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Featured Project: small RNAs, scientific pluralism and the renaissance of Lamarck

Opens internal link in current windowSophie Juliane Veigl

The second half of the 20th century is often referred to as the “golden age of molecular biology”. This era was conceptually most influenced by two dogmata: The modern synthesis of evolution, which succeeded in merging Darwinian evolutionary theory with Mendelian genetics, and the central dogma of molecular biology, which claims ontological primacy of DNA in every process of life. Those two paradigms can justly be said to nurture most reductionist thinking in biological theorizing as well as in popular science.
Yet, in the age of postgenomics, evidence is accumulating which cannot be aligned with those two most fundamental paradigms. Accounts of “Lamarckian” inheritance, meaning the transmission of adaptive, acquired traits to future generations are intensely debated in the literature. A small RNA mediated mechanism of the inheritance of acquired traits offers mechanistic insights into other possible modes of evolution and inheritance.
Naturally, a mechanism which involves RNA and not DNA as the material basis of hereditary information and proposes a rather Lamarckian and not Darwinian mode of inheritance is hard to reconcile with the legacy of the golden age of molecular biology. Yet, the question arises, how can those two non-reducible, complementary accounts  be integrated into a consistent explanatory framework?
It is my aim to introduce scientific pluralism as both consequence and solution to this problem. Explanatory pluralism maintains that certain phenomena might only be fully captured if approached by more than one explanation. Thus, embracing small RNA based inheritance of acquired traits as a complementary mechanism might maximize the explanatory potential of our best theories of evolution and inheritance.

Public Lecture by Hernán Bobadilla Rodríguez

Wed, 10 May 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Mechanistic explanations in network models

In this presentation I discuss the explanatory role of network models. In particular, I provide an evaluation of the kinds of explanation that network models provide, and compare them to mechanistic explanations. I defend three main points:

1) network models are not intrinsically explanatory;
2) when they explain, they do it mechanistically;
3) when they do not explain, they still might be contributing to the discovery of a mechanism.

Hernán Bobadilla Rodríguez is a fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Guest Lecture by Dr. Karen Kastenhofer

Wed, 3 May 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Studying a ‘newly emerging technoscience’: accounting for change and stability in science

How can we conceive of the so called ‘newly emerging sciences and technologies’ (NESTs) in science and technology studies? What is to be understood under labels such as ‘systems biology’ or ‘synthetic biology’? What do they stand for and what are the potential scientific and societal implications of these phenomena? The introduction of systems or synthetic biology within the scientific literature comes with a surprisingly stable narrative: they are new, they have been enabled by technological innovation, they come with a paradigm shift and they have revolutionary potential. Case studies comparing the emergence of synthetic biology in UK and France already point at the institutional aspects that factor in such change (Molyneux-Hodginson and Meyer 2009, 2016). Nyhart (1995) and other historical studies of change and stability in biology (e.g. Strasser 2002) have also highlighted this point.

The presented case study aims at illustrating the ways a local institutional landscape shapes how a new field such as systems biology is established, as what it is established and how it is perceived and impersonated by scientists. To do so, I will focus on four aspects: the impact of generational patterns, the impact of (sub)disciplinary fragmentation, the impact of institutional logics and the impact of the broader national innovation regime, all of which adhere to specific locales at specific historical times. As a result, I not only draw a picture of the context dependency of a technoscience’s emergence, but also of the relative narrowness of the scope of an announced revolution – the one often related to systems biology and synthetic biology in the media discourse – and the relative radicalness of the rather tacit change its context of emergence faced in the meantime.

Karen Kastenhofer is a scholar in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at the Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Guest Lecture by Prof. Ulrike Felt

Wed, 26 April 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

(Anti)Nuclear Times: Austria’s anti-nuclear position and its relation to national identity building

On March 22, 2011, during the Austrian National Assembly debate on “Current Perspectives on Austrian and European Energy Politics after Fukushima,” the Austrian chancellor affirmed “that probably nobody in the Austrian parliament would give a speech in favor of nuclear technology.” And he insisted that it is “an obligation for Austria” to continue “stand[ing] up against the nuclear lobbies, [. . .]—in particular because we had a clear vote of the population in Austria against nuclear energy in 1978 and we have made ourselves Europe’s spokesperson for not enforcing nuclear energy as a future technology.”

This extract from the parliamentary protocol forms the starting point of my paper, which will invite to reflect on how it became possible to make such a clear, affirmative statement which would find agreement and support across all political parties and be publicly recognized as the Austrian position towards nuclear energy. Using “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Jasanoff 2015) as a core sensitizing concept, I wish to draw attention to the close entanglement of technological developments and preferred ways of living and social order in any given society. While imagination more generally speaking is a key-field of social practices, as well as an important element in negotiations between how we can act and more broadly defined fields of the possible, speaking of a sociotechnical imaginary focuses more narrowly at “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures performed through science and technology.”

