Story posted July 25, 2013
1.Tell us about your research focus. Why was this particular field of study appealing to you?
My research is on the history of science. This is a field that I had not really heard of before college – in fact, I didn't take my first class in it until the spring of my junior year — but I quickly grew to love it. Specifically, I am interested in the public image of science: what non-scientists think about science, and why they think it. There is an obvious contemporary relevance to this question, as debates about climate change or evolution often hinge on what voters and politicians are willing to believe is true. The relevance – I would even say the urgency — of such issues is one reason that I'm interested in the subject. More basically, however, I see science as something that has fundamentally changed how people live and think. And the interaction is not one-way, as economic and political pressures have significant influence on scientific practice. It is not too much to see debates over science as debates over modernity, and I'm fascinated by the way that people and societies accept, reject, and modify new features of their worlds.
2.Could you tell us a little bit about what you are currently researching?
I am currently researching the legacy of Rachel Carson, the scientist and writer who is often called the founder of the modern environmental movement. As you might expect, such a designation oversimplifies the history of environmentalism. But there is no question that Carson had an incredible impact. In 1962, she published Silent Spring, an eloquent and harrowing account of the damage being done to the environment by the overuse of chemical pesticides. Her work was a major factor in the decision of the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the domestic use of DDT – one such chemical — ten years later. Perhaps even more importantly, Silent Spring was a publishing sensation. It was a both a bestseller and a flashpoint of controversy, and greatly facilitated the emergence of environmentalism as a mainstream cause.
What particularly interests me about Carson and Silent Spring is the reaction to them — both at the time and in the years since. This reaction is very polarized. Most commonly, Carson has been effusively praised for her achievements and for the very heroic manner in which she challenged political and scientific orthodoxy. Conversely, a small minority on the political right has demonized her for having advanced an environmental agenda that impinges on free market values. What very few people have done is to offer criticism of her without being disparaging – that is, to take issue with her work while remaining sympathetic to her environmental goals. Why is this? It is certainly possible to retain admiration for Carson while pointing out that Silent Spring may have had unhelpful consequences as well as salutary ones. In this project, I would like to offer a more nuanced picture of Silent Spring, one that remains deeply admiring but finds a place for criticism and flaws. And I would like to explore how heroic portrayals of Carson have affected the way we think about modern environmentalism.
3. Why, in your opinion, is the study of history compelling and relevant to students?
History is such a broad discipline that it is hard to imagine a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Thinking of the students who gravitate toward the history of science, however, I think that the appeal is the opportunity to combine two things that are not often associated with each other. My history majors, for example, often comment that the lens of science offers a different perspective on stories and events that they thought they knew well. And science majors often discover a surprisingly complex and interesting history behind their disciplines. Of course, this way of putting it creates something of a false distinction, because there are many students who are interested in both the humanities and in the sciences. History of science provides a nice way to study them simultaneously.