HSS News – July 2021

Welcome to our new Executive Director!

As we all know from the recent notice that our president Jan Golinski circulated among our members, John Paul Gutierrez has been appointed as the new Executive Director of the HSS. Since JP (as he likes to be called) will only take over after this issue of the HSS Newsletter is put to bed, we will have to wait for the October issue to hear from him about his vision and his plans for HSS. Meanwhile, we extend a warm welcome to JP.

2021-2022 HSS/NASA Fellowship in Aerospace History

Rebecca A. Charbonneau

The HSS/NASA Fellowship Committee, chaired by Omar Nassim and joined by Emily Margolis and Teasel Muir-Harmony, has selected Rebecca A. Charbonneau as the winner of the 2021-2022 HSS/NASA Fellowship. Ms. Charbonneau is a Gates Cambridge Scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge; Richard Staley is her supervisor. Her project, ““Dealing with the World”: Conflict and Cooperation in Ground-Based Space Infrastructure,” addresses scientific internationalism during the Cold War, with an emphasis on international collaboration in radio astronomy between the US and USSR as a major point of inquiry. She focuses on the institutional and individual dimensions of scientific freedom under stress and highlights the role of transnational science as an instrument of both democracy and imperialism.

HSS Election Results

We are pleased to announce the outcome of the 2021 election. First, we wish to thank the Nominating Committee, co-chaired by Elaine Leong and Hannah Marcus, and who were joined by Myrna Perez Sheldon, Marie Thébaud-Sorger, and Charlotte Bigg. We are grateful for the many hours that they devoted to this most-important process. We received over 340 votes (25% of the membership), a percentage that is about 5 points higher than a typical election. We also wish to thank those who agreed to run and who were not elected. It takes courage to put one’s name out there, and we are grateful for that courage.

Council 2022-2024

Monica Azzolini
Rebekah Higgitt
Terence Keel
Alisha Rankin
Harun Küçük

Nominating Committee 2021-2023

Jaipreet Virdi
Victor Seow

Council Delegate 2021-2022

Helen Anne Curry

Vice President (President elect) 2022-2023

Evelynn M. Hammonds

HSS 2021 Sarton Medal

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Professor Emerita in the History of Science and Technology and in Epistemology at the Université de Paris 1—Panthéon-Sorbonne is the recipient of the History of Science Society’s 2021 Sarton Medal, awarded annually to an outstanding historian of science, selected from the international scholarly community. The medal honors a scholar for lifetime scholarly achievement.

Over more than forty years, Professor Bensaude-Vincent has been a highly original and influential scholar who has integrated philosophical and sociological perspectives with historical analyses of scientific ideas, practices, and technologies. Her approach is rooted in a long tradition of French scholarship that is philosophically astute and politically insightful. Her methods and achievements are exemplified in books such as her Paul Langevin: Science et vigilance (1987); Lavoisier, mémoires d’une révolution (1993); History of Chemistry (with I. Stengers, English translation, 1996); Chemistry: The Impure Science (with J. Simon, 2008); and Carbone (with S. Loeve, 2018). Professor Bensaude-Vincent has authored or co-authored at least sixteen books and edited or co-edited another sixteen volumes, including editions of primary texts. About half of her 120 research articles and essays have appeared in English, including in the history of science journals Isis, Annals of Science, and British Journal for the History of Science.

In both her work on the physicist Langevin and on the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, Bensaude-Vincent’s aim is to replace hagiography, at the boundary of memory and history, with critical narrative and analysis that deconstructs the origin and perpetuation of mythic histories and biographies. In their History of Chemistry, Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers move away from triumphalist history toward an account of the construction of scientific knowledge which de-emphasizes heroic discovery in favor of the history of the professions as well as the history of ideas. In Chemistry: The Impure Science, co-authored with Jonathan Simon, she reiterates earlier insights into the categories of “artificial” and “natural,” by way of arguing that the dual essential nature of the chemical sciences is the active production of manufactured objects as well as experience-and-theory based knowledge—in that way less than “pure.” Bensaude-Vincent and Simon extend the notion of impurity to harmful effects that pose ecological, ethical, and political dilemmas. These themes of impure science, technoscience, constructed scientific objects, and science without borders come together in Bensaude-Vincent and Sacha Loeve’s book Carbone, a kind of poetic-philosophical biography of the chemical element Carbon, from the beginnings of life on earth to the threat of global warming.

