Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Techno-choice, Environmental Risks, and Unintended Consequences

My “Space-Weather Project” raises some interesting questions. Some of these are about what we know about the Sun-Earth system and how we have come to know it. That’s the science part, and it is plenty complicated. It’s all about how the Sun affects the space around the Earth, and about the natural phenomena the Sun produces around and near the Earth. Some other questions the project raises are about how these natural events, a part of the solar system since before humans farmed or built cities, affect us and our lives. This requires a lot of subtlety. At the moment, I cannot think of another exact parallel in the interaction between what we know, how we live, and the environment in which we live. I hope if this post inspires some ideas, that you will let me know. Right now I am a bit bewildered. So, beyond the science part, there is a human part, a technological part, and an environmental part. Complication on complication. Help me sort it out.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. The Sun has been sending out various “emanations” since long before we knew anything about them. We can now talk about solar wind, proton storms, and bursts of x-rays. But this is all new, really, since the mid-20th century. Again, this is the science part and there is an involved and interesting story about how we have come to understand as much about this as we do. Although that plays a role in the Space-Weather Project, it is not the whole story and maybe it is not even the most important part of the story. Humans always saw earthly effects of these solar events in the aurora, and our ancestors had intriguing, beguiling explanations that helped them live with these sporadic lights in the sky.

But everything changed in the mid-19th century. At that point, individuals with adequate leisure and curiosity – mostly natural philosophers in Europe and Europe’s diasporan areas – began devising instruments and procedures that revealed natural phenomena not evident to people in ordinary daily life. Specifically, they began to study electricity and magnetism and their place not only in laboratories but also in the natural world around us. These are esoteric, subtle phenomena. They still are not obvious to most of us, even though we depend on electricity and magnetism every day. We now use electricity even while we sleep. And from the moment we wake up, it infiltrates every part of our experience: the alarm rings, we flip on the lights, we listen to the radio and check our cell phones before we leave the comfort of our sheets. Then we leave the house, stop at the traffic signal, get money from the ATM, and one way or another, the rest of each day is regulated and enabled and also restricted by the electromagnetic fields that permeate our lives. Let’s face it, our lives are electromagnetic. And we don’t recognize even a shade of how deep this reality goes. Hell, I am writing this on a computer. Even though I have no internet access at this moment, I am writing, getting my thoughts down, and I am wondering: When will I get a chance to post this on the internet? Since 1820, when Hans Christian Oersted first exhibited the interdependence of electrical currents and magnetic fields, we have come a long way. And it’s not all positive.

This is a very intimate reflection for me, and it should be for you too. Here is my question for today. Can you think of any other phenomenon that brings natural phenomena, technology, and daily life together in an analogous way? I cannot at this point and I do seek insight from others. If what I say next inspires some ideas, email me at ggood@aip.org.

Here is the framework. The natural phenomena of space weather used to show themselves only as aurora. (Saying phenomena –plural – is not an oversight. I am not talking of only one “thing”). Today, space weather manifests in radio blackouts, GPS errors, and compromising of the electrical grid. Understand: this does not happen daily, and I have no intention of crying wolf. The effects of space weather on our technical systems may occur every day, but the effects overwhelmingly are nothing for most of us to be alarmed about. Indeed, these effects very rarely will rise to the attention of any non-specialist. More on this part later.
My first thesis is simply stated. Our technical systems are becoming simultaneously more central to our lives and more susceptible to disruption from natural events. This requires lots of teasing out, but many people see its basic dimensions intuitively. We depend more on cell phones, integration into the web, etc., every day. These depend on transistors, micro-circuits, and transmission lines. How often do you drop a call when you need it most? How often do you lose the internet? (As I have right now, sitting in a modern, uncheap hotel, in a major U.S. city.) I don’t know about you, but in the last four years, my electricity has failed for a total of about three weeks. Our technical systems are essential and vulnerable: to incompetence, to a direcchio, and to blizzards. And so far I have not said much about the Sun. What if that very rare event happened – a massive coronal mass ejection (CME)? What if it took out the power grid and the satellites and all the dependent technologies? Cell phones, GPS, food in the freezer, your car, email and FaceBook? This starts to sound like a human catastrophe. That is what it could be, depending on how long the effects lasted. This starts to sound alarmist, but it gets your attention. Now let’s slow down and think more soberly about this human-environmental-technological nexus.

