Science and the City

Sven Dierig, Jens Lachmund, Andrew Mendelsohn

see program

In December of 2000, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science will host a workshop with the goal of bringing together what have been all too separate fields of research: the history of science and the history of the city. Modern life is almost by definition urban and scientific, where scientific is taken to include both the natural and social sciences and the knowledge associated with technology and medicine. Beginning around 1800, the size and number of cities increased dramatically in Europe and subsequently in other parts of the world. Urbanization was not only a demographic and economic process, but also brought into being new institutions and cultural forms. Much of the scientific and technological innovation characteristic of the modern period took place in the urban context. Universities, laboratories, museums, hospitals, and other institutions of scientific research and education were typically located in cities. First and foremost in the city, everday life was transformed by the production of knowledge -- from the rise of technological systems of transport and communication to the reordering of social, geographical, and architectural space according to the precepts and empirical findings of social, physical, and medical science. Indeed, the city itself may usefully be regarded as a scientific construction. A rich history of engineering, hygiene, empirical social research, administrative innovation, and more or less "scientific" forms of planning has left its imprint on the physical and social shape of our cities and on our habits of perceiving and evaluating them. This workshop aims to explore this mutual interaction of the city and the sciences that developed in them.

Science and the CityUrban history has tended to treat science and technology as external forces, which influence the development of cities and the ideas of urban planners. The actual workings of science and its interface with society have usually been taken for granted. Meanwhile, however, several decades of work by historians and sociologists of science and technology have yielded tools for opening these "black boxes". Scientific facts and technological innovations are no longer regarded as wholly special phenomena, escaping the methods of social and historical analysis. They are widely considered to be historically specific constructions made possible by their social, cultural, and political contexts. The city, as among the most important of those contexts, has hitherto received remarkably scant interest from this perspective.

It thus seems clear that science and technology studies and urban history are ripe to benefit from each other. We suspect it will be possible to show various ways in which practices and objects of science, on the one hand, and material and social forms of the city, on the other, were co-produced. In short, we propose an urban history of science -- construing science broadly, more in the expansive sense of the German "Wissenschaft" than the anglophone "science", and with the emphasis more on science than scientists, that is, more on knowledge and practice than on people, their social groupings and institutions.

In recent years, in fact, many urban historians and many historians of science have been, unbeknownst to each other, on parallel course: turning from predominantly social and institutional analysis to address practice and space. Thus urban history, once focused on the demography and economics of urbanization and on labor and social class, has come to include urban everyday life -- the older writings of Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin attained new relevance here -- as well as the spatial features of the city instead of relegating them to a separate field of architectural history. In urban studies as in much of the recent work in cultural geography, anthropology, and sociology inspired partly by the writings of Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, space is shown to be a constitutive rather than passive dimension of social life. Not just "there", it is used, rendered meaningful, and produced through a variety of practices, social and material. Meanwhile, in science and technology studies, we now have many detailed histories and ethnographies of experiment, observation, instruments, collecting, travel, teaching. And laboratories, asylums, clinics, libraries, botanical gardens, and museums have come to be considered less as institutions than as material and cultural spaces or places of knowledge. Not only social and administrative units and not merely physical containers of scientific practices, these spaces act as complex material and symbolic environments which shape and which are shaped by those practices.

What would it mean to consider the city as one such space or place of knowledge? Whereas the focus hitherto has been either on single research institutions, sites, and buildings or on the national and global scientific communities and networks through which knowledge, objects, and practices become standardized and universal, the city offers another kind of space altogether, at mid-range between these extremes of scale and surely the most heterogeneous and complex human grouping civilization has produced -- at once a legal, administrative, social, economic, material, technological, cultural, political, and everyday entity. Urban space is thus rich in practices that may become knowledge-producing, as, for example, in the emergence of the Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park's ethnographic method out of city journalism. In short, the focus on practice and on space, variously conceived, offers a promising way to relate science and technology to their urban context. And the existence of an interest and set of problems already shared by urban historians and historians of science augurs well for a successful and productive synthesis.

When historians of science, technology, and medicine have written about the city, it has mostly appeared as a stage, a social and political setting for scientific controversies or the development of scientific institutions. Or it has appeared as a scene of material and technological change. Or, finally, it has appeared as an intellectual community. Studies of urban intellectuals are perhaps the ones in which the city as such has received most attention. Apart from work like Carl Schorske's on psychoanalysis, however, these studies have focused mostly on the arts and humanities and generally on ideas, omitting the "harder" sciences and the practices and technical knowledge of the softer ones.

