Robin Wolfe Scheffler’s article, “Brightening Biochemistry: Humor, Identity, and Scientific Work at the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, 1923-1931” appears in the September issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.
Our manuscript assistant, Alexander Cagle, interviewed Dr. Scheffler about his research on humor in science, which in this article focuses on Brighter Biochemistry, a humor journal produced locally by a Cambridge biochemistry institute.
CAGLE: How did you find Brighter Biochemistry, and were there any challenges in historicizing scientific humor?
SCHEFFLER: As so many research projects have started, I came across Brighter Biochemistry while looking for something else — in my case information about Joseph Needham, a member of the Sir William Dunn Institute probably best known to readers of Isis as the author of Science and Civilization in China. It was only later, after reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the cultural history of humor before the French Revolution, “The Great Cat Massacre,” that I recognized that Brighter Biochemistry was a rare find. Fortunately, at that point I was in Cambridge, so I was able to track down a full run.
Locating all the issues was the least of my problems. I spent many hours with British magazines and dictionaries from the 1920s to try to “get” the jokes in Brighter Biochemistry to little avail. The old adage is true: if you find yourself explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny! However, I came to realize that my sense of frustration as an outsider was both one of the points of the publication and also a historical opportunity to reconstruct a particular form of experimental life by the humor it had left behind. That’s when I started working on what became my article.
CAGLE: In your essay you say the members of the Dunn Institute felt Brighter Biochemistry was an important tool in fostering camaraderie. Are there any lessons to draw about our own profession concerning the importance of relationships, particularly during a global pandemic?
SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry shows how much intellectual community exists outside of the formal channels of papers, conference papers, and the like. Following Jenna Tonn’s idea of the importance of “extra-laboratory life” for scientists I think it’s fair to say that we historians depend on our extra-library, extra-seminar, and extra-archival lives to make our field work. Finishing this article in the mist of the pandemic’s disruption of our profession’s normal social rituals has made me feel their absence even more.
On the other hand, in recognizing all the informal ways that we build community and camaraderie, it’s also easy to see how a community knit together in this way can be exclusionary — in fact, that was part of what the biochemists intended with Brighter Biochemistry. Even as we return to our “normal” round of professional social activities, we should keep the openness and flexibility in how we do scholarship and build the communities that we have been forced to adopt.
CAGLE: You note that the tone of the publication shifted from a primarily inward to a primarily outward focus in the mid-1920s. Do you think this played a part in the eventual folding of the journal, or did the tension between wanting to contribute to Brighter Biochemistry and not having the time finally tip towards the latter?
SCHEFFLER: Sometimes, success can look like failure and failure can look like success. Although I could never find a definitive cause for why Brighter Biochemistry ceased publication, I do think it reflects that it had accomplished what the members of the Dunn Institute had hoped for: stabilizing a distinct biochemistry community at Cambridge. I do not, however, think that humor disappeared from the laboratory — it’s just one of the limitations of relying on textual evidence.
CAGLE: Given that journals like Brighter Biochemistry are somewhat rare, what are some other avenues or methods that historians of science might use to study humor in science?
SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry may be unique in how well it was preserved, but I think that it represents a very common activity across scientific communities. Ever since I started studying humor in science however, I’ve found it everywhere. In my current project on the history of biotechnology around Boston, for example, different laboratories produced several humorous newsletters.
I think the issue is not the absence of evidence, but the fact that as historians of science we are not primed to look for it — which was my first experience. I would urge others to spend time in the ephemera folders of their scientists, read texts such as award speeches or retirement tributes, scrutinize announcements in professional journals, and pay attention when the scientists and others we interview try to tell jokes. Very often this can reveal something about the serious side of science.
Welcome to the October 2020 issue of the HSS Newsletter, just in time to coincide with our first ever Virtual Forum. It is not everyday, or even every year, that history or historians of science are recognized beyond our community, so it was especially gratifying to lead this issue with an article about just that, a commemorative coin in honor of Rosalind Franklin and her crucial x-ray photograph of DNA. We hear from graduate students and early career historians of science about the importance of unionization and from folks in our community who have taken the paths less travelled in their careers. Despite the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, HSS continues to go about its activities as can be seen in our regular columns. We have a letter from a reader and last, but not least, a list of books to read and films to watch in these times of continued lockdowns.