First I should say that even without the alarmism, we should be concerned about our technical systems generally. Every time we introduce a new technology we open ourselves to new vulnerabilities. We grasp at immediacy in our interactions. We welcome every new technical convenience. With each of these, how many of us take one second to consider unintended consequences? Most people are motivated by something much more visceral: the latest cool thing, closer interaction with our employer or our family, or a new way to make money. There are always unexpected consequences.

This is, in part, a history of risk and vulnerability, of our efforts to understand and control nature, or at least, to minimize unintended harmful effects on our technological choices. This is true with mundane technologies, such as heating and cooling systems or cars, and even more so with extensively disruptive technologies, such as nuclear bombs or purposeful large-scale experiments or manipulations of the environment: geoengineering. What can also come with any of these technical choices is higher exposure to natural phenomena. These phenomena might have been there all along, like space weather, or these might be changes we introduce into the environment, as in high-altitude nuclear tests, DDT, or hormones in the water.

I cannot, however, think of one natural risk that is exactly like space weather. Consider volcanoes and earthquakes. They are similar to space weather in their scope and scale. Moreover, their scope and scale are not affected by human actions: puny humans cannot change these phenomena, they overwhelm us. But volcanoes and earthquakes differ immediately in that we have always been vulnerable to them. Think Santorini, Pompey, and the Lisbon and San Francisco earthquakes. We increase our vulnerability to volcanoes and earthquakes mainly in choosing where we live. But our technological choices over time have not increased our vulnerability to volcanoes and earthquakes. In the case of space weather, technological choices have transformed esoteric natural phenomena into human vulnerability.

Another situation is presented by storm surge and hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, and peak weather and climatic events like floods and droughts. Like volcanoes and earthquakes, human exposure to these dangers has been mainly a choice of where we live. Also like volcanoes and earthquakes and unlike space weather, we have always been endangered by these phenomena. But these reverse the polarity in another way. Human technological choices have intensified these atmospheric/hydrologic phenomena in the last few centuries, mainly through the global-scale use of fossil fuels. Through the injection of fossilized CO2 into the atmosphere, by removing it from solid rock or liquid trapped deep in the Earth, we have unleashed global chemical change that intensifies pre-existing phenomena which negatively affect humanity. They increase our vulnerability. But there is one last way these differ from space weather. The increased vulnerability is of a mundane sort. Floods, droughts, rising seas or rising temperatures do not pose any new kind of threats to our technologies. We could predict that roads or power plants or even electronic gadgets would be destroyed by water or fire. This is normal destruction. Space weather destroys technologies via means that have only become known as the new technologies themselves appeared. It’s not quite the same.

So, there are natural phenomena to which humans have become more vulnerable because we have changed the natural environment. There are other natural phenomena to which we have become more vulnerable mainly through our choice of where to live. And then there is space weather. We have become more vulnerable to space weather without changing the phenomena and where we live is irrelevant. We have become more vulnerable to it because we have become dependent on technologies that are sensitive to natural phenomena that never before affected us. And we have become more vulnerable to space weather because these technological choices integrate us globally in a way never before seen in human history. Our electronics and our use of electricity connect us intimately to the Sun in new ways. This requires us to ask new questions about nature, the environment, our technologies, and vulnerability.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Next week the Geological Society of America celebrates its 125th Anniversary, and to mark this there will be numerous historical papers and sessions. Here is my contribution's abstract. I will turn this into an article by the end of the year and intend to finish a book in the next few years on "John Herschel: The Astronomer who Fell to Earth." 

John Herschel’s Cosmic View of Earth Science
 in his Physical Geography

Session T145, Great Books in Geology


John Herschel (1792-1871) is normally remembered as an astronomer, not as a geologist. Nevertheless, he participated actively in the Geological Society from the 1810s, studied crystals and minerals, collected samples high in the Alps and atop Mt. Etna, and he ultimately published books on Physical Geography and Meteorology. Moreover, he was a crucial and very visible advocate of the physical investigation of the Earth. In the 1830s and 1840s he enunciated a research program involving coordinated expeditions and "physical observatories." He induced the British Admiralty to publish A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a how-to guide for naval officers making geological, oceanographic, meteorological, and other observations -- a book which he edited and for which he wrote several chapters. At the center of Herschel's view of Earth science, however, was his background in astronomy and physics. Earth to Herschel was a planet, one to which we just happen to have extraordinary access. This cosmic view of Earth was his hallmark. While he was not alone in this perspective in his time -- consider Alexander von Humboldt, Francois Arago, Christian Hansteen, and others -- his range of geo-interests stands as a prime example of an emerging view of Earth as part of the dynamical cosmos, a cosmos evolving according to physical laws over immense spans of time and space. Herschel's Physical Geography embodies this perspective.

