In a word, the History of the Science Society's 2019 annual meeting was hot. Attendees
witnessed, experienced, survived! the highest temperatures ever recorded in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Despite the heat, and mainly thanks to the heroic efforts of the local organizing committe, Utrecht University volunteers, and our resilient attendees, the meeting carried on, with anecdotal evidence and survey results showing this to be one of our most enjoyable meetings to date.
The following State of the Meeting report provides an overview of HSS 2019. It supplies and visualizes data about the meeting's submission process, attendee demographics, meeting-related grants, and meeting satisfaction. The HSS Executive Committee, Council, and Executive Office use this information to organize and improve future meetings, programs, and the Society itself. This report also serves as a record of the annual meeting, including some of its events, like the book exhibit and HSS 2019 Prize Winners.
Below, you will find the 2019 meeting program and abstracts available for download, as well as meeting reports by the 2019 Program Co-Chairs and the Executive Director.
Report of the Program Chairs
The History of Science Society held its annual meeting in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 23–27 July 2019. HSS's first meeting outside of North America took place in the beautiful setting of Utrecht University, situated in the heart of the city, an advantage that no doubt encouraged the large number of attendees, some 771 persons. The opening Plenary Session, organized by Lissa Roberts, set the tone for the meeting, exploring the diverse ways historians of science are engaging with current challenges in society, politics, and the environment around the globe. An opening reception followed in the spectacular setting of the Janskerk.
Over the next four days some 555 speakers and commentators involved in 121 sessions delivered their papers, with an extra day added compared to past meetings, reflecting the tremendous strength and numbers of submitted proposals this year. The program then took in a diverse spread of themes and topics ranging from the history of European entomology to Victorian biometry, Soviet studies of climate change, agricultural sciences, and Africa’s scientific cultures. Flashtalks and Caucus meetings enhanced the simultaneous sessions (twelve this year). The program was truly global in scope, with sessions on the sciences and medicine in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Pacific. There was great interest in the future, not just through real engagements, but also in scientific speculations and science fiction. There was much concern with material culture and practice, or, as Norton Wise put it during his speech accepting the Sarton medal, the history of science has come to be defined by a focus on materiality. Early modern science was well represented in the Utrecht meeting, reflecting a large number of submissions in this area. Sessions explored cultures of early modern experience and experiment, scholarly translations and publishing, and connections between early modern science and artisanry, empire, and medicine in addition to disciplinary developments in astronomy, alchemy, natural history and practical mathematics.
Interest in nineteenth-century physics seemed down from past years, but there was strong interest in forms of mediation and representation in the sciences, in film, literature, visual culture, and sounds. Inside the Domkerk, Utrecht's magnificent cathedral, Anke te Heesen presented an extraordinary Distinguished Lecture highlighting the richness of such an approach, exploring Thomas Kuhn’s project to interview the protagonists of Quantum Physics in the early 1960s. Taking advantage of a new technology, the portable tape recorder, Kuhn imagined capturing the intellectual and social minutiae of the process of discovery. Interviews failed to yield such details but shaped an approach to history that has remained critical in the field. Kuhn was also a touchstone for the Elizabeth Paris Public Engagement Lecture, delivered by Jeroen van Dongen in yet another spectacular setting, Utrecht's Railway Museum.
Besides the remarkable program, everyone will remember this meeting for the exceptionally hot weather. Thursday, July 25 witnessed the highest temperature ever recorded in the Netherlands, of 40.7° C (105° F). Glorious sunshine and tremendous heat abounded, yet the staff and students of Utrecht University (with the help of some impressive air-conditioning) created cool and pleasant conditions inside the meeting rooms, ushering participants to cooler rooms whenever possible and offering a constant supply of fruit-tinged water for refreshment. This was just one example of the constant and kind attention and care given to all of us by the hosts, David Baneke, Bert Theunissen, Ariane den Daas, Odette Jansen and Annemarijn Douwes of the Descartes Centre, for which we are tremendously grateful. We also thank the publishers who revealed the state of the field in book exhibits across a dozen tables in Drift 21. We are especially grateful to Jay Malone and the HSS office for their patient guidance in the process of creating the program and for Jay’s fundamental contributions to making this meeting such a terrific success.
Christine von Oertzen
2019 Programme Co-Chairs
Report of the HSS Executive Director
When the Society first started planning a conference outside of North America, back in 2013, we naturally turned to Utrecht, which was the new site of our editorial office. Because HSS had never met outside the confines of Canada and the United States, we recognized that this would be an experiment; it was a way of altering the variables of our typical meeting to see what worked and what could be discarded as we sought to broaden our international stature. As plans unfolded, so did the variables, so that the 2019 conference was scarcely recognizable to those who faithfully attend HSS.
Time of Year
Since the early 1990s, when we stopped our occasional meetings with the American Historical Association in December of each year, the HSS has almost always met in November. When we first considered meeting in Europe, we recognized that the majority of our attendees would be coming from North America, and we knew that a November conference would be difficult for those trying to juggle the conference with their classrooms and their jobs: a feat that our non-North American colleagues are somehow able to accomplish each year. We thought it would be nice to extend the conference by a day, to allow more time for recovery from long flights and to give people more opportunities to connect, which would be difficult in November. We also wanted to use the facilities at the University, which would save us tens of thousands of dollars in A/V and WiFi costs, and which would not have been possible during the term (our A/V and WiFi bill for Seattle was just shy of $45,000 US). It would also give our delegates the opportunity to experience fully the largest university in the Netherlands and give delegates a sense of what HSS conferences used to be like when we regularly met on campuses.
