Sixth Conference of the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS), Lisbon, 4-6 September 2014

Allan Jones writes:

I was fortunate to be able to attend and present a paper at the Sixth Conference of the ESHS in Lisbon (4-6 September 2014), where the conference theme was ‘Communicating Science, Technology and Medicine’. Academic work on this topic has shifted in the last couple of decades from relatively straightforward story-telling about who said what to whom, when, and how’ to the more intriguing (and contentious) elucidation of how this form of social interaction serves sociological ends, in addition to its ostensible ends. To give just one example, debates about smoking and health in the 1950s and 1960s were not just about smoking and health, but were also part of a larger ethical controversy. Not that the papers at the ESHS conference (of which there were around 400) routinely touched on such incendiary topics.

One of the most interesting papers I heard was Jaume Navarro’s on the demise of the ether. Conventional histories of physics tell how the Michelson-Morley experiments of the 1870s and then Einstein’s theory of special relativity consigned the ether to the dustbin of science, along with phlogiston and vitalism. As always, the reality was more complex. Respectable physicists were still using the term ‘ether’ well into the twentieth century, and radio gave it a new lease of life. Marilena di Bucchianico’s paper in the same session on debates around high-temperature superconductivity fascinatingly showed how leading scientists in the field have completely different conceptions of what an explanation should consist of how it can be arrived at.

My own presentation was more prosaically concerned with a series of BBC radio broadcasts in the early 1930s entitled ‘Science in the Making,’ in which listeners were invited to report their own observations to the broadcasters. My next posting on this blog contains a link to a video of a longer version of the same presentation given at the Open University on 8 September.

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