For more on the GSA conference, check out http://community.geosociety.org/2013AnnualMeeting/Home

Friday, February 22, 2013

News for Historians of Physical Sciences

Participants at Early-Career History of Physics Conference at AIP in 2011

The following news items mark a remarkable up-tick in interest in the history of the physical sciences. A group of historians of science in the History of Science Society (HSS) and elsewhere have been organizing initiatives to make it easier for historians of science, especially early-career historians, to get together and share ideas. An early career conference is being organized for late May/early June in Philadelphia. Following an old tradition, it will be called the Joint Atlantic Seminar for History of Physical Sciences (JASHOPS). A call for papers will be issued soon.

The HSS Physical Sciences Forum met for the first time at the 2012 HSS meeting in San Diego.  At this inaugural meeting, Catherine Westfall was elected chair and she selected Joe Martin and Greg Good to serve with her on the Steering Committee.  At the meeting those assembled also laid out three plans for the next year, and identified committees to implement each plan.  Greg Good is spearheading the effort for an annual meeting, the first to be held in spring 2013, that will provide an additional forum for early career scholars on the history of the physical sciences. With the help of Westfall, David Kaiser, and Suman Seth, PSF also plans to sponsor a Distinguished Lecture at the 2013 HSS meeting.  At the meeting, the forum also plans a session that will discuss future directions in the history of the physical sciences.  The associated committee members are Seth, Amy Fisher, and Don Howard.

The general aim of the PFS is to further scholarship in the history of the physical sciences as broadly understood, including but not limited to: physics; earth, space, and atmospheric science; astronomy; and materials science. It will help forge a more coherent community for those with a core specialty in these sub-fields with a particular emphasis on developing the connections linking these sub-fields and exploring their resonance with wider scholarship. For further information, contact Catherine Westfall at Westfa12@msu.edu.
Complementing the Forum will be a new Humanities and Social Sciences Net (H-Net) list, which will serve as a communication channel providing announcements, calls for papers, book reviews, and job postings in addition to promoting discussion about current research and the state of the field. For further information on H-Net, contact Joe Martin, mart1901@umn.edu.
The H-Physical Sciences list is at http://www.h-net.org/~physicalsciences/

NOTES FROM FIRST MEETING OF HSS PHYSICAL SCIENCES FORUM

January 2013

Dear Friend of the Brand-New History of the Physical Sciences Forum,

As the newly elected chair of the forum, I am writing to let you know how plans are proceeding.  As many of you know, the Physical Sciences Forum (PSF) met for the first time at the 2012 HSS meeting in San Diego.  At this inaugural meeting, we laid out three plans for the next year, and identified committees to implement each plan.  Greg Good is spearheading the effort for an annual meeting, the first to be held in spring 2013, that will provide an additional forum for early career scholars on the history of the physical sciences. With my help, David Kaiser, and Suman Seth, PSF also plans to sponsor a Distinguished Lecture at the 2013 HSS meeting.  At the meeting, the forum also plans a session that will discuss future directions in the history of the physical sciences.  The associated committee members are Seth, Amy Fisher, and Don Howard. As of January 2013 planning for these events has begun.

At the annual HSS meeting we will also have a business meeting.  At the meeting we will discuss plans for 2014. 

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to spread the word about the PSF and to let me know the email addresses of those who would like to get future updates. (And of course, if you want to be deleted for the email distribution list, just let me know.)

I hope to see as many of you as possible as we work together in this exciting new endeavor.

Catherine Westfall

General Information about the Forum
The general aim of the PSF is to further scholarship in the history of the physical sciences as broadly understood, including but not limited to: physics; earth, space, and atmospheric science; astronomy; and materials science. It will help forge a more coherent community for those with a core specialty in these sub-fields with a particular emphasis on developing the connections linking these sub-fields and exploring their resonance with wider scholarship. For further information, contact Catherine Westfall at Westfa12@msu.edu.
Complementing the Forum will be a new Humanities and Social Sciences Net (H-Net) list, which will serve as a communication channel providing announcements, calls for papers, book reviews, and job postings in addition to promoting discussion about current research and the state of the field. For further information on H-Net, contact Joe Martin, mart1901@umn.edu.




