the organ around which the society was eventually formed. The meeting covered a broad range of topics in the history of science from all historical periods ancient to recent. Among the 140+ panel sessions several included talks on the history of computing in various guises, which I will discuss here.

Four of these panels focused on subjects around the history of computers, a very small proportion of all the talks at the conference but a respectable number compared to past conferences of the HSS.

The first of these sessions was "Sharing Science in the Digital Age". This session was organized by Ann Johnson of the University of South Carolina who has presented on topics in computer technology and computer simulation in science in the past.This session occurred at the same time as I was presenting my paper at the conference, so that I was unable to attend. However the titles suggest the subjects covered: “Biologists and Sharing Practices in 20th century Organism-Based Communities,” Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide) “Astronomers, Sharing, and Data, 1965-1985,” W. Patrick McCray (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Code on the Move: The circulation of computer simulation tools between communities,“ Ann Johnson and “A tale of two algorithms: sharing at the emergence of data mining,” Matthew Jones (Columbia University). The abstracts for each talk and for the session as a whole. These talks cover diverse issues from coding simulations, coding databases to the actual sharing of empirical data, highlighting several ways digital technology has become involved with science.

The second session was entitled "The History of Science and/as the History of Media" and included the talks: “A Hexagon Shaped World? Cousteau and French Cinema’s Scientific Mission,” James Cahill (University of Toronto), “The Media of Relativity: Einstein and Telecommunications Technologies,” Jimena Canales (Harvard University/University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), “Digital Complexity: On the Circulation of Special Effects,” Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland), “Test-Bed Urbanism: Cybernetics, Design, and the Territory of Ubiquitous Computing,” Orit Halpern (New School for Social Research). While only two of the talks directly relate to digital media or information technology, the panel suggests relations between IT and broader themes in the study of communications and society. I was also unable to attend this session.

The third session of particular interest was "Histories of Data in Biology and Biomedicine" the papers here all dealt with digital technologies in biology: “Modeling Data and Animals in Movement Ecology,” Etienne Benson (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), “Off the Rez: How Indigenous Bodies Became ‘Big Data’,” Joanna Radin (Yale University), “‘Replaying Life’s Tape’: Simulations, Databases, and the Reconstruction of the Past,” David Sepkoski (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) and “GenBank and the Role of Big Data in Biology,” Hallam Stevens (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). As opposed to the earlier session on sharing this session focuses more on the idea of big data in science, however we also find discussion of simulations in David Sepkoski's talk. I was able to attend some of these talks and was impressed by the connections made between quantitative data and models and more qualitative issues of interpretation and rhetoric in Sepkoski's talk.

There were several more individual talks that dealt squarely with IT history many of which I did manage to attend. Stephanie Dick (Harvard University) gave the talk: “Mathematical Objects in Action’: Ontological Entanglements of Mathematics and Computing.” Where she explored how early research into theorem proving programs led to the construction of the new mathematical and computer structures such as the linked list.

Edo N.W. van Veen a physics student at Radboud University Nijmegen gave a talk entitled “The Early Years of the Electronic Computer as a Tool for Physicists: Exploring its Epistemological Potential.” This paper focused on early examples of exploratory computer simulations in non-linear physics at Los Alamos laboratory in the early 1950s by physicists Enrico Fermi, Stanislaw Ulam and John Pasta. This talk engaged in a vital way with the literature in the history and philosophy of science that examines the nature computer simulations in science, comparing these ideas to the way Fermi-Pasta-Ulam carried out their work.

One other talk I attended was by Joy Rankin of Yale University: “A Personal ‘Computer Revolution’: Achieving Widespread Interactive College Computing c.1963-1968.” This talk told the story of the origin of Dartmouth's time sharing program and the language BASIC painting the story in terms of user experience and the pedagogic goals of the architect and couched in the larger success of educational time-sharing through the 60s and 70s and beyond.

One other talk I attended illustrates how it is hard to do justice to the elements of IT history appearing at this conference, Gemma Cirac Claveras of le Centre Alexandre Koyré paper “From the Ground to Space (and Back Again to the Ground): Some Epistemological Questionson the Fabrication of Satellite Data,” discusses the way researchers prepare and share satellite data, and this necessarily involves discussion of the role of computer databases, network access and other IT technology. Therefore it is difficult to know from titles and abstracts where IT history may be found.

I gave a talk entitled "The Dawn of Celestial Mechanics at the JPL", which contained some discussion of the way the computer had changed the methods of astronomy, but was focused on the relationship between Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers and more traditional astronomers.

One talk I did not see touched on the history of cybernetics. Jan Mueggenburg of the Leuphana University Lüneburg gave the talk: “Meeting Halfway: John C. Lilly’s Cybernetic Dolphin Experiments,” the abstract suggests it discusses how cybernetic ideas were at work in what might seem to simply be a matter of animal training and behaviour.

Another talk I missed connected computer history and military research. Daniel Volmar of Harvard University gave a talk entitled "Trouble in “Science City”: Hanscom Field as a Literal Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, 1958–1962", which described the effects of the development of the SAGE air defense computer system on military research in the 50s.

In addition to talks on the history of IT, there were several talks and workshops on the use of IT to do historical research and facilitate communication for researchers, such as a lunch time roundtable on "The Pleasures and Dangers of Social Media" and an evening workshop on "Laying the Foundation for Your Digital Project: The Role of Community Repositories". An example of this kind of research in action was given in a poster presented by Christopher D. Green, Ingo Feinerer, & Jeremy T. Burman (York University and Universitat Wien) “Digital History of Psychology: Clusters and Networks of Early Journal Articles”, which used software to explore connections between the content of psychology articles (available from electronic databases) at the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of IT history this conference gives me confidence that historians of science are more and more recognizing the integral and interesting role of the computer. It also suggests the increasing interest in the rise of big data in science.

The role of computers in science is broad and deep and I have not exhausted the history of IT content on display at the annual meeting of HSS, but hopeful this has been a representative discussion.

The program for the meeting can be found here.

The abstracts for most of the talks are available here.

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