Reports from the York STS lecture series

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Reports from the York STS lecture series
Lina Pinto, graduate student at York University

The second session of the STS Seminar Series at York University took place on October 8th 2013. Nicolas Langlitz, from The New School for Social Research (New York, USA), gave a talk entitled “Philosophy in the Sleep Lab”. He defines neurophilosophy as a trading zone between neurology and philosophy, and dreams as boundary objects. By doing ethnographic studies at a sleep lab Langlitz rescues the importance of the philosophical insight, in connection to neurology, to draw broader conclusions about the experiences and observations taking place in those spaces.

On October 15th 2013, Nicole Nelson (Social Studies of Medicine, McGill) presented the results of her ethnographic research conducted at behavioral genetics labs to faculty and students from York University.  In her talk, entitled “Containing Complexities: Experimental Practice in an Animal Behavior Genetics Laboratory”, she argued that behavioral geneticists see themselves as managers of complexity. Since behavior is regarded as highly complex, laboratory breakdowns related to behavior are addressed - managed - in a different way than breakdowns related to instruments or machines. Untangling the complexity of behavior would contribute to a better understanding of the meaning of contemporary behavioral genetic research.   

The conference entitled “Adventures in History of Science: Maps, Marco Polo, and other Curiosities” took place on October 29th at York University. 16 people, including students and faculty members, participated in Benjamin Olshin’s talk about the study of Marco Polo’s maps. Olshin started his talk explaining that his work in cartography allowed him to reconcile a very broad diversity of interests in science, traveling, history and languages. Particularly, the maps of Marco Polo, which are privately owned by a family in New York, became a “gold mine” for his work in history of science. No other historian had had access to that material and the analysis of the maps and their inscriptions in multiple languages allowed Olshin to draw highly controversial and politically loaded suggestions about the time that Europeans became aware of the existence of certain territories. The study of Benjamin Olshin on Marco Polo’s maps is a great example of the richness that can be found along the journey undertaken by historians of science.

On November 12th 2013, Jane Maienschein, Director of the Center of Biology and Society at Arizona State University (USA), gave a talk at York University entitled “Embryos Under the Microscope: A History of Science in Society”. She distinguished two notions of embryo – a “public embryo” and a “biological embryo” – that are very different from each other and problematic in the context of policy and law about the use of human embryonic stem cell in research. Maienstein presented scientific evidence to demonstrate, from a biological point of view, that human embryos (earliest stages of development, from the time of first cell division and up to 8 weeks) lack the conditions defining personhood – individuality, autonomy and integrity. She claims that policy and law regarding the human embryonic stem cell research should be, at least, consistent with biology and avoid presenting or considering embryos as if they had personhood.

On November 26, 2013, Etienne Benson (Assistant Professor at the Department of History and Sociology of Science of the University of Pennsylvania – USA) gave a talk entitled “Mediating Animals: Surveillance and Simulation in Animal Ecology” at York University. He showed how the visual representation of home-range – the space in which an animal lives and moves – has changed over time in accordance with the development of new technologies for animal tracking. Benson argued that those representations have become less associated with the landscape and more abstract, which is supported by a higher input of quantitative data that are extensively analyzed through statistics. Benson also presented the new field of Movement Ecology, which studies the displacement of animals from birth to death. Data about time and location are being collected in a database called Movebank, which resembles in many aspects genomic databases. Benson claimed that the approach used to build Movebank is reductionist because it only provides information about time and location, leaving outside important variables such as behaviour; however, Movebank has proved to be valuable and useful to design conservation strategies around the world.  

The 2013-2014 STS Seminar kicked of its dynamic second half with a talk by Dr. Anne Milne, assistant professor in the department of english at U of T Scarborough, on Tuesday January 21, 2014. Dr. Milne is an ecocritic specializing in restoration era and eighteenth-century british literature. In her talk, "Containments: Ecologies, Technologies, and Animal Environments 1780-1830", she analyzed the role of language and particularly the use of metaphors not only in shaping the relations we have with instruments, but also the ways in which instruments are manufactured, manipulated and used. By investigating instruments from the period between 1780 and 1830, Milne revealed connections between physical forms and metaphors. She explored, for example, the structure of a leaf hive to reveal connections between its leaves and the leaves of a book, giving rise to a new relationship to this object and the ways it is used to manipulate and understand nature.

On February 4th, 2014 the STS Seminar Series at York University continued with a talk by Cornelius Borck from the University of Lübeck. Dr. Borck has a wide range of research interests, including research aesthetics, neuro-philosophy and the blurred boundaries between scientific and artistic practice. He is also interested in the ways in which new technologies change both how neuroscience is practiced and how neuroscientific research is disseminated to the general public. In his talk entitled "How We May Think: Imaging and Writing Technologies Across the History of the Neurosciences" he analyzed instruments and particularly images that have historically been used in neurosciences to make sense of the brain. From electroencephalography recording to the human brain project, the field of functional imaging, or the connectome project, neuroscientists have gone through a process of translation and the creation of metaphors to produce images that generate complex and multidimensional understandings of our thinking organ. With the development of new instruments to measure the activity of the brain, neuroscientists have also increasingly relied on software developers to manage the large amounts of data that are being produced and build even more elaborated images of the brain. Thus, although those images are believed to be closer to the reality, the imaging process itself has become more and more artificial. Finally Borck pointed out that neuroscience has followed a pathway that has been shaped by the availability of technologies, but it is not always clear and not usually questioned if that track, which is determined by technology, is the good one to follow or not.