Bensaude-Vincent’s work is uniquely original and also highly collaborative, including joint projects with colleagues in France, the USA, Germany, and elsewhere. She has directed more than twenty doctoral dissertations at the Université de Paris Nanterre and the Université de Paris 1, often co-authoring publications with students and helping launch careers of younger scholars. Teaching and lecturing positions have taken her to Barcelona, Madrid, Vienna, Bielefeld, and elsewhere, recently including fellowships at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia and the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Bensaude-Vincent is a Chevalière of the Légion d’honneur and a recipient of several other major prizes, as well as an honorary doctorate at the University of Lisbon.

Professor Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent is an engaged intellectual not only in her academic scholarship, teaching, and service but also in speaking to the challenges of the scientific and technological enterprise for the present and future of our society. The 2021 Sarton Medal will be awarded to Professor Bensaude-Vincent during the annual meeting of the History of Science Society in New Orleans, 18-21 November 2021.

Mohandas Towne, Student, history of science 

An HSS@Work Career Profile 

Mohandas Towne

I came to the history of science via an odd path. When I was young, all I cared about was learning. I collected textbooks on just about any subject and was absolutely certain that I would someday have a PhD. What exactly I might study to achieve that lofty goal changed from year to year, but I was sure that I would get there. Unfortunately, the real world did not live up to my expectations. It became apparent soon after high school that I simply couldn’t afford to go to college. I had many people suggest that I go to community college or take out loans, but as it turns out, when you have to work two or three jobs to make rent and groceries, you simply don’t have time for school, and at that time, lacking a degree it was very difficult to get a job that paid better than minimum wage.

Life continued along like that for years, and I began to forget about my childhood ambitions. Then, in 2006, I was introduced to the world of competitive lockpicking. I had never picked a lock prior to that and had no interest in the subject. However, at a “Hackers On Planet Earth” conference I attended in 2006, I happened to meet one of the best lockpickers in the world. He not only taught me how to pick locks but invited me out to the Dutch Open of lockpicking later that year. I won half of my head-to-head matches, shocking no one more so than myself. It turned out I had a knack for it and won the speed-picking competition at the American Open the following year. I soon gained enough of a reputation that I was offered a contract to write a book about lockpicking. While writing a brief introduction on the history of the lock, I found myself regurgitating the history I had been taught, when I suddenly thought “this doesn’t seem right” and decided to do some research. Ultimately, I didn’t finish the book because I spent three years writing a paper positing a new theory for the origin of the lock.

That process was difficult to say the least. Lacking any institutional affiliation, I had to beg and borrow access to journals and other texts and collections from my friends. I once got the library at the University of Vermont locked out of JSTOR for an hour because I had shown up with a long list and an external hard drive and apparently pulled down articles too quickly. Early on in my obsession, I realized that while gaining access to academic publications was incredibly difficult, gaining access to the academics themselves wasn’t so hard. I got into the habit of just reaching out directly with questions, requests for feedback on my work, etc. and was met with enthusiasm, kindness, and advice.

Around that time, I learned about the Ronin Institute, an organization that had very recently gotten off the ground with the express goal of bringing together independent academics. I emailed the founder with the subject line “I am a barista and also an independent academic.” After some vetting, I suddenly found myself part of a community of scholarship for the first time. Not long after joining the Ronin Institute, I learned about the History of Science Society when an acquaintance took me out to lunch to discuss my research and what I wanted to do next. He made it very clear to me that there was a place for me in HSS.

I spent a few years giving lectures and workshops across the country, often at colleges and universities I would have loved to attend. Being a stranger in the halls of academia, just visiting for a moment before I was off to my next talk, wore on me.

The final piece of my journey from deserted dreams to serious scholarship came when the company I work for, Starbucks, announced they would pay for the first bachelor’s degree of any employee through a partnership with Arizona State University. I applied to the anthropology program, as I wanted to gain new perspectives and methodologies to apply to the history of security technologies. Attending college for the first time in my 30s has been incredible for two reasons. First, I was able to fill many gaps in my knowledge. As an autodidact it is difficult to know what you don’t know. Second, I suddenly had access to ASU’s library. Aside from my wife and daughter there is nothing that has improved my life more than having consistent access to an academic library. My output since beginning my bachelor’s degree has increased in both volume and rigor.

While it is unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to complete a PhD, I now feel like I am living out the dream of my childhood self. This winding path has left me with an appreciation for open access journals and an undying love of libraries. I have always wanted to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, but I haven’t always had access to the resources I needed to accomplish that. As a member of the HSS@Work caucus, I only hope that I can be of some use to other scholars working outside of academia, as I have received a great deal of support and kindness in my own history that needs to be paid forward.

More from the July 2021 Newsletter