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Vol. 39, No. 1, January 2010
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What’s In A Session? Lessons from the HSS Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, 19-22 Nov 2009

by Pnina G. Abir-Am, Brandeis University & Scientific Legacies,

The HSS Annual Meeting in Phoenix was one of the best HSS meetings, in the opinion of my colleagues at breakfast on its last day.[1] Besides regular attractions, such as opportunities for personal discussions with colleagues from other parts of the country, I had a few highlights of my own. Below, I am trying to extract useful lessons for future HSS Meetings from my experience with the session I had organized. Possibly, on a future occasion, I might also comment on other experiences of public interest, such as sharing advice on publishers, clarifying the status of ongoing job searches, and “diving” into the Grand Canyon with a French helicopter.[2]

Quick Links....

Notes from the Inside
Member News
2009 HSS Annual Meeting Survey
2009 Employment Survey
Adventures in Romantic Science
The True Story of Newton and the Apple
Perspectives on Science
Darwin Film Released
What’s In A Session?
Letter: How Not to Engage “Anti-Evolutionist” Historians
The John Tyndall Correspondence Project
The 2010 Election Slate
2009 Prize Winners
D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia
HSS 2010 Annual Meeting: Call for Papers
Jobs, Conferences, Grants

I organized a “special session” out of concern that a recent book’s transnational perspective might not be sufficiently noticed, given the long prevalence of nationally defined research interests. “Meet the Author: American Hegemony and the Reconstruction of Science in Europe after WW2 by John Krige (The MIT Press, 2006)” featured five speakers including the author, who holds the Kranzberg Chair at Georgia Tech and who bravely responded to four potential critics in front of what turned out to be a rather large audience. Having previously worked on European science institutions, (he shared the Alexandre Koyré Medal for 2009 awarded to the European Space Agency History Project—see the HSS Newsletter October 2009) Krige argued for the merit of concepts from diplomatic history, such as “American hegemony,” which he put to great use in his effort to explain the reconstruction of science in key European countries, from a transnational perspective. Chairperson Mary Jo Nye of Oregon State University, a former HSS President, introduced the speakers in captivating detail, while graciously clarifying a belated change in the list of speakers.[3]

Zuoyue Wang (California State Polytechnic University at Pomona), Naomi Oreskes (University of California at San Diego), and Bruno Strasser (Yale University) strove to conform to a tight schedule under Mary Jo Nye’s watchful eye, while highlighting the comparability of trans-atlantic and trans-pacific traffic in scientists, the limitations of the linear model in framing science policy during the Cold War, and the role of international organizations in resisting American hegemony, respectively. Finally, I discussed the book’s fresh look at the role of philanthropic foundations in the confrontation between communism and anti-communism during the Cold War.

The session, held in a room large enough to have hosted a reception the preceding evening, was well attended and included a lively Q&A, with queries from Allan Needell, Robert Bud, (Science Museum/ London) and Daniel Kevles. (Yale University). The new Editor-in-Chief of Centaurus, Ida Stamhuis (Free University of Amsterdam), indicated interest in converting our session into a special issue of that journal. Following good feedback from additional colleagues, I began to reflect on our session for some lessons for the future.

The first lesson was that our format was filling a special need for public discussion of different, complementary viewpoints. Since even award-winning books are highlighted by a brief citation only, such a “special session”—half as short as a regular one—helps the attendees become acquainted in a nutshell both with the book (the author’s response included musings on things that could be done differently) but also with how such a book can be viewed from the vantage of different “expertises.” The second lesson was that a paradigm change is currently taking place toward a greater emphasis on transnational history.[4] If so, we need more such sessions to remind us that in the early 1990s, when the late Elizabeth Crawford of CNRS/ Strasbourg, and a small band of survivors on the margins of national histories, first entertained the idea of a transnational history of science, they had to assemble that pioneering act beyond “the polar circle.”[5]  Evidently, HSS was ready to offer a warm welcome, and not just because of the Phoenix climate.

The last lesson pertained to balancing research lines at HSS Annual Meetings, given its policy of allowing attendees to present a paper in one session only. Some colleagues were glad that I did not forget to “return” to topics other than “women in science,” which compelled my attention at HSS Meetings in 2005 & 2007. This balancing remains a big challenge for me in 2010 when HSS meets in Montreal. Should I submit a proposal to discuss my new book[6], which solves problems in the history of DNA structure first adumbrated in my colloquium at the University of Montreal? or should I focus on how I “predicted” the 2009 Nobel to a woman chemist, the first in half a century, even though I am not an expert on comets, which may have a similarly low frequency?[7]


  1. The lack of HSS run tours to Phoenix’s Botanical Garden and to Arizona State University’s Center for Biology & Society, come to mind as oversights in an otherwise smooth meeting. But the Heard Museum had a great guide, and I even found, on my own, the wing named after our HSS colleague Joy Harvey. Breakfast companions included Marsha Richmond (Wayne State University), Betty Smocovitis (University of Florida), Hamilton Cravens (Iowa State University), and Luis Campos (Drew University).
  2. See photos of the Maverick helicopter and a bend in the Colorado River as seen from the air. I am glad to exchange notes regarding ongoing job searches.
  3. Ron Doel of Florida State University, held up by a conference in Russia, was replaced by Allan Needell of the National Museum of Air and Space, who participated from the floor.
  4. E.g. the Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, 2009, Eds. Akira Iriye and Piere-Yves Saunier, to which many of us contributed but could not afford to buy, even at a 75% author discount! I wrote the entry on “Life and Physical Sciences.”
  5. My reference was to Denationalizing Science, (1992/3) edited by E. Crawford, Terry Shinn, and Sverker Sorlin, (Kluwer, 1993) which was based on a conference held in Abisko, Sweden, loca-ted beyond the polar circle. I wrote the chapter on transnational objectivity in molecular biology.
  6. DNA at 50: History or Memory? A New Account of the Discovery of a 20th Century Icon.
  7. My “prediction” refers to a project that I began two years prior to the 2009 Nobel, entitled “The first Nobel to an Israeli Woman Scientist? Ada Yonath and the Ribosome.”

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