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The Opportunities and Challenges of Studying the 20th-Century History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Gerald Aylmer Seminar 2019. Digital and the Archive: Preservation, Research and Engagement

Interdisciplinary Workshop on Evolution and Ecology: “Bringing Science, History and Philosophy Together”

The Opportunities and Challenges of Studying the 20th-Century History of Science, Technology and Medicine 

Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives, Wick, 5 October 2018 

In October 2018, early-career researchers from all over the UK and even Sweden set out to the remote north of Scotland to attend a one-day workshop on studying the twentieth-century history of science, technology and medicine. We started with an unofficial dinner the night before and readied ourselves for a day of HSTM discussion in the Alexander Bain, a pub named after the nineteenth-century Scottish inventor of the fax machine and electronic clock. Discussion and networking with others of similar research interests – one of the big benefits of the meeting – thus got off to a good start.  

On 5 October we gathered in the recently opened Nucleus archive, a highly modern and architecturally striking complex that will eventually house the second-largest archive in the UK. Nucleus’ head archivist, Gordon Reid, introduced us to his workplace, which on closer inspection is less remote than supposed: the town of Wick is connected to the rest of the UK by a train station, a harbour and an airport. As a dual-purpose repository, Nucleus holds both the historical records of Caithness and of the UK’s nuclear industry. With two lorry loads of material arriving each week, the challenge is to amalgamate records from 19 independent archives into one coherent system.  

(photograph: Emmeline Ledgerwood)

The venue was already a highlight in itself and provided an excellent backdrop for our two panels. First up were Rachel Boon (University of Manchester/Science Museum/BT Archives), David Moats (Linköping University) and Annie Gilfillan (University of the Highlands and Islands) who discussed their research in and on different types of archives. The question of secrecy and openness in archival collections emerged as a theme. Rachel illuminated the challenges of classified material in researching institutional histories, David’s study of Wikipedia editorial changes in the first weeks of the Fukushima nuclear disaster highlighted the processes of writing and presenting history, and Annie discussed how the Caithness folk material can abate the darkness of the nuclear archives at Nucleus.  

(photograph: Emmeline Ledgerwood)

After lunch and a quick stop in the sunny cold outside to take a group picture, we moved on to the second panel discussing the use of museum collections. James Inglis (University of St Andrews/National Museums Scotland), Georgina Lockton (University of Leicester/Science Museum) and Laura Volkmer (University of Edinburgh/National Museums Scotland) shared their individual methodologies in approaching objects. James pointed to the value of dismantling old typewriters as a valuable exercise in understanding past technologies, while Georgina spoke about challenging the wider historical community to accept her use of objects as primary historical sources. Laura explained the strategies she has developed for dealing with unfamiliar scientific equipment and reminded us that the people we study often struggled themselves to understand their research.  

Professor Jon Agar, author of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, was up last to give his keynote lecture. Jon presented his paper in memory of Jeff Hughes, who has contributed immensely to the history of science and who had sadly passed away in September. Referring to some of the issues addressed by the panellists, Jon discussed recently released primary sources allowing research on the intersection of political power with nuclear power, such as in Margaret Thatcher’s visits to Dounreay. 

We finished in style at Mackays Hotel. The hotel with its bar and restaurant is located on the world’s shortest street of 2.05m. Discussion of the day’s themes and connecting continued over dinner and, at least for some, a wee dram of Old Pulteney. When in Scotland… 

This event was supported by the AHRC CDP Consortium, the University of Leicester’s School of History, Politics and International Relations, WRoCAH, the BSHS, and the Nucleus and Caithness Archives. It was organised by Emmeline Ledgerwood, Helen Piel, and Linda Ross. 