The presentation will show that in order to understand how Austria’s anti-nuclear position could become a core element of the nation’s technopolitical identity, we need not only to study the events around the 1978 referendum on nuclear energy (Zwentendorf). Rather we have to carefully trace the different kinds of work needed after the referendum to transform the fragile outcome of the vote into a robust and stable sociotechnical imaginary of anti-nuclearity.

Ulrike Felt is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna.

Public Lecture by Dr. Hanna Lucia Worliczek

Wed, 5 April 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The visual disciplinarization of the cytoskeleton. On the metamorphosis of cell biology through the adoption of immunofluorescence imaging

This paper traces a substantial visual, epistemic and disciplinary change in cell biology during the 1970s, a field strongly associated with evidence from microscopic imaging. This change was initiated by the adoption of immunofluorescence microscopy from diagnostic research on infectious diseases. The use of fluorescent dyes in combination with artificially produced antibodies made it possible to stain proteins of interest specifically, thereby allowing for a visualisation of the molecular architecture of cell components. In comparison with electron microscopy, the dominant imaging method of the 1950s and 1960s in cell biology, the epistemic qualities of this new technique allowed researchers to acquire different and novel kinds of knowledge. Cell biologists defined what had thus far remained a hypothetical cellular entity using immunofluorescence microscopy: the cytoskeleton as a network of fibres that was responsible for cell shape and motility. The application and establishment of this imaging method re-defined the cytoskeleton as a complex evidence-based entity of significance equal to that of canonised structures such as the cell nucleus. Based on interviews and sources from professional institutions in the USA, such as the Journal of Cell Biology and the American Society for Cell Biology, I will trace the development of a new sub-discipline: cytoskeleton research. I aim to understand and reconstruct how this new field was established until the early 1980s and how visual evidence from a recently adopted imaging method was used to re-shape the field of cell biology.

Hanna Lucia Worliczek is a fellow of the DK program "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts" at the University of Vienna.

Guest Lecture by Prof. David Bloor

Wed, 29 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The Cambridge Cockpit: Wartime research on pilot fatigue in a comparative context

During WWII members of the Psychological Laboratory in Cambridge carried out a series of intriguing experiments on pilot fatigue. I shall describe these experiments and the theoretical analysis given to their results. I shall also ask whether comparable experiments were conducted by German psychologists. This attempt at comparison can be carried out successfully but it encounters a number of interesting problems and raises some significant methodological questions for the sociologist and historian of science. I shall offer some tentative answers to these questions.

David Bloor is Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh Science Studies Unit, Scotland.

Guest Lecture by Prof. Nick Hopwood

Wed, 22 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

Proof and Publicity in Claims to Human in Vitro Fertilization

Born following in vitro fertilization in Britain in 1978, Louise Brown made global news as the first ‘test-tube baby’, the work of a team led by the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and the physiologist Robert Edwards that was eventually recognized by a Nobel Prize. Yet she was far from the first to be announced. Since the 1940s various researchers had reported having fertilized human eggs to produce embryos and even infants. Journalists warned large audiences to anticipate all manner of brave new worlds. This talk will take that publicity seriously, while focusing on how scientists pressed these claims and how their colleagues assessed and contested them. It will pay special attention to the negotiation of standard criteria in journals, handbooks and newspapers, at conferences and on television. This will offer fresh perspectives on the founding achievement of reproductive biomedicine and on communication in science after World War II.

Nick Hopwood is Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge (UK).

Guest Lecture by Prof. Martina Merz and Dr. Sophie Ritson

Wed, 15 March 2017, 3:00 pm @ Hs. 3E, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Wien

The “750 GeV Bump” in the Light of the Tri-Relation between Media, Theory, and Experiment

On 15 Dec 2015 the two biggest experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider independently announced results, illustrated by a ‘bump’ around 750 GeV of small significance, which indicated the possibility of ‘new physics’. The announcement was followed by a flurry of activity. Within only two days, theoretical physicists had uploaded several dozen papers on the resonance at 750 GeV while major newspapers and physicists’ blogs spread the news across wider communities and publics. Behind the scenes, experimental physicists in the ATLAS and CMS collaborations gathered additional data and continued their analysis under heightened attention. Those watching the LHC were concerned with the evolving status of the 750 GeV resonance with additional data: would the observed excess become a ‘discovery’ of new physics or would it disappear, rendering the initial result a statistical fluctuation? The status of the observed 750 GeV resonance assumed special importance in view of the belief and hope of physicists that the LHC would discover novel phenomena. Half a year later, in August 2016, this belief was tempered when both experiments declared that the bump was a statistical fluke.
This recent episode of a non-discovery provides an interesting and multifaceted study case for STS and HPS scholarship. In this paper, we will explore the management of credibility as it is exposed and performed within the lively public debate involving different actor groups and media (e.g. preprints, blog posts, talks, newspaper articles). With a focus on the tri-relation between media, theory and experiment, this paper will investigate also how credibility is attributed to distinct actor groups differentially. In addressing these issues, we will pay attention to how this episode of a non-discovery brings to the fore the implicit and explicit norms and standards underlying experimental and theoretical practice.

