Author: Maya Meltsner

More Revolutionary Questions than Answers

Colby Professor Keith Peterson’s lecture titled ‘We Have Never Been Revolutionary’ reinforced some of the questions about the nature of a revolution that have continually popped into my mind throughout this lecture series. Some lecturers have brought up the idea that we are in a constant state of revolution. If that is the case, what does being revolutionary even mean? Is the revolutionary state constant? If revolutions are a normal part of culture, how do we pick out which events are important? Continue reading

Go Start a Revolution!

Are we in the midst of a revolution? Given the variety of revolutions that have been presented to us over the semester, the answer is undoubtedly yes. We must be in some part of some ongoing revolution of some sort. The more important question to ask ourselves is how we will participate in the revolution of our choice: What are we going to do about it? Studying the theoretical underpinnings of revolutions of the past has its value, and the series of lectures this semester provided us with a diverse definition of a revolution. The course title “Continuing Revolutions,” invites us to look into the future at the revolutions that are happening around us that will continue throughout and after our lives. How can we take this knowledge to contribute to and start the revolutions that are pertinent to the world today? Continue reading

Access to a Revolution

LaToya Ruby Frasier gave a talk in one of my classes and she made me consider the questions: who is allowed to participate in a revolution? and who is harmed by a revolution? Frasier discussed her hometown, a rural Pennsylvania suburb of Pittsburgh. One of the problems facing her town was the removal of their local hospital. A newer, shiner, ‘better’ hospital was built in a wealthier town nearby. The construction of this hospital could be considered a revolution of sorts. It is a revolution in healthcare technology and purportedly a revolution in access to healthcare. But access for whom? Who is allowed to benefit from a revolution? Not the people in LaToya Ruby Frasier’s town. Even on the scale of a small area in Pennsylvania, a revolution can have unforeseen (or possibly predicted and ignored) effects for certain groups of people. Continue reading

Processing Big Data

Professor Aaron Hanlon’s talk “Revolutions in Data, Big and Little,” made me consider the digital aspects of future history. Professor Hanlon talked through the history of data, from the genesis of the word through the scientific revolution into modern times. The more traditional forms of data, such as Robert Hooke’s drawing of the flea, were translations of observations into visual mediums that others could observe without firsthand experience. Today historians can look back on the pen and paper records that past data collectors have left. However, in today’s world, the bulk of data being produced today, including the n-grams that Professor Hanlon showcased, are digital. With the plethora of data available today, how will future historians be able to easily categorize the information of this age? Continue reading

Curating a Monument: A Monumental Task

What makes something worth preserving? Who gets to decide what is worth preserving? How does one balance the suffering caused by something with the need to recognize its history? Professor Jeffrey Schnapp’s talk, “Uncomfortable (Revolutionary) Monuments,” made me contemplate the role of preservation and monuments in the history that we remember. Professor Schnapp discussed the Monument to Victory in the Italian town of Bolzano, a remnant of the country’s fascist regime in the World War II era. He explained the controversy that has surrounded the monument for decades and the recent exhibition that strove to contextualize and acknowledge the monument’s past. The exhibit does an excellent job of navigating the thorny territory surrounding elements of history that are not remembered fondly by all. Continue reading

A Continuous Revolution

Dr. Kerry Emanuel’s talk on Revolutions in Climate Science showcased the many individuals whose efforts contributed to the development of the field. His collection of little revolutions made me question the limitations of the word ‘revolution.’ If the field of climate science came about due to multiple simultaneous revolutions, can one concrete set of revolutionary criteria explain all of the changes in the field?

Emanuel traced the roots of modern climate science back into the 19th century through multiple other fields. Advancements in fields including geology, physics, and chemistry all contributed to the development of climate science. Taking out any of those important contributions would render the future of climate science in a different way, but can each moment be counted as revolutionary? Is it possible to pinpoint one discovery or contribution as THE revolutionary moment, the spark of the revolution?

Perhaps a revolution is best considered on a large timescale, something like 300 plus years. Viewing the development of climate science as one continuous revolution means that it is in a constant revolutionary state. How does one pinpoint the exact moment of revolution? After all, each discovery is built on the thoughts, ideas, and coincidences that came before, building up a sequence of knowledge.

According to theorist Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shifts occur in scientific theory after a critical mass of new data or ideas constitute enough evidence to overturn the previously held beliefs. Under this conception of science, the development of any field is a series of revolutionary changes. If we apply this mode of thinking to climate science, what are the paradigm shifts? It is difficult to identify them from the overview that Dr. Emanuel gave, although he undoubtedly would be able to identify them.

In contrast to the increasing specialization of many fields, it seems that climate science is continually dependent on information from many different disciplines. In order to account for all of revolutionary moments in climate science, one would have to document all of the small moments in all of the fields that lead to the intellectual growth of the scientists and the public growth of perception surrounding the information.

Dr. Emanuel really made me think about all of the small moments that went into the lives of all of the scientists who collectively developed the field. Perhaps pinpointing a revolution is beside the point. A revolution does not need to have a distinct beginning or end. The climate scientists of today have a vast history to look back on, a long, revolutionary history, which gives legitimacy to their field in the face of the doubts that some have against their work.   It truly is a continuous revolution. Who knows what the next phase of the revolution will hold?

