Last semester, I took a class on the history of science. There are many interesting themes to be explored there, some of which I hope I can touch on as this semester progresses. But as I sit down to sketch out a plan of attack for this fall’s research, one example in particular comes to mind: D. Graham Burnett’s 2010 book Trying Leviathan.
Burnett’s account focuses on 1818 New York City court case Maurice v. Judd, an otherwise mundane tax case that hinged on whether a whale counted as a fish. Such was the state of science and of taxonomy in 1818 that the question provoked heated dispute within the scientific community as well as outside of it. The debate pitted workaday whalers against disciples of Linnaeus and skeptical publics against experts unused to defending their work to outsiders. In fact, it involved a web of interest groups far more tangled than the simple dichotomies I lay out here.
Still, Trying Leviathan raises some broader questions. How does science -- or any discipline, for that matter -- define itself when put on the defensive? How can experts represent their work to laypeople without inviting confusion, skepticism, or derision? How does any socially constructed system of classification -- taxonomy being just one example -- justify itself?
These are the sort of questions I hope to explore this semester. They are questions, I think, particularly relevant to modern-day experts struggling to justify their work to the public. Defenders of the humanities in a digital age, for one, spring to mind.
Possible sources, too, are legion. As I refine my research topic, I plan to consult newspapers, printed ephemera, and/or personal accounts for descriptions of museums, exhibitions, and/or public lectures on science. In particular, I sense the Newberry’s material on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition may prove useful.
For now, though, I’m keeping an open mind. I retain a soft spot for the history of the book, which I still hope to integrate somehow. Likewise with my passion for music, of which the Newberry has a not insubstantial collection. And as the seminar continues, I may find other topics pique my interest. Whatever the case, I look forward to growing: as a student, as a historian, and as a digital humanist.