Martina Merz is Professor of Science Studies at the Department of Science Communication and Higher Education Research, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt | Wien | Graz. Sophie Ritson is a post-doctoral researcher in the project "Producing Novelty and Securing Credibility: LHC Experiments in STS-Perspective", funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

Guest Lecture by Dr. Johannes Jäger

Wed, 25 January 2017, 3:15 pm @ DK-Besprechungszimmer UZA-2H360

Putting the gene in its place: The resurgence of organismic thinking in developmental biology

During the second half of the 20th Century, biological research has become increasingly dominated by reductionist thinking. This trend is exemplified by the strong gene-centered focus of fields such as developmental and evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, reductionism is completely inadequate as an ontological foundation for the life sciences, and we are now beginning to feel the consequences of its severe conceptual limitations. Luckily, a solution to this problem has always been at hand: long before the rise of reductionism, organicism provided a suitable framework for the study of living systems. It acknowledges the special organizational characteristics and ontological status of organisms, without falling into the trap of a mystical vitalism. Since the turn of the century, we see an encouraging revival of various organicist traditions in different fields of biology. In this talk, I intend to trace some of the roots of this revival through the dark ages of molecular biology, and to provide an overview over some crucial contributions that illustrate how organicist thinking can lead to a deeper and more satisfying understanding and appreciation of the phenomenon of life.

Dr. Johannes Jäger is the scientific director of the KLI in Klosterneuburg.

Guest Lecture by Dr. Erwin Dekker

Wed, 11 January 2017, 5:15 pm @ Hs. 2H, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7

Left Luggage: The importance of Viennese culture for understanding Austrian economics

Histories of economics typically ignore the social and cultural context of the theorists. But, recently a number of scholars, including Tony Judt and Corey Robin, have attempted to discredit Austrian economics by emphasizing the (cultural) distance between the context in which the Austrians made their contributions and our current society. This article argues that they fundamentally misunderstand and misrepresent the Austrian and Habsburg context. It is argued that the relevant context, particularly for the interwar contributions of Mises, Schumpeter, Hayek and Popper is the despair about the breakdown of their civilization, because of the rise of mass political movements and ideologies such as socialism and fascism. A better understanding of that context does not only enrich the meaning of Austrian economics, but it also demonstrates that it increases their relevance for contemporary social discussions.

Erwin Dekker is assistant professor in cultural economics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (NL).

Guest Lecture by Prof. Gregory Radick

Wed, 7 December 2016, 5:15 pm @ Hs. 2H, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7

What, if anything, is Social Darwinism?

What, in the late 2010s, should an introduction to "Social Darwinism" cover, and how?  In this talk I want to articulate some of the challenges confronting any historian who wants to give the large and complex historical and historiographic difficulties that surround the topic their due, but in a way that still *introduces* the topic (as distinct from, say, denying that there's a topic to introduce, declaring interest in it to be a mark of the unsophisticated mind, etc.).  I'll also try to say a little about how far these challenges are generic ones, besetting any attempt to survey complex historical terrain, and how far they're unique to the particular scientific-ideological swamps where "social Darwinism" lies.

Gregory Radick is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds (UK).

Guest Lecture by Prof. Christina Wessely (in German)

Wed, 23 November 2016, 5:15 pm @ Hs. 2H, Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG), Universitätsstraße 7

Milieux. Umgebungen des Lebendigen in der Moderne

Fragen, die das Verhältnis vom Lokalen zum Globalen zum Inhalt haben, die sich mit den Beziehungen des Subjekts zu seiner Umwelt beschäftigen und daher an einer Vertiefung von Umgebungswissen interessiert sind, ziehen sich quer durch die Disziplinen und können als Kernthemen moderner Wissenschaft gelten. So unterschiedlich und vielschichtig sowohl diese Fragen als auch die Antworten darauf ausfallen, verweisen sie – wenn auch nicht immer explizit – strukturell doch vielfach auf einen Begriff, der historisch an prominenter Stelle zwischen diesen Themen und Problemstellungen vermittelt hat: Milieu. Der Vortrag widmet sich in einem ersten Schritt der Geschichte und Theorie des Milieubegriffs, um im Anschluss daran mit der Meeresbiologie einen wissenschaftliche Disziplin in den Blick zu nehmen, an dem er um 1900 eine besonders prominente Rolle gespielt hat. Er geht von der These aus, dass die marine Biologie im Umfeld der Einrichtung zoologischer Stationen an den europäischen Küsten seit den 1870er Jahren als zentraler Schauplatz der Entwicklung der modernen Ökologie gelten muss, und dass sich die Genese des Wissens von den Beziehungen zwischen Organismus und Umgebung insbesondere deren materieller Forschungsausrüstung verdankt.

Christina Wessely ist Professorin für Kulturgeschichte des Wissens an der Leuphana Universität Lüneburg (D).


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