Thursday, February 21, 2013

Meteor of 1783 Caught by an Artist


Paul Sandby (1730-1809) painted landscapes far and wide, including the area around London, England. Christopher Goulding (Source: http://christophergoulding.homestead.com/James-Lind-3.html) reproduced this Sandby watercolor of a meteor seen from the terrace of Windsor Castle on 18 August 1783. Goulding lists the observers  as James Lind, the Italian physicist Dr Tiberio Cavallo (1749-1809), Dr. Lockman (the Canon of St George's, Windsor), Thomas Sandby (the brother of the artist), and two unknown women.

I reproduce the image here as a continuation of the theme started by the Russian meteor of last week, but I have another reason, too. Across the river from Windsor, in Slough, William Herschel (1738-1822) set up his monumental, 40-foot reflecting telescope at his residence in the late 1780s. The connection of Herschel and his family to the royal family in Windsor is well established, and so my attention sharpened when I learned that Paul Sandby was a regular in the area at the same time. My other writing project besides a history of Space Weather concerns the son of William Herschel, John (1792-1871). I'll be seeking images by Sandby and others of Slough and the Herschels. This painting offers a tantalizing hope that such paintings exist.

How many other artists have caught moments such as this in the human experience of Earth and Cosmos interacting? Let me know of any you know of, especially any involving William, Caroline (1750-1848), or John Herschel.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dangers from Space: Meteors and Space Weather

The powerful, fantastic sight of a meteor roaring through the Russian sky today reminds us that our planet faces real, objective danger on its course around the Sun.




The Russian Meteor Streaks across the sky.

But not all dangers from space are as simple and indisputable as a fiery rock hitting you on the head. The dangers in the phenomena collectively termed "Space Weather" are more conditional and subtle.


For eons untold, storms driven from the Sun swept by Earth, dissipating energetic particles against her magnetic shield. Natural cycles came and went. The Sun’s hidden internal processes waxed and waned, the spots came and went, the magnetic field lines at its surface snapped wildly every decade or so and flung a bit of the star into space at fantastic speeds approaching 5,000,000 miles per hour.

This violence high above Earth’s tree ferns and passing generations of fishes, amphibians, dinosaurs, and mammals went unnoticed. Thin as Earth’s atmosphere was, tenuous as its magnetic cloak, the electrons and ions had no noted effect on them. Toward the poles, the creatures might have noted the racing auroras in the sky, but they could not be felt. They did not harm.



And so it was during humanity’s long gestation. For a million years, human ancestors lived blithely beneath racing electrical currents and flapping magnetic fields. Around the equator, an immense electrical current always coursed, but at much intensified levels when the Sun’s cycle was at its maximum. Matching currents flowed through the rocks at their feet, unsensed.

This innocent ignorance of a magnificent and pervasive phenomenon began to pass about a thousand years ago with the adoption by sailors and others of the magnetic compass. For the first five or six hundred years, the compass crudely indicated only direction. Although it danced on its pivot, this dance indicated nothing more than a quivering hand, a moving ship, some mystery unfathomed that the needle alone understood. Gradually, more attentive eyes watched the needle, eyes not directed so much at the oceanic horizon as at ‘philosophical discovery’ and perhaps at the burnishing of personal reputation.

This is the story of how an often present natural phenomenon went from inconsequential for humanity’s daily lives to being a real threat, at least in some measure. We now call the snap of magnetic coils on the Sun and their product Coronal Mass Ejections, and the material thrown out is called a plasma. When these plasmas encounter Earth’s upper magnetic shield – the magnetosphere – they induce electrical currents in both the upper atmosphere and in Earth’s crust. These currents, previously insensible, now encounter our finest technologies that have come to define us and to define our daily lives: satellites for communication and navigation, telegraphs and telephones and computers, and the wires across continents that carry the electrical power we depend on every day.


Some chapters in the story I am writing this month center on the following people and events:

  • ·         George Graham (1673-1751) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and crew and those first glimmers of recognition that magnetic storms came from the Sun.
  • ·         The Carrington event of September 1859 and other events that showed us how the effects could go from benign to disastrous.
  • ·         The inexorable trend, it seems, to ever more vulnerability: telegraph wires to radio to transformers to electronics to GPS and cell phones and to nuclear bombs
  • ·         An honest assessment of where we stand now, just how much of a risk is this, with everything dependent on these vulnerable technologies.

