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.

Unicorn or Narwhal? Linnaeus makes the rules

Lorraine Daston, 22 February 2024

Linnaeus accepted the evidence of the astonishing specimens sent to him from far and wide as well as what the microscope revealed of the life teeming in a drop of water. The same Linnaeus who made short work of hydras and unicorns embroidered his own field notes with fanciful mythological references.

Lumpers v. Splitters: 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...

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...

Are you having fun today? 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,...

Visitors! Danger! 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...

A general rule about rules is that one rule breeds another rule developed to catch an exception to the first rule, and so (potentially) ad infinitum, until there are so many darn rules that nobody can...

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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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