Report: XXIII International Congress of History of Science and Technology in Budapest Hungary


(image of statues from ‘Memento Park’; the Communist statue park).

I recently attended the XXIII International Congress of History of Science and Technology in Budapest Hungary. The conference was a large and truly international event with 1400 delegates from 60 countries. Set in the Budapest University of Technology and Economics; the university is one of the oldest technological institutions in the world (1772) and has a long history of major contributions to Science and Technology (the conference was however, set in a rather grim building).

Broadly speaking, the History and Philosophy of Science and the Digital Humanities do cover some similar academic territory as both are concerned with understanding technology through humanities approaches. Whist HPS is about critically understanding the history of technology in broader social and cultural contexts, the Digital Humanities is about applying computing technology to humanities problems.

The plenary on the first day covered topics such as the relation of modern science to Islam, Darwin’s drive to abolish slavery (through his scientific work), and scientific exile in totalitarian regimes such as in Cold War Czechoslovakia. The speaker, Sona Strbanova explained how exodus from Czechoslovakia peaked in 1969 (not surprisingly) with 200000 exiles. She knew this because the government (the Cadre Department) kept an extensive list of exiles and framed exiles as ‘traitors’.

During the regular conference sessions, the topics covered included Cold-war Social Science, Art and Science, Earth Sciences in the contemporary period, and science in a political content. Many of the papers had a Cold War focus which seemed appropriate in a university in Budapest with the gigantic Liberation Monument (1947) looking down on the conference venue from the top of Gellert Hill.

In my own paper at the conference I discussed the contributions that the Digital Humanities had made to the history of science, particularly through the promotion of text encoding and meta-data standards, repositories, and computational research methods. I explained how we promote the history of science through the web site. The particular examples I used were Complete Works of Charles Darwin online; which is perhaps the largest publication of Darwin’s works and contains 40,000 pages of searchable text and 130,000 electronic images. It also contains all of Darwin’s unpublished manuscripts as well as many his published ones. The other example I used was the Newton Manuscript Project; a collection of Newton’s non-Scientific papers and his unpublished theological papers. Its central focus is a series of (XML encoded) transcriptions of Newton’s theological works, personal notebooks, and biographical information about Newton dating from the eighteenth century and many of his early scientific papers.

I discussed these projects in terms of the methods that they used, how we record these methods, and the problems associated with their long-term preservation. An audience member asked how we defined ‘the national’ in the project (as this is the project’s broad scope) and I explained how we arrived here through the rather complicated institutional history of the project including the closing down of the Arts and Humanities Data Service last year.

Other papers in my session (sessions titled  ‘history of science and new media’) were about managing the national bibliography of science history in Hungary, the work of a science-history digitisation centre in Brazil, and an excellent paper by Gavan McCarty from the University of Melbourne about the World History of Science Online project. Gavan also discussed the need for an active and vibrant ‘public sphere’ online and the need for rigorous citation standards so as to aid discovery and reuse of online scholarly resources. Stephen Weldon, who organised the session and is editor of the ISIS bibliography, discussed an ‘open access’ model for his journal and explained how making certain data free and open online can also boost the actual sales of the journal as well as increasing its circulation within libraries.

One of my favourite Technical sessions at the conference (as opposed to the Science sessions) was ‘Space Exploration and research in the Contemporary Period (1800-)’. One of the speakers, Joseph Tatarewicz, discussed the history of the Hubble Telescope from 1923 to 2009. He framed the talk in terms of the telescopes ‘career’ (successes and major failures). Whilst the speaker, an ex-employee of the Smithsonian Institute, was a somewhat enthusiast for the Hubble, the audience had mixed feelings and many believed that the project had been a great socio-technical disaster.

Together the conference was a broad and eclectic mix of papers from all parts of the globe, from many periods of history, and numerous stands of Science and Technology. In a city at the centre of Europe built on the historical rubble of ideological exuberance, war, empire, greed, religious turmoil, nationalist fervour and totalitarian oppressions (and average food), Science and Technology have either been a servants of all this or have stubbornly subverted it. Let’s hope that the Digital Humanities never becomes a servant of draconian academic forces either emanating from the excesses of the market or the mono-mania delusions of technological –determinism.

All technological advances create winners and losers and some of them have guns!



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