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December 05, 2012

Humanities Project explores role of observation in the arts and sciences

Upcoming
“Observation” talks

“What Did Einstein See? The Media of Relativity, “ a talk with Jimena Canales, associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University. Feb, 21–22.

“Looking at Fossils: Drawing and Knowing in Seventeenth-Century Italy,” a talk with Paula Findlen, the Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History at Stanford University. April 4–5.

“Observation in the Enlightenment,” a talk with Lorraine Daston, historian of science and executive director of Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. April 15–16.

The talks are free and open to the public and include subsequent discussion groups with the featured speakers. For details, visit www.rochester.edu/college/humanities or contact Claudia Schaefer at claudia.schaefer@
rochester.edu or Brad Weslake at bradley.weslake@rochester.edu.

It has been said that the scientific method—using observation and reason to understand the workings of the universe—is the basis for modern science. But how observation came to occupy this role, and how the concept has changed over time, is underexposed in its links to both science and the arts, according to Claudia Schaefer, the Rush Rhees Chair and Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature and of film and media studies.

“The scientific revolution brought about a shift in how to observe and what it means, but we rarely examine what it is you are seeing and how you are taught to see it,” says Schaefer, who, along with Brad Weslake, assistant professor of philosophy, is co-organizing “Observation,” a series of talks designed to open conversations about the history of ideas, science, and the arts.
“Historically, we want to know how observation came to occupy such a central place in science and the arts,” says Weslake. “Philosophically, we want to know why observation should play such an important role in our understanding of the world,” he explained.

“The scientific revolution brought about major shifts in the arts and sciences, changes that still provide an opening for scholars and students in different fields to learn from each other,”
—Claudia Schaefer

“The scientific revolution brought about major shifts in the arts and sciences, changes that still provide an opening for scholars and students in different fields to learn from each other,” says Schaefer. She came up with the idea for the project after taking part in the University’s bridging fellowship program, one that offers faculty members the opportunity to spend a semester exploring another field and learning the language and culture of another discipline.

In 2010, Schaefer began her fellowship, attending a class Weslake cotaught with H. Allen Orr, the Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology, titled Darwin and Religion. Originally interested in learning how Spanish culture assimilated innovations in science in sometimes unexpected ways, Schaefer said, “the course made me rethink the work I was proposing by opening my eyes to all the places that one can find science. For example, people might think of explorers when they think of science, but they don’t necessarily think to look inside the home or at the rise of photographic technologies for the masses.” This new realization began the collaboration between Schaefer and Weslake, and the creation of “Observation.”

“Similar to Claudia’s experience, we’re hoping this project stimulates conversations and creates synergies for future collaborations. We want people to walk away with something you might not have heard before,” Weslake says.

The series is sponsored by the University’s Humanities Project, an interdepartmental endeavor designed to support work by Rochester faculty in fields of humanistic inquiry.

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