25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology

by Thomás A. S. Haddad, University of São Paulo, Brazil

In the last week of July 2017, about a thousand historians of science, technology, and medicine gathered in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro to attend the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology (ICHST). This is the largest and longest-standing international event of the profession, having first taken place in 1929, in Paris. For a long time it was named the International Congress of History of Science, with Technology being accorded pride of place in the event’s title in the 2009 Budapest edition. Up until the 1977 Edinburgh congress, it was held on a triennial basis (with a bitter interregnum between 1937 and 1947, due to the deteriorating conditions that led to World War II and its subsequent unfolding). Since then, it has become a quadrennial affair. Despite its long history, the Congress had occurred outside of Europe only six times up until now: Jerusalem, 1953; Ithaca, New York, 1962; Tokyo, 1974; Berkeley, California 1985; Mexico City, 2001; and Beijing, 2005. In 2017 it was held for the first time in a South American country, hosted by the Brazilian Society for the History of Science (SBHC, in the Portuguese acronym).

The origins of the ICHST coincide with those of the International Academy of History of Science, which took its first steps in 1928, during the International Congress of Historical Sciences in Oslo. Led by Aldo Mieli, a now legendary group of scholars, including the likes of George Sarton, Charles Singer, Abel Rey, Karl Sudhoff, and Henry Sigerist, constituted a committee that was to put up the first congress of history of science in the following year, going on to formally found the Academy in 1932. This happened after the successful second congress, held in London the year before. The London edition would also acquire enduring fame, mostly due to the lively discussions brought about by Soviet scholar Boris Hessen’s thesis on “the social roots of Newton’s Principia,” which was presented there.

25th ICHST Opening Ceremony

Opening ceremony of the 25th ICHST, 23 July 2017. From left to right: Luiz Carlos Soares (Chair of the LOC), Ronald L. Numbers (Chair of the IPC), Efthymios Nicolaidis (DHST, President), Catherine Jami (DHST, Secretary-general), Nísia Trindade Lima (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, President), Christina Barboza (SBHC, President), and Heloísa Bertol Domingues (Museum of Astronomy, Director).
(Image credits: Joana Coimbra/SBHC)

In the aftermath of the war, the new institutional framework of international relations started to be designed and put to work. UNESCO was founded in late 1945, and it immediately started to look for partnerships with previously existing international federations of scientific and learned societies. One of the main players was the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU, now simply International Council for Science), which existed since 1931. It was Joseph Needham and Armando Cortesão who, acting in the name of UNESCO, brokered an agreement between the ICSU and the Academy in order to found a federation of national history of science societies that would join the former and operate under the auspices of UNESCO. The Academy itself could not do the job, since it was mainly an association of individuals, not countries, but was to remain a counseling body to the newly formed International Union for the History of Science, which officially came into being in 1947, taking over the (re)organization of the international congresses.

Separate developments led to the establishment, in 1949, of a similar federation of national philosophy of science associations, the International Union of Philosophy of Science. In 1956, a merger between the history of science union and the younger philosophy of science one was agreed upon, and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science was born. The parent bodies took, from then on, the names Division of History of Science and Division of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Both groups would later incorporate Technology in their titles.

Thus, it is the DHST and its former avatars that have been organizing the ICHST since 1947. In order to do so, the DHST partners with the national history of science societies or committees that make it up, of which there are nowadays over 40. The Brazilian Society, SBHC, presented its successful bid to host the 25th ICHST in the General Assembly of the DHST that took place during the previous congress, held in Manchester in July 2013. From then on, a huge effort was put up by the SBHC and the DHST to lead the way to the 2017 Rio de Janeiro congress. A Local Organizing Committee (LOC) was formed in late 2014, under the leadership of Luiz Carlos Soares, professor of history of science at the Federal Fluminense University and the Federal University of Rio the Janeiro, as well as past president of the SBHC. He was joined by two dozen historians of science, technology, and medicine from a number of Brazilian universities and specialized research institutions (the field has been growing in the country in the last two decades). Two other presidents of the SBHC also served in the LOC: Márcia Regina Barros da Silva (University of São Paulo; SBHC president 2014-2016), and Christina Barboza (Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences, Rio de Janeiro; SBHC president 2016-2018). The crucial and thorny matter of finances fell upon Gisele Sanglard (from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio, and SBHC treasurer since 2012). The LOC worked in continuous coordination with the DHST officers, above all with then president Efthymios Nicolaidis (National Hellenic Research Foundation, Greece), president-elect Michael Osborne (Oregon State University, USA), and secretary-general Catherine Jami (CNRS, France).

An International Program Committee (IPC) was also assembled along with the LOC. Chaired by Ronald L. Numbers (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), the IPC was formed by 29 scholars from more than a dozen countries. Its main responsibilities were threefold. The first one was evaluating proposals of symposia to be held in the ICHST. For a long time, it has been established practice that the bulk of papers to be delivered in the congress should be part of thematic symposia proposed by scholars from at least two different countries and approved beforehand by the IPC. A symposium proposal must state a clear-cut question or theme to be tackled by its participants, who should also be tentatively named in the proposal. Besides spontaneous proposals from the worldwide community of historians of science and technology, the DHST mandates that the thematic commissions it sponsors also organize symposia. These commissions include the Scientific Instruments Commission; the Commission on the History of Physics; the Commission on Women and Gender in Science, Technology and Medicine; and ten others at present. (There are also other bodies, such as the International Commission of History of Mathematics, and the Commission on the History and Philosophy of Computing, that are co-sponsored by the DHST and different organizations, which are also expected to hold symposia during the ICHST.) In the end, the IPC approved around 110 such symposia, covering a broad variety of themes.