This is a story of the intersection of a phenomenon, neither benign nor malicious, with human technology, which produced vulnerability. Space Weather can exist only at the intersection of nature and human technology and science. It is only because we have wires and transformers and transistors and satellites that we need to know of these events high above our heads in space. Without these technologies, we would not know these phenomena. Nor would we need to.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Romantic Science, Romantic Music: Alexander von Humboldt and Franz Schubert


This blog posting was inspired by a musical event in Washington DC in 2012. The locally based Post-Classical Ensemble produced a marvelous concert of Franz Schubert songs performed by the unimaginably imaginative trombonist David Taylor. Hear David Taylor play Schubert Watch David Taylor at the Kennedy Center.

Alexander von Humboldt’s life began in 1769, the year of James Cook’s first, dramatic circumnavigation of the Earth. It ended in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Franz Schubert began his life in 1797, when 28 year-old Humboldt started for Paris to lay the basis for his famous expedition with Aimé Bonpland to the Americas. Schubert died in 1828, only a few months after Humboldt delivered his wildly popular Kosmos lectures in Berlin. The great romantic composer, always circling Vienna, never met the great romantic scientist, who orbited first Paris and then Berlin. If they knew or knew of each other, I have not enquired. It is hard not to envision a confluence of their passionately experienced and expressed lives.


Humboldt envisioned a dynamic cosmos, awash in material forces: gravity, electricity, magnetism. He saw these forces driving chemical interactions and living individuals and communities. He saw the Earth interacting with the heavens, and especially with the Sun. Nothing was static. Nothing was isolated. Humboldt united intimate familiarity with instruments of measurement, a dedication to close observation, rigorous description, and occasional fanciful speculation of interconnections. He brought not only the New World of the Western Hemisphere to the old world of Europe. He also brought the new world of Earth-a-planet into cultural prominence, as Copernicus and Galileo had begun centuries before.



Franz Peter Schubert was born and died in Vienna, when it was the capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It is likely he never traveled outside its borders.  The Empire gave him patronage, and also repression. Many of his compositions we regard now as masterpieces, but he wrote and produced and performed all of them amid a constant struggle for funding, for performance venues, for a basic living.  He survived major periods of his productive life through the support of his friends. The same political storms that affected von Humboldt (and in part caused him to leave the Old World for the New) also buffeted Schubert.  In 1820, Schubert and four of his close-knit circle of artists and friends were arrested by the Austrian police, who suspected them of revolutionary sensibilities, in the wake of the French Revolution and then the long strange career of Napoleon, the liberator-despot.  One of his friends was put on trial and imprisoned for a year and then permanently banned from Vienna.  Schubert was “severely reprimanded” but allowed to remain in Vienna. 


Von Humboldt brought the Cosmos “back home” through his celebrated publications, lectures, exhibitions, etc.  He lived a long and productive life, in good part because he had been able to escape into the Cosmos in a literal sense, during times of great peril and political turmoil.  Schubert never left that very Old World, but he changed it from within.  In his last few years he wrote music that is both listened to by the people and has also influenced the greatest of composers to the present day.  At his request, he was buried next to his great hero Ludwig von Beethoven in the village cemetery of Wäring, with a tombstone bearing an inscription from a friend and poet: “Music has here buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes”.  Those hopes come back when we listen to his music. 

This post is a collaboration of John Cloud and Greg Good, inspired by a concert to be held Saturday, 31 March, in Washington DC. Schubert Uncorked features the PostClassical Ensemble and the virtuosic bass trombonist David Taylor for a startling re-contextualization of a revered composer, including two newly commissioned world premieres.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Earth: Its audiences and interlocuters


The earth used to be the province mainly of geologists. The Earth belonged to the astronomers. During the 20th century, a variety of geosciences moved along their own tracks, interacting with each other at the bleeding edges in many different ways. As with any flows, the bleeding proceeded to a point toward 2000 at which inter-cross-transdisciplinary activity in the many geosciences made the individual tracks harder to distinguish.
In the last decades specialized groups have developed for the study of the histories of geology, geophysics, oceanography, meteorology, and so on. It is now time for more and more investigations to move to those bleeding edges and ask new questions that cross or ignore boundaries based on identities of university and government departments and international unions. A workshop at York University, Canada -- Earth Science, Global Science -- two years ago focused on questions raised by a global perspective in the history of science. One in Manchester UK in 2012 followed the theme "Cold War, Blue Planet"  TEUS -- The Earth under Surveillance. Another scheduled for 2013 had a different take. I reproduce part of the call for papers from this most recent workshop below. While I attended the York and Manchester meetings, other activities kept me from the meeting in Berne.

