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How to make a Greek god smile

Lorraine Daston, 10 June 1999

Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences 
by Philip Fisher.
Harvard, 191 pp., £21.95, January 1999, 0 674 95561 7
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... 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 Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning 
by Alain Desrosières, translated by Camille Naish.
Harvard, 368 pp., £27.95, October 1998, 0 674 68932 1
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... 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 ...

Saintly Resonances

Lorraine Daston: Obliterate the self!, 31 October 2002

Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England 
by George Levine.
Chicago, 320 pp., £31.50, September 2002, 0 226 47536 0
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... Objectivity’ is a word at once indispensable and elusive. It can be metaphysical, 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 ...

Lumpers v. Splitters

Lorraine Daston: The Weather Watchers, 3 November 2005

Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology 
by Katharine Anderson.
Chicago, 331 pp., £31.50, July 2005, 0 226 01968 3
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... 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 historians have chalked up his suicide to guilt over his unwitting complicity in the genesis of a scientific theory he detested ...

All Curls and Pearls

Lorraine Daston: Why are we so curious?, 23 June 2005

The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany 
by Neil Kenny.
Oxford, 484 pp., £68, July 2004, 0 19 927136 4
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... 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 scientific research on human subjects ...

Language of Power

Lorraine Daston: Cartography, 1 November 2001

The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography 
by J.B. Harley, edited by Paul Laxton.
Johns Hopkins, 331 pp., £31, June 2001, 0 8018 6566 2
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Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination 
by Denis Cosgrove.
Johns Hopkins, 331 pp., £32, June 2001, 0 8018 6491 7
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... 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 to distortion, but they operate by optical mechanisms that apparently guarantee a slavish fidelity to what can be seen ...

Visitors! Danger!

Lorraine Daston: Charles Darwin, 8 May 2003

Charles Darwin. Vol. II: The Power of Place 
by Janet Browne.
Cape, 591 pp., £25, November 2002, 0 224 04212 2
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... 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 be controversial since the publication in 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life ...

Are you having fun today?

Lorraine Daston: Serendipidity, 23 September 2004

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science 
by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber.
Princeton, 313 pp., £18.95, February 2004, 0 691 11754 3
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... 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, ‘by which I find everything I want, à point nommé, wherever I dip for it ...

Fathomless Strangeness of the Ordinary

Stephen Greenblatt: Disenchantment, 7 January 1999

Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 
by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park.
Zone, 511 pp., £19.95, June 1998, 0 942299 90 6
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... things and heterogeneous categories. The physical arrangement of the Wunderkammern, about which Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park write with great learning, was often calculated to heighten the sense of that heterogeneity, and the objects were typically chosen or fashioned to emphasise category confusion, to exemplify metamorphosis and to produce a ...

Boiling Electrons

David Kaiser, 27 September 2012

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe 
by George Dyson.
Allen Lane, 401 pp., £25, March 2012, 978 0 7139 9750 7
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... handbooks and tables had been produced for centuries. Around the time of the French Revolution, as Lorraine Daston has written, leading civil servants produced mammoth tables of logarithms and trigonometric functions calculated to 14 or more decimal places – far greater precision than any practical application would then have required. Gaspard Riche de ...

Gabble, Twitter and Hoot

Ian Hacking: Language, deafness and the senses, 1 July 1999

I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses 
by Jonathan Rée.
HarperCollins, 399 pp., £19.99, January 1999, 0 00 255793 2
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... with which I am acquainted is being conducted under the label of ‘historical epistemology’ by Lorraine Daston and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Scientific objectivity has a history all right. Daston studies the effect of the camera on our notions of objectivity ...

11 September

LRB Contributors, 4 October 2001

... and historians, sociologists and theologians, students of the symbolic rather than the technical. Lorraine Daston Berlin It’s Islamic fundamentalism, not The Satanic Verses, that represents a blasphemous version of the Koran. Most ideology, however, works by a distinction between what one does and what one says one does, such that the one does not ...

What Columbus Didn’t Know

Peter Green: The history of cartography, 21 February 2002

The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, the Man who Discovered Britain 
by Barry Cunliffe.
Allen Lane, 182 pp., £12.99, October 2001, 0 7139 9509 2
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Ptolemy’s Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters 
edited by J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones.
Princeton, 232 pp., £17.95, January 2002, 0 691 09259 1
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Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Atlas and Map-By-Map Directory 
by Richard J.A. Talbert.
Princeton, three volumes, £300, September 2000, 9780691031699
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... theologies. Some of the problems involved were discussed recently in the LRB (1 November 2001) by Lorraine Daston. Maps as propaganda, silent censorship, symbols of power hint eloquently at the human dimensions of the process, the deceptiveness of a theoretical objectivity. Even the world seen from the outside, in the Apollo pictures taken from the ...

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