The second task of the IPC was the evaluation of paper abstracts that were submitted outside of any of the aforementioned thematic or commission symposia, the so-called stand-alone papers. Almost 400 such abstracts were proposed, and about 300 were accepted by the IPC for presentation. They were subsequently gathered in 50 thematic clusters, ranging from “Chinese, Indian, and Islamic Classical Medical Traditions” to “Materials and Military Technology in the Modern Era,” passing through “Neuroscience in the Twentieth Century,” “Women and Gender,” and much more.

Sivasundaram Plenary Talk

Sujit Sivasundaram’s plenary talk.
(Image credits: Joana Coimbra/SBHC)

Finally, the IPC was also responsible for approving the LOC’s proposals of plenary lectures and panels, which occurred on each of the seven days of the Congress. From the opening speech of Marcos Cueto (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro), titled “Trajectories and Challenges of History of Science in Latin America,” to the closing lecture by Olival Freire Junior (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil) on “Scientific Exchanges between the US and Brazil in the 20th Century: Cultural Diplomacy and Transnational Movements,” there were also plenary talks by Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University, USA) on “Truth, Trust and the Methodological Fetishism,” Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge, UK) on “Islanding in the History of Science,” and Alan E. Shapiro (University of Minnesota, USA) on “Newton’s Methods in His Optical Investigations,” besides multiple-speaker panels on “Science, Technology, and Medicine between the Global and the Local” (incidentally, this was also the congress general theme, proposed by the LOC back in 2014), and “The ICHST and the Future of History of Science, Technology and Medicine Studies in the Global South.” This varied array of themes and speakers testifies to the growing diversity of the field, and was one of the highlights of the Rio congress.

In the end, besides the plenary activities, the quality and importance of the Congress are to be found ultimately in the almost one thousand papers that were presented within the symposia or in the stand-alone clusters. The Manchester ICHST of 2013 had raised the expectations of the international community, with its record-setting attendance of about 1,800 scholars. The 25th ICHST fell short of this mark, gathering exactly 981 participants. Nevertheless, the tougher conditions of the world economy, including generalized funding shortages for research, together with the fact that usually the bulk of attendees come from European countries (whose travel to Brazil may be quite expensive these days), render this figure all the more remarkable. There were, in total, 58 countries from six continents represented in Rio, and the Congress provided an opportunity for the DHST to re-establish contacts with national committees and societies that had been distant for years, and to invite countries that had never been represented in the organization, such as Tanzania and Uruguay.

The Rio Congress was also the occasion for a number of prize award ceremonies in several fields of the profession, such as the Kenneth O. May Prize of the International Commission on the History of Mathematics and the International Committee on the History of Technology best article and best book prizes. Also, it was the fourth time that the DHST awarded its Prize for Young Scholars, of which the 2017 winners were Mario Cams, for his PhD dissertation “Companions in Geography: Maps, Instruments and the Mapping of Qing China (c. 1685-1735)” (University of Leuven), Andrew Stuhl, for “Empires on Ice: Science, Nature, and the Making of the Modern Arctic” (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), Elena Serrano Jerez, for “Science for Women in the Spanish Enlightenment (1753-1808)” (Autonomous University of Barcelona), Layne Karafantis, for “Under Control: Constructing the Nerve Centers of the Cold War” (Johns Hopkins University), Andreas Sommer, for “Crossing the Boundaries of Mind and Body: Psychical Research and the Origins of Modern Psychology” (University College London), and Amir-Mohammad Gamini, for “Qutb al-Dīn Shīrāzī and his Role in the Science of Hay’a” (Iranian Institute of Philosophy), who also received the Ihsanoglu Prize for best contribution to the history of science in an Islamic society. With one single exception, all awardees were present and had the opportunity to deliver plenary talks on their work. The range of themes once again reflects the vitality of present-day research in the history of science and technology.

Combining funding from the registration fees with grants from Brazilian federal agencies and research institutions, the LOC was able to honor all of its commitments, despite a steep devaluation of the Brazilian currency that had taken place since 2015. More than thirty students and young scholars from abroad received full support for accommodation expenses, not to mention the invited speakers and prize winners. It is important to note that the ICHST has been the main source of funds for the activities of the DHST in the years between each congress, which include the sponsorship of its commissions and the seed money for the next edition (which will take place in Prague in 2021).

Museum of Earth Sciences

Entrance of the main lecture room, Museum of Earth Sciences.
(Image credits: Joana Coimbra/SBHC)

The city and the venue of the congress itself were also high points of the 25th ICHST. Rio de Janeiro is a former capital of Brazil, with a history dating back to a sixteenth-century Portuguese settlement. Besides its famed natural wonders, the city boasts a large number of cultural and scientific institutions. Congress participants had the opportunity to visit the nineteenth century Botanical Garden, the Brazilian National Library (whose collections trace their origins to the Royal Library of the kings of Portugal), the country’s first Natural History Museum and Astronomical Observatory, the fine collection of scientific instruments of the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences, and the premises of Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a world-renowned center for research on tropical diseases and public health. The main congress venue was a centenary building of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, one of the oldest and largest research universities in Brazil.

Nevertheless, Rio is also a city with undeniable, deep contrasts. It carries the weight of a long colonial past, of having been one of the main hubs of the Atlantic slave trade for centuries, and of successive waves of authoritarian modernization projects. But for the same reasons, it has been, and still is, a stage for all kinds of social struggles and intellectual vigor. Connecting Brazil to itself and to the world, it embodies, in its very fabric, the intersection of historical scales that was suggested by the theme of the Congress, all the way from the local to the global.