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Gerald Aylmer Seminar 2019. Digital and the Archive: Preservation, Research and Engagement

The National Archives, Kew, 22 February 2019

On a sunny Friday morning in 2019’s record-breakingly warm February, historians and archivists from all over the UK gathered at the National Archives in Kew to discuss the digital and the archive. In the 21st century, born-digital material – that is, material that originated on a computer or other device – and digitised material increasingly find their way into our archives. Archivists need to think about how to preserve, process, catalogue and make available these new formats, while historians need to re-think their ways of finding, accessing and using these sources.

The Gerald Aylmer Seminar, an annual one-day symposium in memory of Gerald Aylmer (1926-2000), is the perfect place to share ideas, approaches, challenges and solutions to the growing digital influx. “Hybridity” was the central theme: the digital is so far only partial, piecemeal and sporadic in its archival presence.

Given the hybrid nature of archives, processes and methods that require a dialogue between archivists and historians as the providers and users, the seminar’s keynote wasn’t a traditional lecture but rather a conversation. Alice Prochaska of Somerville College, Oxford, reflected on the Past of the digital and the archive; Jane Winters (School of Advanced Study, University of London) discussed their Present; and John Sheridan of the National Archives made us aware the Future’s challenges and opportunities.

Alice reminded us that the digital has in fact been around since at least the 1990s. Digitisation projects helped with the preservation of and access to fragile material. Digitisations also helped reunify dispersed collections in the digital if not the physical world. But there is an ever-increasing need for the historian to be aware of the archivist’s hand in the curation of collections. And while making material available digitally is wonderful in terms of (international) collaborations, it is not a solution to issues around cultural appropriation and restitution: seeing things online often increases the desire to see or have the original. (On a related note, see Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen’s blog on the limitation of working with digitised images.)

In terms of the born-digital, Jane highlighted that there are varying degrees of readiness among archives to deal with the acquisition, selection, preservation and discovery of born-digital archives. The differences are even greater in scholars’ readiness to use these archives. One challenge – and opportunity – is the heterogeneity of data. Yes, there is still a lot of text, but increasingly we see multi-media formats, video, audio as well as things like video games and gifs. Their context is vital in understanding the material historically and preserving this is just one of a myriad of challenges (financial, legal, etc.). At the same time, there are opportunities to experiment as well as to archive voices that have so far often faded without leaving a trace in history.

What does the digital mean for the future archive? John defined an archive as the present’s promise to the future. We need to be aware of the future’s right to have access to our present and their past. (Yet at the same time this right needs to be balanced against the present’s right to privacy!) Artificial intelligence combined with research could lead to the augmented historian, tapping into sources at a scale and reach not possible before. At the same time, the danger of fake data and manufactured sources always lurks in the shadow. Traceable provenance and creators become even more vital. What is needed is a shifting and adapting archival practice to meet the digital world with all its opportunities and challenges.

The following four panel sessions took us, in order, from preservation via research to engagement, concluding with problems and provocations.

Jenny Mitcham (Digital Preservation Coalition) presented us with a case study of working with a hybrid archive: The Marks & Gran Archive at the Borthwick Institute. Next to the traditional paper-based material, the archive came with many floppy disks. On these Jenny found text written with the word processing programme WordStar, popular in the 1980s. She wrote a blog about working with this material and encouraged us all to embrace our archives hybridity. In the Marks & Gran archive, the hybridity helped resolve some of the puzzles of the WordStar files – a paper printout of one of the scripts was found and could be matched to its digital counterpart. That way the mystery of the intended formatting could be solved and extrapolated to other digital files.  

Physically in absentia, James Newman (Bath Spa University) also had a case study for us. Via video presentation he talked about preserving games and, importantly, gameplay. Old videogames can still be played through emulation software which does away with the need for the original consoles and other physical parts that are difficult to preserve. Companies sometimes reissue popular games like Super Mario Bros. There is a problem however. These emulations preserve the games – but not necessarily the gameplay. The original game had its quirks and glitches that all were part of the experience of playing Super Mario Bros. They allowed players to play in unintended ways, tricking the system or getting stuck in levels they are creating themselves by confusing the game. Emulation is therefore a vital part in preserving games but as archivists and historians we always need to consider what exactly is being preserved and if there aren’t other elements to the born-digital material that are more contextual and unintended.