We are excited to announce that registration to our joint HSS and SHOT 2020 Virtual Forum is now open!
Please go to our Registration Form. Registration will be processed via the OpenWater conference platform. After successfully registering, you will receive a confirmation email.
To log in to the meeting website, click on the “Login” link. Enter the email address you used to register. You will be emailed a link that allows you to log in. Unless you clear your browser, you should only need to log in once. Please note that for security purposes, there will be a delay before you can log in to the meeting website. If you receive an error that your log in cannot be found, your registration is still under review and you need to try logging in again later.
Registration fees (regular: $75; discount rate $25) include access to all SHOT and HSS programs and provide closed captioning service and other features to enhance accessibility. We face high costs for this joint virtual conference, paying for the online platform, live technical assistants, plus captioning for enhanced accessibility. Therefore, we have introduced a third, so-called “institutional tier,” which is the full rate for participants who can get their registration fee covered by a university, department, or institution. Accordingly, if your institution will reimburse you, we ask you to please register at this full rate of $150 US. This will help us to cover our high costs, while allowing us to offer a discounted rate and grants for graduate students to make the meeting as broadly accessible as possible.
Please visit our Preliminary Program for the latest updates.
The HSS 2020 Virtual Forum aims for live delivery, unless there is an extenuating circumstance for a pre-recorded talk. If at all possible, please make sure to be available for questions during the discussion time of your session. See our guidelines for pre-recording talks.
Terms and Conditions
By virtue of registration, all Virtual Forum participants consent to abide by our Terms and Conditions. Please read them before the meeting.
What time will the meeting take place?
Sessions will run from 8-10 Oct, with the HSS Business meeting on 11 Oct. (SHOT sessions will take place on 9-10 Oct.) Most sessions will start at 11:0 am EDT as we try to accommodate as many time zones as possible. Since some sessions will be recorded, people will be able to go back and view these at their convenience, up to a week after the forum.
Are HSS and SHOT meeting together?
Yes! And your registration will give you access to both meetings (live and recorded). We are using a common meeting platform to ease your travel from one meeting to another. Please note that SHOT is opting for a shorter meeting period, 9-10 October.
Will the sessions be live?
Yes, for the most part. And with any live performance, there will be problems, so please bear with us. We plan to record many of the live sessions, which will be available after the meeting for a limited time.
I’m exhausted with Zoom. What will the sessions look like?
We plan on 1-hour sessions with a 30-minute break in between. Presenters will be asked to adjust their talks for a virtual environment and to hold to a strict time line.
I live for the HSS business meeting. When will that take place?
The annual business meeting, which is required in our bylaws, does not have to occur at the same time as the virtual meeting, but tradition dies hard so it is scheduled on Sunday morning, as is our custom: 11 Oct from 11-12 EDT.
I am not sure if I am registered. How can I tell?
You should have received a confirmation email with the subject, “The Joint HSS/SHOT Virtual Forum Registration Confirmation”. Registration is available on the Virtual Forum website.
I’m registered. Now, how do I log in?
Click “Login” on the Virtual Forum website. You will be asked to provide the email with which you registered. Click “Sign in” and you’ll receive an email with a link that will log you in automatically. Note that there may be a delay between when you register and when you can log in to the system. If you receive an error that your email address was not found, please try again later. Additionally, when you’re logged in, the sidebar will show “Welcome << Your Name >>” and give you the ability to update some information.
Where Do I Find an Invoice?
Unfortunately, invoices aren’t available from the OpenWater system. Please contact us to have an invoice emailed to you.
Does it matter what kind of browser I use for the meeting?
No. OpenWater can be used on all modern browsers and operating systems. For best results, OpenWater recommends using Google Chrome.
Our call for the Authors’ Book Pitch will close on Oct. 1 — you have a few more days to submit your 3-minute video.
We look forward to seeing you at our first virtual HSS conference!
