Creating and Changing Scientific Institutions

“George Stokes and the Royal Society’s editorial and refereeing processes, 1853-1885: the data”

Aileen Fyfe (University of St Andrews)

The Royal Society of London was one of the learned societies which incorporated refereeing into the editorial practices of its journal publication during the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, the use of confidential, written referee reports for some papers was well-established for the Philosophical Transactions. But which papers were sent to referees? How many referees? And who were the most influential decision-makers? Previous scholars have examined the history of individual papers published (or not) by the Society. In this paper, we attempt to sketch out the bigger picture, and to look beyond the formal guidelines (as previously examined by one of us), at the actual editorial practice. From 1853, the secretaries of the Royal Society of London maintained a ‘Register of Papers’, recording the fate of every paper read to the Society, including referee names, dates and final decisions. We have been analysing this data computationally, with a focus on the period of secretary-ship of the physicist George Stokes. We will present a social network analysis of the people who were active in Royal Society publishing, as authors, referees and ‘communicators’; consider what we can learn from the statistical patterns in the data; and reveal some intriguing differences of practice between the biological and physical sciences.

[Note, we would like also to present a poster with the visualisations of the data; and it would be ideal to have presented the paper before the poster session, to facilitate discussion of the poster.]

“The convoluted road towards the Metre Convention”

Frans van Lunteren (Leiden University/ Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

On 20 May 1875 representatives of seventeen nations signed an international treaty, the Metre Convention, in Paris. Its aim was the replacement of the existing French metre and kilogram artifacts by new international standards, as well as the establishment of an international Bureau of Weights and Measures and several international organizations associated with the Bureau. The convention was the hard-fought result of difficult negotiations, both during the preceding years and even the preceding days. These negotiations were not merely a reflection of the new balance of power in Europe after the Franco-Prussian war. They also pitted the interests of science against those of commerce, French against German standards of precision, the metric system against the imperial system, and state science against scientific individualism. The French scientists involved were deeply divided over the desirable outcome of these negotiations. The most adamant French opponents of a permanent international bureau found an unexpected ally in Johannes Bosscha, the Dutch secretary of the Permanent Committee that was originally founded to oversee the activities of the intended international bureau. His correspondence provides us a glimpse of the issues at stake.

“Neuroscience Research in the Max-Planck-Society and a Fragmented Appropriation of its Distorted Past - Some Legacies of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society after 1948”

Frank Stahnisch (University of Calgary)

During the founding years of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), there had been several obstacles for a “normalization process” in the contemporary neuroscience field. Beginning with the planning period for the reopening of the former "Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science," which under the chairmanship of Max Planck (1858-1947) took three years after the Second World war had ended, the para-university research society named in his honour was eventually established in 1948. During the postwar period, however, neuroscience as a new interdisciplinary enterprise remained scarcely represented in West-Germany for almost twenty years. There are three major reasons for this development: first, the forced emigration of Jewish neuroscientists after 1933. Second, German university structures had countered interdisciplinary research based on an over–focus on medical research disciplines. And third, the international isolation of German scientists became a major obstacle to the implementation of new research fields. While looking at the time from the creation of the relevant MPIs, 1948, to the establishment of the Presidential Research Program on the History of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society, this paper examines trends and strategies of an appropriation of the MPG’s distorted past. It draws on archival materials from the MPG (Berlin), as well as from specialized institutes in Munich, Frankfurt, and Cologne, while including oral history information from former members of the MPG. The project is aligned with the "Presidential Commission on the History of the Max Planck Society;" and its kind support for this historical research is thankfully acknowledged.

“With Fond Regards from the Doom Boys – Science, Technology, Pessimism, and Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth”

Zachary Loeb (The University of Pennsylvania - History and Sociology of Science)

In 1955, the Princeton Inn was the site of a conference that was ahead of its time. Organized by the geographer Carl O. Sauer, the historian Lewis Mumford, the zoologist Marston Bates, and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, this event brought nearly eighty scholars together to contemplate, as the title of the conference summarized, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.

Attendees at this interdisciplinary gathering discussed how advances in science and technology had allowed humans to alter their world in the past, how they were changing it in the present, and what the consequences would be for the future. And though not all of the attendees were in neat agreement about the significance of “man’s role” or the implications of his “changing the face of the Earth,” the symposium was permeated by a certain woebegone tonality. The conference was ahead of its time, but many of the participants were convinced that humanity was already running out of time – leading one conference attendee to playfully deride others as “doom boys.”

Drawing upon original archival research, this paper emphasizes the ambitions of the conference’s organizers to, as Sauer put it, argue that “science must continue to work humbly within a natural order and its limits.” And though this conference has largely been forgotten, it is still relevant, for the event was a pessimistically prescient one that addressed many of the questions that animate contemporary debates about the Anthropocene.