Moving on to research, Ruth Ahnert of Queen Mary, University of London, introduced us to her work with the metadata of the State Papers Archive. A big part of it was data cleansing, such as disambiguation of names and titles, which resulted in the construction of a network of correspondents in Tudor times. Drawing on the data, hubs and networks of power could be drawn out and individuals who acted as bridges between subnetworks could be identified.

Ruth was followed by Rachel Foss from the British Library. Rachel addressed the current set up of the Reading Rooms, which weren’t designed to deal well with hybrid collections or for researchers to move easily between formats. In terms of archival practices, the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department is developing Enhanced Curation to respond to the digital environment. They collaborate with the UK Web Archive to capture related web content when acquiring new archives and collect as much contextual information as possible. This can take the form of interviews with creators, photographs of workspaces or curators capturing their activities during and experiences of acquisitions.

And how can we engage audiences with the digital and digital archives? The afternoon session turned to address this question.

First, Adrian Glew (Tate) highlighted the “Access and Archives” project which funded, among other things, digitisation and engagement. Archival material was transcribed in collaboration with zooniverse (annoTate), the digital and the analogue combined, audiences encouraged to created albums of digitised artworks and more. There was a strong emphasis on reaching different age groups and localities and on using social media. Similarly, Naomi Wells (School of Advanced Study, University of London) shared her experiences of engaging audiences with digital material and working with the UK Web Archive. Her work researches Latin-American communities around the Pueblito Paisa, a market in Seven Sisters which developed a strong online presence when its physical site was threatened. The digital is all-pervasive in everyday life, yet in a workshop organised at the British Library, she also found that for some it is easier to engage with physical objects. This may be in part because of a certain unfamiliarity in using them creatively as engagement objects, and in part because legal restrictions on the full use of the web archive poses some restrictions.

The day closed with three provocations. Jo Pugh (The National Archives) challenged levels of trust in the digital, Kelly Foster (AfroCROWD UK) wondered what we mean when we talk about “openness” and “open access”, while Jo Fox (Institute of Historical Research) asked what historians really know about digital archives versus what they think they know. Do we trust the platforms through which we access data? Do we trust the data on them? Do we trust the people behind them? Is open access really open and accessible or do we need much more radical practices of sharing? How can we link up the new and diverse sources and data sets, develop a shared vocabulary and familiarise researchers with both? Are historians and archivists actually in dialogue or just co-existing?

The following Q&A wondered if there is such a thing as being too open, in how far we need to balance trust with dis-trust in archives/archival collections, and how new skills could be used to challenge existing power structures and foster more critical engagement with digital sources. The provocations proved a very successful way to engage everyone towards the end of a seminar packed full of thought-provoking talks and stimulating discussions! #Aylmer19

This seminar was organised by the National Archives, the Royal Historical Society, and the Institute of Historical Research.

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Interdisciplinary Workshop on Evolution and Ecology: “Bringing Science, History and Philosophy Together”

University of Leeds, 7-8 March 2019

On 5 March 2019, Lucie Laplane, Paolo Mantovani, Ralph Adolphs, Hasok Chang, Alberto Mantovani, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Carlo Rovelli, Elliott Sober, and Thomas Pradeu published an opinion piece in PNAS, the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US. Their title: “Why science needs philosophy”

Both scientists and philosophers by training, the authors summarise that they ‘see philosophy and science as located on a continuum. Philosophy and science share the tools of logic, conceptual analysis, and rigorous argumentation. […] But how,’ they continue, ‘can we facilitate cooperation’ between these academic fields? How indeed.

