The September 2017 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. Two articles in this issue may be of especial interest to AHP readers: one documenting the relationship between cybernetics and modern Chinese linguists and the other exploring the construction of “gifted” and “academically talented” students in the context of efforts to desegregate schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Full details follow below.
“From Modernizing the Chinese Language to Information Science: Chao Yuen Ren’s Route to Cybernetics,” by Chen-Pang Yeang. Abstract:
As one of the most famous Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Chao Yuen Ren is known primarily for his founding of modern Chinese linguistics. This essay examines a less familiar part of his career: cybernetics. When he taught at Berkeley in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s book manuscript and gravitated toward the subject. His participation in the 1953 Macy Conference marked the beginning of his decades-long work that used the concepts of feedback and information to understand language in general and Chinese in particular. This essay argues that Chao’s exploration of cybernetics was influenced not only by the rise of information science in the midcentury United States but also by the movement to modernize the Chinese language two decades earlier. His phonetic research for dialect surveys, involvement in language reform, and appropriation of structuralism when he worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s shaped his cybernetic interpretations of language in the 1950s and 1960s. This article enriches the current historiography of information science, which stresses disunity and internationalism, by showing how an East Asian context affected an aspect of the early development of cybernetics. It also demonstrates the value of an immigrant scientist’s intellectual biography for studies of transnational science.
“A “Precious Minority”: Constructing the “Gifted” and “Academically Talented” Student in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education and the National Defense Education Act,” by Jim Wynter Porter. Abstract: Continue reading New in Isis: Cybernetics and Chinese Linguistics; Constructing “Gifted” Students Post-Brown v. Board →
The July 2017 issue of History of the Human Sciences is now online. Articles in this issue explore cinematic representations of brainwashing, scientific expertise and the politics of emotion, and more. Full details below.
“Brainwashing the cybernetic spectator: The Ipcress File, 1960s cinematic spectacle and the sciences of mind,” by Marcia Holmes. Abstract:
This article argues that the mid-1960s saw a dramatic shift in how ‘brainwashing’ was popularly imagined, reflecting Anglo-American developments in the sciences of mind as well as shifts in mass media culture. The 1965 British film The Ipcress File (dir. Sidney J. Furie, starr. Michael Caine) provides a rich case for exploring these interconnections between mind control, mind science and media, as it exemplifies the era’s innovations for depicting ‘brainwashing’ on screen: the film’s protagonist is subjected to flashing lights and electronic music, pulsating to the ‘rhythm of brainwaves’. This article describes the making of The Ipcress File’s brainwashing sequence and shows how its quest for cinematic spectacle drew on developments in cybernetic science, multimedia design and modernist architecture (developments that were also influencing the 1960s psychedelic counter-culture). I argue that often interposed between the disparate endeavours of 1960s mind control, psychological science and media was a vision of the human mind as a ‘cybernetic spectator’: a subject who scrutinizes how media and other demands on her sensory perception can affect consciousness, and seeks to consciously participate in this mental conditioning and guide its effects.
“Scientific expertise and the politics of emotions in the 1902 trial of Giuseppe Musolino,” by Daphne Rozenblatt. Abstract: Continue reading New HHS: Brainwashing, Scientific Expertise and the Politics of Emotion, & More! →
New from New Books Network (NBN) is an interview with Tara Abraham on her recent book Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science. As the NBN describes,
Fueling his bohemian lifestyle and anti-authoritarian attitude with a steady diet of ice cream and whiskey, along with a healthy dose of insomnia, Warren Sturgis McCulloch is best known for his foundational contributions to cybernetics but led a career that spanned psychiatry, philosophy, neurophysiology, and engineering. Tara H. Abraham‘s new book Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science (MIT Press, 2016) is the first scholarly biography of this towering figure of twentieth century American science. Abrahams careful tracing of McCulloch’s broad disciplinary traverses is grounded in explication of heady theories and mathematical models of the brain. The growing historical scholarship on cybernetics rests on a curious threshold: its subject matter, rife with outsized personalities and uncannily forward-looking ideas, is ever poised to remain more ineluctably fascinating than scholarly analysis can render. Rather than attempting to beat the cyberneticians at their own game–self-consciously or not becoming participant observers in the reflexive system described by “second-order” cybernetics–this rich portrait offers pointed and entertaining insight into the role of style, sociability, and mentorship in twentieth century scientific life.
The full interview can be heard online here.
Tara Abraham‘s Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science is now available from MIT Press. Rebel Genius recounts the life and work of neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch. As described by the publisher,
Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.
By Orit Halpern, assistant professor at the New School for Social Research/Eugene Lang College and associate of their Parsons the New School of Design. Published by the Duke University Press. The dust jacket flap text reads as follows:
Beautiful Data is both a history of big data and interactivity, and a sophisticated meditation on ideas about vision and cognition in the second half of the twentieth century. Continue reading New Book: Beautiful Data, A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 →