We are excited to share the preliminary program for the HSS 2020 Virtual Forum from October 8-11. The HSS Virtual Forum is co-hosted with SHOT. (See SHOT’s preliminary program)
Registration will open soon. The registration fee will be $75 US (regular attendance) and $25 US (attendance for graduate students, retirees, and lower income participants). The institutional tier for participants who have support to pay the full rate will be $150 US. Registration includes access to all HSS and SHOT programs and provides closed captioning service and other features to enhance accessibility.
The HSS/SHOT 2020 Virtual Forum will be held on the OpenWater video conferencing system, which uses Zoom. Further information will be provided on the registration page.
Call for Submissions
HSS is getting ready for the 2020 Virtual Forum from October 8-11, 2020. Our program will be published shortly.
The HSS 2020 Authors’ Book Pitch is a central feature of our Virtual Forum. At a time when in-person interaction and exchange is limited, the Authors’ Book Pitch provides a platform to share new and exciting scholarship. Everyone who has registered for the Virtual Forum and published a monograph or edited a collective volume in the history of science, technology and medicine in 2019 or 2020 is warmly welcome to participate!
How It Works
If you plan to attend our meeting and have published a monograph or edited a collective volume in the field of history of science, history, and medicine (broadly construed) in 2019 or 2020, we invite you to
- self-record a short, three-minute video about the book (see instructions below).
- upload your video on a cloud storage service of your choice (Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, or your institutional cloud storage service.)
- copy the shareable link to the video file that your cloud storage service will give you.
- provide the link and other information via the HSS video upload form no later than October 1, 2020
Our HSS video upload form will also ask you to provide:
- a transcript in doc, docx, or txt format, or a link to such a transcript. If you provide the transcript itself, this will be made available for a limited time during and after the conference, and may be available for download. If you prefer to offer a transcript available only during your presentation, please send the link on the upload form, and also provide the link for your audience during your presentation. Offering a transcript will assist audience members who require more time to process the information or would like to return to certain points and thus enhance genuine and engaged scholarship.
- a short blurb (twitter-length) that will serve as the title/teaser for your pitch in our Authors’ Pitch playlist.
- a link to your publisher’s book web page (and, if applicable, discount information)
Your video will be displayed on the HSS Virtual Forum Platform during and for a limited time after the conference. All video will be deleted after we close the event platform. All authors must register for the meeting. Please note that HSS will not provide video editing. Videos must be upload ready. Videos longer than three minutes will not be displayed.
Instructions for Production
Structure and Content
The format of your short book presentation is deliberately simple. In order to help structure your presentation, please answer those of our five questions that you can speak to with ease. You don’t have to keep to the exact wording – take our questions as an offer to keep it basic, crisp, and easy to follow. Your HSS audience will browse through many of our Authors’ Pitches. Make yours memorable! Be clear, light-hearted, and engaging.
- What’s the title of your book, and the tale behind it?
- Whom of your actors, objects, or sources surprised you the most?
- What are your book’s main arguments and how do they stand out/fit in?
- Which chapter would you recommend us to read first?
- Why should your book be on desks and bedside tables far and wide?
In order to make for an engaging recording, please consider our instructions for recording at home/on your own:
- Start the video with a slide of your book cover or show a copy of your book. The cover/material object of your book is important for people to remember what you say.
- Choose a spot with a lot of (day)light. The source of light must not be behind you. At the same time, please do not sit in bright sunlight as this will overexpose your face.
- Be mindful of your background—it should be quiet and in light colors. A bookshelf in the background is also suitable.
- Ensure you are seated at an angle from the camera so that glasses do not reflect light, which can obscure the viewer from seeing your eyes. At the same time, try and stay in the middle of the screen.
- Your environment should be as quiet as possible: no humming refrigerators, washing machines, traffic noise, pets making sounds, etc. Close all doors and windows.
- To reduce reverberation, choose a location with plenty of furniture and few smooth surfaces. Fabrics swallow reverb, so carpets, curtains, and couches are beneficial.
- If you record on your computer, be aware that the typing on the keyboard and clicking of the mouse will also be heard and thus recorded—if possible, try to avoid it.
- If you record on your computer and you have an external audio recording device (such as an external microphone or headphones), use that to record your presentation, as it usually has better audio quality.