Laplane and colleagues come up with a set of six recommendations. The first – interdisciplinary conferences:

Make more room for philosophy in scientific conferences. This is a very simple mechanism for researchers to assess the potential usefulness of philosophers’ insights for their own research. Reciprocally, more researchers could participate in philosophy conferences, expanding on the efforts of organizations such as the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology; the Philosophy of Science Association; and the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice.

It is a real shame I only saw this article on 10 March, because I had just returned from such a conference and it would have been great to discuss the points made by Laplane and colleagues!

The #iweeleeds19 workshop had been co-organised by Leonardo Miele, Robert West, Arthur Carlyle and myself. We’re all postgraduate researchers at the University of Leeds – but Leo and Rob are based in the School of Mathematics while Arthur and I in call the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science home.

The idea for #iweeleeds19 grew out of our reading group in which we discuss (in my case, discussed, as I’ve moved to London in the meantime) articles or chapters dealing with evolutionary or ecological topics. Given our diverse backgrounds but shared interests, the sessions benefitted us all and one of the first ones revealed that the concept of “emergence” means very different things in philosophy and physics!

Our two-day workshop aimed at replicating and expanding our reading group sessions, so we invited papers from early career researchers in both the sciences and humanities. They needed to discuss aspects of evolution and/or ecology and be presented in a manner accessible to non-specialists. (We all love our jargon but rephrasing these ideas can be rather illuminating to us as specialists in our own fields too!)

Not only did we get a fascinating range of submissions (do check the full programme & abstracts), we also – rather unexpectedly – had interest from a researcher as far as India! The cost of travelling in the end unfortunately proved prohibitive for her, but others came from European universities and research institutes.

On Day 1, Prof Ivana Gudelj (Exeter) kicked us off with the first keynote of the workshop by introducing us to the interdisciplinary work in her laboratory in which mathematicians and biologists work together. The following panel session saw Ernesto Berrios (Manchester), Simran Sandhu (Leicester) and Susie Cant (Warwick) discuss their research revolving around issues of hypermutators and multi-drug resistance, the modelling of virulence and parasites, and epidemiology – specifically, the first contact measles outbreak in Rotuma. After lunch Gregorio Demarchi (Zürich) asked, what is evolvability?, and Walter Veit (Bristol/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology) talked about the evolution of multicellularity.

These papers sparked an engaged discussion in the afternoon. We all sat together and dissected issues like the validity of modelling: what are the assumptions made? How (much) do models map onto reality – and how important is that? Can you just model for modelling’s sake, or does there need to be real-world applicability? Is there any use for the history and/or philosophy of science for and in science? What is an organism, and related to that, how important and strict are your definitions?

Day 2 started much like Day 1: with a fascinating keynote. This time, Prof John RG Turner (Leeds) took us on a semi-autobiographical tour through the history of evolution and ecology (ecology vs evolution, ecology and evolution, evolutionary ecology?). Panel session number 3 was centred on issues of sex, sterility and altruism. Yvonne Krumbeck (Bath) talked about mating type diversity (how many sexes are there?), Mark Canciani (IAS Research Group, University of the Basque Country) gave us a historical perspective on Bill Hamilton’s thoughts on eusocality and biological altruism, and yours truly (Leeds/British Library) took over the pre-lunch spot with a paper on the priority conflict around the concepts behind biological altruism.

A dynamic last panel saw Giacomo Baldo (Leeds) talk about memory and game theory; Laura Sidhom (Manchester) took us on a journey through ecological communities featuring gut bacteria and – last but not least – Joseph Baron (also Manchester) turned to Turing and with the help of some zebrafish, talked about Turing pattern formations.

We wrapped up the workshop with another general discussion, before letting everyone back into the wild – either in the direction of the pub or the train station…

This event was supported by the University of Leeds Organisational Development and Professional Learning (OD&PL), the School of Mathematics, and the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (PRHS). The Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI) provided their seminar rooms as a venue. It was organised by Leonardo Miele, Robert West, Helen Piel, and Arthur G. Carlyle.

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