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Topics in the History of Modern Science and Medicine

Welcome to Topics in the History of Modern Science and Medicine! This is an honours-level discussion-based 1-semester undergraduate course in the history of modern science and medicine. The purpose of this course is to explore an exciting area of current research in the field with members of academic staff whose research relates to the topic, introducing students to the area and developing skills to engage with the latest scholarship.

The 2023 topic, taught by Dr Lukas Engelmann and Dr Michael Barany, is the history of quantification and statistics in the modern world.

Course Outline

Details on the weekly class meeting topics will be posted here.

Week 1. Quantities are People

  • Welcome and course outline
  • Population
    • Phantasmagrams (MB)
    • The Population Bomb (LE)
  • Reading and study approaches
  • Sign-up for weekly discussion leaders

Week 2. Statistical Values

This week Lukas and Michael will demonstrate what goes into your seminar presentations, and we will continue to discuss reading and interpretation approaches.


For Desrosieres you should focus on the introduction, chapter 3 and 4 and the conclusion. Accordingly, you want to come to the discussion with a good understanding of the following questions:

  1. What are the coordinates of Desrosieres' history of statistics? When and where does this history take place? In particular, see if you can identify the distinct national genealogies of statistics together with where and when they begin to intersect and merge.
  2. What does Desrosieres mean with Social Facts and what is the Realism of Aggregates and Causes? (But generally don't worry too much about grasping the epistemic philosophy details; this aspect has been much less of a factor in the work's influence.)

For Deringer, likewise spend some quality time with the introduction and then pick one of the chapters to try to follow the argument in more detail. We suggest chapters 2, 3, or 5 if there is not another one that interests you more; chapter 2 in particular if you are interested in the politics of Scottish independence, and chapter 5 in particular if you are interested in financial speculation. Be prepared to discuss:

  1. What role do numbers and calculations play in Deringer's analysis? How does he contrast his view of numbers and calculation to other historians' views of quantification in politics and economics?
  2. Can you explain the title of the book?

Week 3. Economics

The two core readings are from Donald MacKenzie and Mary Morgan. They come to the topic of financial models from different disciplinary perspectives. Pay attention to what each means by models and what methods they use to characterise them. Connecting to the first two weeks' readings, see how precisely you can articulate the place of finance in the history of quantification, and (different but related question) why has finance been so important as subject for historians of quantification?

This will be our first student-led discussion, so please come prepared to engage and support the presenter!

As with every week, pay attention to the history you are reading but also pay attention to your approach to reading and try to practice different skills and ways of finding information. How are the books structured? How can you identify the most important features of the subject, context, evidence, methods, and argument? Were there specific parts that were striking, challenging, or important?

Week 4. Trust and Madness

This week's seminar falls on a strike day. Please refer to the email announcements for guidance on what to do in such weeks.

Week 5. Health

This week's seminar falls on a strike day. Please refer to the email announcements for guidance on what to do in such weeks.

The mid-course feedback form is here. Your student login is required to access the form but responses are stored anonymously. You may complete the form any time in the next few weeks, and it is completely optional. Feedback is also accepted by email. We will share responses to the anonymous feedback with the whole class.

Week 6. Chancy Media

The focus of this week is the media theory of quantification and chance, in particular as it relates to human bodies. In addition to the core readings by Hacking and Wernimont you will find a variety of works engaging with different corporeal and material dimensions of our course themes. Hacking and Wernimont's books are both relatively short and each takes an interdisciplinary perspective that is challenging in its own way. So in addition to the core questions we ask about what a work is saying, keep thinking about issues of genre as you make sense of this week's readings.

This week we will talk a bit more about what the assessment involves. If you are already thinking of ideas for what you would like to write about, there will be a chance to share those with the class and get some preliminary reactions and feedback.

Week 7. Democracy

This week we'll discuss what it means to count people in two large and complex countries (focusing on two recent books), as part of a larger discussion about the complexities of enumeration, representation, and politics. We will also take a bit of time to catch up on unit 5 (Health) and continue discussions from last week about your ideas for assessment topics.

Week 8. Climate

Strike week, no class.

Week 9. Sorting and Ranking

Meeting during our normal time this week!

Week 10. Probability after Tech

This week we will talk about a classic and a recent intervention about the uses and abuses of probability and quantification. We will return to the theme of infrastructures. We will discuss other questions that have come up in the course that you would like to address or revisit. We will make sure everyone is feeling confident about their assessments.


  • The optional end of course feedback form is here.
  • To be honest, our most useful source of feedback is your self-evaluation in your assessment, so please focus on that and only worry about the form if there is something to add beyond your self-evaluation.
  • The exception to this is: if you have had a positive experience of the course (we hope you have!) then we would be grateful if you would write that in the form of a EUSA Teaching Award nomination (deadline 3 April). EUSA nominations are directly helpful for careers and recognition for the course organisers, and they also help future students find out about the course! Those of us who teach in semester 2 are at a disadvantage because of the nomination timing and the greater effects of industrial action in semester 2 in recent years (including this one), so we (and all your semester 2 teachers) especially welcome this form of feedback.
topics/start.txt · Last modified: 2023/03/27 15:16 by mjb