In contrast, this workshop aims to include the whole spectrum of scientific activities in the city, including the physical and laboratory sciences and the various forms of technical knowledge involved in city building. The humanities and social sciences will by no means be excluded, but emphasis will be less on history of ideas and persons than on the practical research activity in which knowledge is produced and transmitted -- be it the urban sociological survey or, perhaps, the roamings of Benjamin's flaneur.

Though the theme science and the city could well be followed back through the coffee-house and salon culture of the Enlightenment city to the university and court cities of the Renaissance to the Greek polis and even the ancient Mesopotamian city-states, this workshop will concentrate on the period after about 1800, that is, primarily on the industrial city and the planned metropolis. The sciences to be represented in the workshop can be sorted onto a spectrum ranging from those which have the city as their main object of study (urban sociology, urban planning) to those only partly concerned with the city as such (public health, demography, criminology, epidemiology, urban ecology, water analysis, psychology, and various subfields of engineering) to those which do not at all take the city as their subject (experimental physiology, zoology, clinical medicine, physics).

At one end of this spectrum, the workshop aims to examine the various forms of representation (maps, standard forms, statistics, narratives) through which knowledge of the city was encoded and how these functioned in the production and reproduction of the urban as a scientifically ordered phenomenon. These representational practices went hand-in-hand with a variety of political, administrative, and material interventions in the city: ephemeral site visits, extensive surveys, routine tests and inspections, long-term fieldwork, or the involvement of experts in construction projects. Thus knowledge about and for the city was always to some extent also knowledge made out of the city. Its production, circulation, and legitimation proceeded in and through the very thing it was more or less about.

At the other end of the spectrum, the workshop aims to include in an urban history of science those fields which are not at all concerned with the city, by exploring the ways in which the "walls" of the laboratory, the museum, the clinic were highly permeable and even difficult to manage. These places of knowledge were embedded not only in society and culture, as historians have amply demonstrated, but also specifically in the city. In what ways and with what consequences, for instance, did urban culture and everyday life, urban organization of labor and commerce, urban power sources and technology extend through the laboratory walls and become part of experimental investigation?

Sven Dierig
Jens Lachmund
Andrew Mendelsohn
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, October 2000



Friday, 1 December
09.30 Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Director of the Institute): Welcome

09.45 Sven Dierig, Jens Lachmund, Andrew Mendelsohn (Workshop Organizers): Introduction
Urban Roots of Modern Science
10.00 Dora B. Weiner (UCLA): Clinical Medicine in Paris during the Revolution and under Napoleon

11.00 Coffee Break

11.30 Fa-Ti Fan (SUNY Binghamton): Science in Two Chinese Cities: Western Naturalists and their Chinese Associates in Canton and Shanghai

12.30 Lunch

02.30 Anne Secord (Cambridge University): "The Age of Ruins is Past?" Victorian Manchester as City of Science

03.30 Coffee Break

04.00 Sophie Forgan (University of Teeside): Spectacle, Knowledge and Display: The City, Science Museums and Exhibitions

05.00 Sven Dierig (MPIWG): Machine Tools for Experiment: Physiology in the Nineteenth-Century Industrial City

Saturday, 2 December

Knowing and Managing the City

09.30 Christopher Hamlin (University of Notre Dame): The City as a Chemical System

10.30 Antoine Picon (Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées and University of Paris): Cartography, Statistics and the Nineteenth-Century City

11.30 Coffee Break

12.00 Andrew Mendelsohn (Imperial College, London): Epidemiological Practice and City Life in the Making

01.00 Lunch

02.30 Karin Bijsterveld (University of Maastricht): 'City of Din': The Decibel, Noise, and Neighbors in the Netherlands, 1910-1980

03.30 Coffee Break

04.00 Mauricio Tenorio Trillo (University of Texas at Austin): Science in Mexico City

05.00 Rolf Lindner (Humboldt University of Berlin): Hard Science, Soft Methods: The Chicago School between Ecology and Ethnography

Sunday, 3 December

Urban Expertise after 1945

09.30 Christian Topalov (CNRS, Paris): The Neighborhood of the Social Sciences: Three Cross-National Case Studies

10.30 Jens Lachmund (MPIWG): Exploring the City of Rubble: Botanical Fieldwork in Bombed Cities in Germany after World War II

11.30 Coffee Break

12.00 Christine Boyer (Princeton University): The Architecture of CyberCities: America, 1940-2000

01.00 Lunch
Planning the City of Science
02.30 Paul Josephson (University of New Hampshire): Open Architecture in Closed Cities: Akademgorodok and the Expansion of the Soviet Scientific Enterprise into Siberia

03.30 Coffee Break

04.00 Rosemary Wakeman (Fordham University): Dreaming the New Atlantis: Science and the Planning of Technopolis, 1955-1985

05.00 Final Discussion