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Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston, a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, has written on the history of probability, wonders and scientific objectivity.

The Weather Watchers

Lorraine Daston, 3 November 2005

On the morning of 30 April 1865, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, head of the British Meteorological Department, slit his throat. Because Fitzroy had been the captain of the Beagle, which several decades earlier had carried the young Charles Darwin around the world to conduct the research that eventually bore fruit in On the Origin of Species (1859), and because he was a devout evangelical, some...

Why are we so curious?

Lorraine Daston, 23 June 2005

There has probably never been a society that did not erect barriers to certain kinds of knowledge. Moralists since Greek and Roman antiquity have frowned on busybodies who pry into their neighbours’ private lives; medieval Christian theologians condemned necromancers who wanted to discover the secrets of demons; today we fret about state surveillance of citizens and certain kinds of...

Serendipidity

Lorraine Daston, 23 September 2004

On 28 January 1754, Horace Walpole coined a pretty bauble of a word in a letter to Horace Mann, apropos of a happy discovery made while browsing in an old book of Venetian heraldry: Mann had just sent him the Vasari portrait of the Grand Duchess Bianca Capello, and Walpole stumbled on the Capello coat of arms. He thought this accident to be no accident, but rather a special talent of his,...

Charles Darwin

Lorraine Daston, 8 May 2003

Among the icons of science, Newton is admired and Einstein revered, but Darwin is liked. This is rather puzzling on the face of it. His theories concerning organic evolution, and the satellite doctrines that have attached themselves to his name – Social Darwinisms of the political Right and Left, eugenics, robber-baron capitalism, anarchism, sociobiology – haven’t ceased to...

Obliterate the self!

Lorraine Daston, 31 October 2002

‘Objectivity’ is a word at once indispensable and elusive. It can be metphysical, methodological and moral by turns, occasionally in the same paragraph. Sometimes it refers to the ultimate reality as seen from a God’s-eye point of view, sometimes to methods that replace judgments with algorithms, and sometimes to cool detachment from passions and interests.

Cartography

Lorraine Daston, 1 November 2001

The mirror, the map and the photograph have all at one time or another served as emblems of the yearning for a representation so faithful and so complete that it can’t be distinguished from what it represents. Of the three, the map might appear to be the odd one out: the mirror and the photo may be two-dimensional illusions of a three-dimensional reality, and both are notoriously prone...

Is the Gross Domestic Product real? How about the unemployment rate? Or the population of the United Kingdom? These are entities that hover between the realms of the invented and the discovered. On the one hand, they are creatures of classification and calculation, of conventions of coding, modelling and sampling. It is the artifice of definition that makes them cohere – or unravel. Depending on the method by which GDP is reckoned (e.g. sum total of all rents, wages, profits, interest and dividends as against national expenditure on goods and services), or how unemployment is defined (without a job? without a job and actively seeking one?), different numbers result. More disturbingly for common-sense realism, these entities come into being (and sometimes pass away) in specific historical circumstances that don’t satisfy the usual criteria of solidity and permanence for bona fide things in the world. Why did the category of ‘unemployment’ supersede that of ‘poverty’ around the turn of this century? And why are international population and medical statistics so hard to standardise? On the other hand, statistical entities are robust and vigorous: GDP and the unemployment rate guide government planning and affect the outcome of elections. Actuarial statistics, which correlate the risk of car accidents primarily with horsepower in Germany but with the age and sex of the driver in the United States, set the price of policies and are the foundation of vast fortunes for insurance companies. The categories of national labour statistics are only approximately translatable, even among the homogenised economies of the European Community: to be a Beamter or cadre or manager is not just to assume a label, but to take on a distinct persona. If they are not part of the durable furniture of the world, the same everywhere and always, statistical entities nonetheless change the world. They are, as Alain Desrosières puts it, ‘things that hold’.’‘

How to make a Greek god smile

Lorraine Daston, 10 June 1999

‘Wonder,’ Descartes wrote, ‘is a sudden surprise of the soul,’ reserved for what is rare and extraordinary. In his classification, it is the first of the passions, the only one unaccompanied by fluttering pulse or pounding heart. Disinterested but not indifferent, wonder is a cool passion that fixes on objects for what they are, instead of what they are for us. The wonder of wonder consists in the paradox of a cognitive passion: it has all the force of other passions like love or hate, but it helps rather than hinders reason. It is the passion aroused by anomalies, and the anomaly among the passions.‘

Letter
Assuming Mr Hewett means Op. 59, No 2 (one of the three Beethoven quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky, but the one in which the first violin part comes closest to his description), I confess my shock was somethat less than visceral – Letters, 29 July. My ear is however hardly a cultivated one, so I consulted Martin Brody, a composer and music theorist, who found the passage ingenious, but...

Disenchantment

Stephen Greenblatt, 7 January 1999

The closest analogues in the West to Borges’s ‘Chinese encyclopedia’, if not its direct source, are the Wunderkammern, strange collections in cabinets that signalled the...

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