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Otto Sibum
Coloquios y seminarios de la SCHCT

Une Balance Electrique - Investigating the Material Culture of French Enlightened Rationality
Martes 30 de octubre, 12h

cehic 24/10/2012

CEHIC, Facultat de Ciències, UAB

La setmana que ve ens visita H. Otto Sibum, Hans Rausing Professor d'Història de la Ciència i director de l'Office for History of Science de la Universitat d'Uppsala. Otto Sibum pronunciarà dues conferències convidat per la Societat Catalana d'Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica (IEC) i el Centre d'Història de la Ciència (CEHIC) de la UAB. La conferència a l'IEC el dia 31 inaugura els Col·loquis i Seminaris de la SCHCT per al curs 2012-2013. Hi esteu tots cordialment convidats!

'Une Balance Electrique’ - Investigating the Material Culture of French Enlightened Rationality
DImarts 30 d'octubre, 12h
CEHIC, Facultat de Ciències, UAB

The first talk will discuss the famous Coulomb torsion balance experiment of the late 18th century in its local context. I will demonstrate that it's success in establishing electrostatics in France is not due to the fact that it delivers precise values or relies on a skilled experimenter. But its success relies entirely on the design of this device which perfectly represents French enlightened rationality that was shared by many contemporaries of Coulomb. The instrument was a "mediating machine" (M.N. Wise).

In James Joule's Laboratory: Gestural Knowledge and Scientific Change in Early Victorian Britain
Dimecres 31 d'octubre, 19h
Institut d'Estudis Catalans

This talk is concerned with the relationship between knowledge and science and the role of the human body in scientific knowledge production. It focuses on an early nineteenth-century landmark of scientific change, the birth of thermodynamics, i.e. James Joule's performance of experimental research on the nature of heat. A historical reconstruction based on a new understanding of the relation between knowledge and action demonstrates that Joule’s great discovery has to be reinterpreted to shed new light onto our current understanding of the relation between knowledge and science in early Victorian Culture.

Short vitae
H. Otto Sibum is Hans Rausing Professor of History of Science and Director of the Office for History of Science at Uppsala University since August 2007. Since 2012 he is Directeur d'études invités long durée at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Before he has been Director of Research at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin (1998 – 2007) as well as Research Associate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, UK (1991-1995). He holds a doctoral degree in physics (Dr.rer.nat.) from Oldenburg University (1989) and the habilitation  in history from the TU Braunschweig (2001, habilitation is the German qualification for full professorship). Recent publications:  The Heavens on Earth. Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture (co-edited with David Aubin and Charlotte Bigg). Duke University Press 2010; 'Historians and the Study of Material Culture' – AHR Conversation with L. Auslander, Amy Bentley, H. Leor, H. O. Sibum, C. Witmore. The American Historical Review, vol. 114, no. 5, 2009, 1355-1404;  Science and the Changing Senses of Reality circa 1900. Special volume of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39 (3) Amsterdam...: Elsevier, 2008, 295 - 458. He is the editor of Uppsala Studies in History of Science and Salvia Småkrifter.

Brief historiograhical statement
Historical investigations into what is commonly called material culture immediately challenge the conventional historian’s craft in making sense of literary sources. By means of my own research in the history of science, I have learned that beyond the literary world that represents physical things like a scientific instrument or an experiment, there exists a material world of that past science on which our literary heritage is silent. In order to understand how a physical device worked or what knowledge was required to perform such an experiment, even literary sources like the laboratory notebook or a diary of the past actor do not suffice. They are mostly written for the historical actors themselves, and not for the historians who try to make sense of the past. For example, in one of my studies I was able to show that the visual representations of an experiment by James Joule (which he produced himself and which were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) were not sufficient to replicate the experiment. Furthermore, even his most detailed laboratory notebooks did not provide me as a historian with the key information about the techniques and working knowledge required to perform that experiment. Only through the historiographical approach, called experimental history of science, could I get access to hitherto unrecognized dimensions of past practice.

Hence, for me there is no doubt that we have to distinguish between texts and physical things of the past, if only for the reason that engaging with them requires different sense economies and modes of working that require and prompt cognitive effects. Moreover, I am convinced that this is not just relevant for historians of science; it is equally important for historians in general. But, and this is very important to mention, I do not want to be understood as saying that as a consequence we should simply move our interest away from texts (the software of science) to instruments, laboratory equipment, etc. (the hardware of science). Instead, we should regard this performative approach toward things (like experimenting with past scientific instruments) as a complementary technique within the conventional tool kit of the historian. Texts are still very important, but we have to rethink their exclusive status in providing evidence as much as we have to work hard to develop methods in order to make speak the silent representatives of the past, the working knowledge embodied in physical things.

Sibum, Heinz Otto; L Auslander; A Bentley; L Halevi; and C Witmore. “AHR Conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture.” American Historical Review vol. 114, no. 5 (2009): 1355–1404, p. 1358.