But a particular challenge in holding a meeting in July is that many sister societies in the northern hemisphere hold summer conferences, and we did not want to interfere with those. We first confirmed that the European Society for the History of Science was not meeting (they convene in even-numbered years), and we also wanted to make sure that we did not overlap with the British Society. We tried to coordinate the timing with the ISHPSSB meeting in Oslo, which proved impossible, but we were able to synchronize the dates with the large quadrennial Division of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which met in Prague in early August. Those dates were perfectly aligned until I receive a panicked message from our local hosts to inform us that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be holding an international congress in Utrecht over our dates and some 45,000 JWs would be in town leaving no hotel space for miles around. We could not move later in August so we moved a bit earlier, to July (this changed proved to have consequences).
Since there was no hotel in Utrecht that could hold our meeting and even the ones with a large number of sleeping rooms did not have conference space, we opted to use space at Utrecht University. Although there are advantages to everyone being in one location for the conference, there are also some obvious drawbacks to spending days in a large corporate structure. The advantages for the large hotel include free meeting space if we meet our sleeping block, and although we did not pay for university space, we did have to rent venues that could hold large crowds for the plenary, the distinguished lecture, and other popular events. These factors turned out to be significant in the post-meeting survey, with attendees commenting on how enjoyable it was to be free of a monolithic structure.
Will anyone come?
Since 2/3 of the HSS membership is located in North America, we worried a great deal about attendance. We had spoken to colleagues at SHOT and 4S, and they reported that their attendance for such meetings did not drop off, that people who typically did not attend their conferences would come. This has proven true with Utrecht. We saw the highest number of abstract submissions in many years, and our attendance not only outdistanced the number who attended last year’s Seattle meeting, it approached in number the large conferences we held in Chicago and in San Francisco.
What, Me Worry?
One of the downsides of changing almost every variable associated with the annual meeting was that my 21 years of experience in organizing HSS was largely useless, which was a recipe for worry. But the angst was misplaced, in large part because of the support we had from the Descartes Center and because the meeting turned out to be a big success. (In our post-meeting celebration, Bert Theunissen, Director of the Descartes Center chastised me lightly for that worry.) Here is what we learned: participants really liked being on a university campus, which should have not been surprising since anyone with a PhD must have some kind of affinity for a university setting. They also enjoyed not being in a big-box hotel, the lovely walks through Utrecht, the character of the meeting rooms, and much more.
Who Was There?
Some 340 attendees of the nearly 800 registrants filled out at least a portion of the survey. 314 rated the meeting as “Very Good” or “Good” with 15 ranking it “Fair” and 3 describing it as “Poor” (8 people skipped this question). As for why they attended, 31% said it was to network with colleagues and 30% replied it was to hear history of science scholarship. Registration data shows that 44% of attendees were at HSS for the first time. 65% of attendees were members. Because it is vital that we gather demographic data if we are to improve the Society’s diversity, we asked questions about gender, age, and employment: 42% of registrants were female, 38% were male, 14% no response, 4% preferred not to answer, 0.3% gender non-conforming, and additional multiple selections. Trying to gather race and ethnicity data continues to be a challenge with over 27% either not responding at all or marking “prefer not to answer.” Of those who did, 59% responded White, 5% Asian or Asian American, 3% chose multiple options, 3% Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin, 1% a race or ethnicity not listed here”, and 0.5% Black or African American.
The post-meeting survey featured an open field where those surveyed were invited to answer the following: Do you have any suggestions for us to pass along to the Descartes Center/Utrecht University team? One of the first comments to come through was this one: “This HSS far exceeded my expectations. Thank you, the hosts, for your incredible hospitality, for preparing every last detail, and for the delicious food, both at the receptions and in the break room. Everyone I have spoken to agrees that this HSS will go down in history!” I’ve no doubt that this meeting will be long remembered, much like those who have served in the military or who have been through any kind of “trial by fire” remember that experience… because Utrecht was hot. How hot was it? The temperature climbed above 100 degrees (40C) the first full day of the meeting, setting a record, and then broke that record the next day. What’s so bad about that? The next comment hints at this in a subtle way: “Unfortunately the heatwave was melting my brain and hence I was physically unable to participate as I intended to do. I think the local team did all what they could do.” One of my favorite comments was “Please install air conditioning hahahahaha.” We did rent portable air conditioners and fans (over $5,000 worth of equipment) but the rooms remained sauna like.
Gallows humor being what it is, some people commented that it wasn't the hottest days of the last 100 years that we experienced, but rather the coolest days of the next 100 years. And here is where my worries are justified. In the US, we simply turn up the air conditioning when it becomes uncomfortable, but many of our colleagues in Europe and elsewhere have no such option at present. We must redouble our efforts for sustainable conferences and we will be working with attendees to foster this mind set.
Finally, a conference outside of our usual North American confines offered many financial challenges, and we relied heavily on sponsors and supporters to help us control expenses. I would like to recognize three in particular: the University of Notre Dame for its hosting of the Executive Office, the National Science Foundation for its support of travel grants for graduate students, independent scholars, and recent PhDs (SES-1656205), and Utrecht University’s Descartes Center. When I first started seeing the prospective costs for the meeting I began to panic, but Bert Theunissen said the expenses would not be a problem, and he has been true to his word. In the near or distant future, when you remember HSS in Utrecht, please also remember that the Descartes Center was central to any fond memory.
HSS Executive Director