Constructing Revolutionary Narratives

Janet Browne’s talk on the Darwinian revolution revealed the power that people have to shape revolutionary narratives. Darwin himself hinted at the revolution that his explanation of evolution would cause. Supported by his family, who began to cement his legacy even when he was still alive, Darwin’s fame only grew after he published On the Origin of Species. Atheists and scientific groups have subsequently appropriated Darwin’s image and the story surrounding his ‘discovery’ of evolution has undergone various revisions. If the story of Charles Darwin draws out over hundreds of years, what other revolutions that have happened or are happening are subject to the influence of contemporary historians, philosophers, and everyday people? Probably all of them. The ways that revolutions are represented in popular culture impact the social conception of what happened as much as, if not more than, what actually happened. Continue reading

Emotional Revolutionary Virality

When asked whether the Arab Spring revolutions were a success or not, Khalid Albaih replied that “revolutions take time.” A few months, or even a few years, is not long enough to gauge the success of a movement. Albaih also discussed his experience with going viral, something that is much more fleeting. Virality is an important part of a modern revolution for spreading images and ideas in the era of social media. Viral images help fuel revolutions, but they are soon forgotten. How fleeting is virality if the themes and ideas expressed in viral social media posts live on in the revolutionary process? The idea of a continuing revolution encompasses the ongoing themes that are explained in temporary, instantly forgotten people and images. Virality and revolution go hand in hand because each large-scale event is made up of smaller scale happenings. Continue reading

Climate Change: A Modern Tambora?

Gillen Wood’s talk on some of the teleconnections caused by the eruption of the volcano Tambora in 1815 invited comparison between the global crisis following the eruption and the global crisis we face today with climate change. How did the people who were affected by Tambora react, and how are we reacting two hundred years later to climate change? How might studying the history surrounding Tambora be instructive? Wood introduced some examples from the Tambora era, but he acknowledged the difference between these two meteorological occurrences. While these two disasters have similar elements and therefore studying the effects of Tambora can inform current analysis of climate change, the different scales of these two events make a comparison only so useful.

The eruption of Tambora, the biggest volcanic activity during the Holocene, only directly affected the climate of the globe for a few years after the event. The distinct endpoints of the disaster can be tracked from the time of the eruption to the dissipation of all of the particles it released into the atmosphere, which took less than five years. The famines, cold weather, and general hell that ensued across many areas of the world settled back to equilibrium within a few years. Disaster ensued during that time because many communities were only prepared for one or two seasons of crop failure, and the extension of bad weather for up to four years decimated populations. While the extent of the social effects of such a climatic shift can be debated, the physical effects of Tambora had a beginning and an end.

Global climate change, on the other hand, has no distinct end in sight. The aerosols will not clear out of the atmosphere in five years, nor with the carbon dioxide content decrease dramatically in that time. We must be prepared to withstand much more than a decreased growing season over the course of a few years. The areas affected by climate change have little chance of reverting back to their former states physically or socially in a matter of years.

The important lesson that we can learn today from Tambora is that the climate is connected globally, and that teleconnections exist all across the globe. Melting icecaps in the polar regions affect the sea levels in tropical regions. Releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in one industrial region can warm the air in a region far removed from whatever benefits are bestowed upon the polluting region. We should recognize the connections between all areas of the globe, and by extension recognizing that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. Tambora taught us that the ramifications of one event on a small island in the Pacific can wreak havoc on the rest of the world through the atmosphere. However, climate change, our modern Tambora, has the potential to be even more destructive because of its expanded timescale.

The Legend of the Scientific Revolution

Professor Cohen’s lecture questioned the three core elements of the scientific revolution. He asked, how scientific was it?, how unique was it?, and how revolutionary was it?. There are varying degrees of legitimacy to each claim about the scientific revolution, but one element that is virtually inarguable is that in the popular conception, the scientific revolution was scientific, unique, and revolutionary. Professor Cohen concluded that scientific revolution was indeed revolutionary because it introduced revolution as metaphor. The fact that the scientific revolution lives up to its name in the popular conception of history affects its influence today more than the actual merits of this so-called revolution.

The scientific revolution looms large in many basic level history and science courses. Children are taught about Newton’s gravity-induced falling apple, Galileo’s quest to discover all he could about the stars, and Francis Bacon’s ‘invention’ of the scientific method. These people, who all had many interest and many real accomplishments, have taken on a folkloric character. They seem ethereal, staring down at us from oil paintings with their infinite wisdom. The accuracy of such personas does matter in the grand scheme of early education, as their deeds are meant to instill an interest in science and a curiosity in the possibilities of discovery.

In more advanced courses and discussions in STS and other subjects, the legitimacy of the bold claims about the importance of the scientific revolution comes under scrutiny, but the goal of these discussions should be about the effects of the perceived impact of the scientific revolution on modern society. The cultural effects of the idealized version of what went on in the laboratories and observatories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are arguably more important from a social perspective than the actual effects on modern science. The ins and outs of the mechanical and theoretical results of this time are secondary to how we remember them.

However, there is a place for refuting the legend of the scientific revolution. The accuracy of popular conceptions of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly the idea that many concepts originated there, leaves out the non-white, non-Christian participants in the world’s scientific discovery.   An historically accurate representation of who came up with what and how those ideas spread is important in understanding the past, but the popular perceptions of how the scientific revolution occurred are important in contemplating the present.

In order to understand the social ramifications of the scientific revolution, whether or not the events under that name (and what events are included in that categorization) were in fact revolutionary is beside the point. To study the social impacts, including impacts on the public view of science, of the scientific revolution, a study of the perception of the scientific revolution in various places at various times would prove useful. The legend of the scientific revolution might have begun with the men who participated in it, but it was fed, and continues to be fed, by the way the story of those men is told in classrooms, conversations, and the culture at large.