AHA Member Spotlight: Lorraine Daston
Lorraine Daston is a historian of science and director emerita at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She lives in Berlin, Germany, and has been a member since 1985.
Alma maters: AB (history and science), Harvard University, 1974; PhD (history of science), Harvard University, 1979; Dipl. (history and philosophy of science), Cambridge University
Fields of interest: history of science, European intellectual history
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
Like most historians of science, mine was a zigzag path to the field. I wandered through astronomy, history, and philosophy before doing a PhD in the history of science. I have also worked in several countries, mostly in the US and Germany, but with visiting appointments in France, Austria, and elsewhere.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
Berlin is a city that has not yet decided on a single version of its history, and where competing strands and versions of its past are still visible to the eye. The past still haunts and inspires Berlin, sparking debate and deepening reflection. History matters here.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have just finished a book on the history of rules: ancient and modern, rules of games, of war, of monastic orders, of calculating machines, of cookbooks, and much, much else. My current project is on the emergence of the scientific community, that most uncommunal community, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both projects were influenced by the experience of the pandemic: the vertigo induced by rules that changed on an almost daily basis as the science and politics of the virus evolved and the impressive contrast between the effective international governance of science and the nonexistent international governance of governments.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
Emphatically yes! I began as a historian of probability and statistics and then took up projects on wonders, objectivity, the moral authority of nature, scientific observation, Cold War rationality, calculation, and most recently rules. If there is an overarching theme (and I am not sure there is), it is how forms of rationality are realized in concrete practices, from making a scientific image to calculating an ephemerides to observing the weather.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
Every trip to the archives is like panning for gold, and there are too many nuggets to count. I recall especially the carefully annotated observational notes that survive from a never-completed 17th-century botanical project, detailing not only what the plants looked like but also how they tasted.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Peter Galison’s recent film The Edge of All We Know, about the quest to photograph a black hole, is a thrilling documentary on the most ambitious international scientific cooperation ever attempted.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
I especially value the permeability of the history of science to other disciplines: the field is populated by scholars trained in the sciences, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literature, which means that stimuli come from all directions.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
History has never mattered more, especially when at a time when there is wilful amnesia about especially the history of the United States. Supporting the AHA at the moment is a civic as well as a professional obligation.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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