- You can also record your presentation by using a digital single-lens reflex camera or your cell phone. These devices usually have better in-built cameras than computers.
- Finally, always test your setup before the actual recording.
We look forward to learning about your latest work!
Soraya de Chadarevian, Christine von Oertzen
HSS 2020 program co-chairs, and the Virtual Forum Committee
For any questions, please use our contact form
HSS is planning a Virtual Forum from October 8-11. This event will not replace our in-person meeting we had planned for this fall with SHOT in New Orleans. This in-person joint meeting with SHOT is now postponed. It is planned to take place in New Orleans in late November 2021. Everyone who has been accepted to the 2020 meeting (as published in our 2020 HSS program in May) may find further instructions about their options to present next year.
For this year’s HSS 2020 Virtual Forum, the HSS Executive Committee has worked closely with the HSS Council and the program meeting co-chairs. To re-envision the meeting and deal with all aspects this involves in a swift and transparent manner, we have formed a Virtual Forum Committee (VFC), drawing on expertise from many of our committees. In order to make this meeting a success, we will also be depending on volunteers for technical assistance before and during the meeting. If you are willing to help, please contact us.
Together with the VFC, our 2020 program co-chairs Soraya de Chadarevian and Christine von Oertzen are preparing for an exciting HSS virtual event that keeps with the agenda of a joint endeavor with SHOT. At the same time, our Virtual Forum will speak to the current moment, discuss themes of broad interest, and address urgent matters that affect our members and the society at large.
The preliminary program is now published. Registration and additional information will be available soon. Our 2020 Virtual Forum follows a new format. It will run for approximately five hours each day. Sessions will be shorter with more breaks in-between. We will have only a few concurrent sessions. The meeting will be mainly live-streamed, with some features available for accessibility. For those who cannot participate in real-time, playback recordings will be available for attendees for a limited time. As usual, dependent care grants will be available for which you can apply when you register for the meeting. Registration details will be posted with the program next week.
The HSS 2020 Virtual Forum will draw on select sessions from our exciting 2020 program published in May. Among the few sessions that we were able to include, the Virtual Forum will feature sessions that speak to the general themes of the meeting and seem most suitable for the virtual format. Additionally, the program will include sessions organized by Special Interest Groups and by various HSS constituencies. The latter consist of a series of newly curated events in response to the global pandemic, social and racial injustice, and the economic outcomes that affect members’ jobs and education.
We are confident that this will be an experience that will be of value and interest to many HSS members. And we are taking this opportunity as a learning experience as we plan for what will likely be a ‘new normal’ of holding hybrid meetings.
Dear Friends of the HSS,
Back in May, we made an unusual request. The current pandemic was upending many of our members’ lives, and we asked for your support. Your enthusiastic response enabled us to aid many students and independent scholars, helping them take care of basic needs, such as rent, to more advanced challenges, such as replacing lost research funds. We believe that this support aligned with our mission – “To foster interest in the history of science” – and since the pandemic is still with us, we are renewing our call for help.
The system that we used last time to distribute funds – a five-member committee, with representatives from Council, from the Development Committee and from the Finance Committee – worked well and we will continue with that model. Because the Society’s finances have been shaken by these events, we will only award amounts based on donations we receive in response to this appeal. Through this unique program, we especially hope to help those who are early in their careers, as well as those whose future in the history of science has been dimmed. If you are able to give any amount, please go to this link: http://weblink.donorperfect.com/pandemic-emergency-fund. (If this link does not work, you may give through the University of Chicago Press site: https://subfill.uchicago.edu/JournalPubs/Donation.aspx?webpub=isi. Simply write “Pandemic Fund” in the note field).
And if you are one of those members in need, you may go to this link to request help: https://hssonline.formstack.com/forms/pandemic. We will accept applications through 18 September 2020. If you are not an HSS member, we will deduct the membership dues from any award. Scholars who reside in non-OECD countries, will be eligible for our Sponsor-a-Scholar program (see https://hssonline.org/membership/sponsor-a-scholar-program/ for details).Please remember that our funds are limited, but we will help as best as we can. All applications reviewed by the committee will be anonymized.
Thank you for your membership.
Jan Golinski, HSS President
Jay Malone, HSS Executive Director