CfP: Knowledge production about planet earth and the global environment as indicators of social change, 23–25 January 2013, University of Berne
Conveners: Prof. Dr. Christian Rohr (University of Berne), Dr. Andrea Westermann (University of Zurich)
Our conference aims to explore the social, cultural and political changes induced by earth scientists and the knowledge and institutions they have created over the last two centuries. What do we learn about societies, their norms and collective mentalities by analyzing how people dealt with planet earth, its history, climate, surface patterns, or the mechanisms underlying its dynamic structure? In the 1960s, the «blue planet» became a powerful icon of environmental concern. As a consequence, earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental activist groups became interlaced on many levels: Earth scientists’ assumptions about how a change in atmospheric carbon dioxide would alter the earth's mean temperature were taken up by a broad audience; activist groups all over the world cared about «spaceship earth» and committed to the slogan «think globally, act locally»; in 2006, the influential environmental scientist James Lovelock was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London, geology’s most prestigious prize. Arguably, mutual inspiration not only worked for the historical actors but might also pay off for historical scholarship: We invite historians of the earth sciences and environmental historians to identify starting points and ways of thinking about the issue of social change through the lens of earth matters.
Bringing together historians of the earth sciences and environmental historians: respective methodological inputs
Due to the work of Ludwik Fleck, Robert Merton and others, research in the history of science routinely involves society as an analytical category: Social factors have become a common explanatory resource in order to account for the production and validation of scientific knowledge. From early on, historians of geology and other earth sciences have contributed to this methodological trend (i.e. Roy Porter, Martin Rudwick or James Secord). It is still less common though to reverse the question and ask what the production of scientific knowledge tells us about the society pursuing this knowledge. This is particularly true for the history of the earth sciences.i A look at the neighboring discipline might be helpful in this regard: Many studies in environmental history deal with problems and objects of analysis similar to those of historians of the geosciences (e.g. the oceans, the mountains, climate, or nuclear waste storage). In so doing, they are very successful in extracting from a society’s relationship to its natural environment the tales and images the society has or makes of itself; they are able to show how regional economies developed or social inequalities were produced and substantiated.
Is it possible to explore similar phenomena and transformations when studying the concepts and practitioners of the earth sciences from a history of science perspective? Take, for instance, the emerging global tectonic research circa 1900: Tectonically-informed, geologists created new and lasting pictures of the «whole earth»: drifting continents, global earthquake belts, or the shell-like construction of the inner earth as suggested by seismological research. They arguably contributed to the ongoing economic and cultural processes of globalization at the turn of the 20th century.
Historians of the earth sciences can benefit from environmental history when it comes to the survey of the social terrain. In turn, history of science has provided environmental historians - having their roots in agricultural history and geography - with fresh sources, approaches, and topics regarding these and other fields of knowledge. Its dominant constructivist approach made environmental history cover new grounds and better unpack and explain the merits and pitfalls of, say, historical climatology or seismology.
Conference topics may include
- Both earth sciences history and environmental history analyze the geotechnical exploration of natural sites and resources. We are looking for case studies addressing interests and questions of both fields of research.
- The idea of natural disaster looms large in both historical disciplines (catastrophist theories in geology, the history of floods or earthquakes, apocalyptic ideas in environmentalism): What methodological function do the concepts of disaster have for our writing of history?
- Holistic approaches are common to the earth and environmental sciences. We invite contributions questioning, historicizing or comparing different assumptions about the global, interrelated or systemic character of earth and environmental matters.
- Some scientists have coined a new term, the Anthropocene, for our geological era because the impact of humans on the planet has become so great. In fact, both disciplines are interested in historicizing ideas of time, order and historical change, as any historical work is. We invite contributors to think about these historiographic categories while including planetary or environmental factors. Is it, for instance, useful to adopt and further develop Fernand Braudel’s different time scales according to specific questions such as the time needed for the natural making of resources, the time(s) of their use and the time to their depletion?
- What did society do with other geological and geotechnical concepts (continental drift, biosphere, strata, fossils, peak oil, mineral resources, Gondwana, Holocene, rift valleys, glacier melting, Ice Age) once these left the expert circles?
Historians are clearly taking another look at the geosciences. This blog is intended to encourage this discussion.