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Project Explores Role of Observation in the Arts and Sciences

November 7, 2012
ancient map

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 underexplored in its links to both science and the arts, according to Claudia Schaefer, Rush Rhees Chair, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of Rochester.

“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,” said Schaefer Schaefer, along with Brad Weslake, assistant professor of philosophy, are the co-organizers of “Observation,” a series of talks that start Thursday, Nov. 8 with a presentation by Cornell’s Peter Dear, titled, “Darwin’s Sleepwalkers: Naturalists and the Practices of Classification.” The talks are open to the public and 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,” said Schaefer. She came up with the idea for the project after taking part in the University’s bridging fellowship program, one that offers the opportunity for a faculty member 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 co-taught 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,” said Weslake.

The series is sponsored by the University’s Humanities Project, an interdepartmental endeavor designed to support work by Rochester faculty in all fields of humanistic inquiry, and includes four events from Nov. 8 to April 16. The talks are free and open to the public and include subsequent discussion groups with the featured speakers. For details, or contact Claudia Schaefer or Brad Weslake at
Highlights of “Observation” include:

“Darwin’s Sleepwalkers: Naturalists and the Practices of Classification” Talk with Peter R. Dear, professor of the history of science, Cornell University Nov. 8, 5:00 p.m. Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library

“What Did Einstein See? The Media of Relativity” Talk with Jimena Canales, associate professor of the history of science, Harvard University February 21-22, 2013, 5 p.m. Location TBA

“Looking at Fossils: Drawing and Knowing in Seventeenth-Century Italy” Talk with Paula Findlen. Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History, Stanford University April 4-5, 2013 5 p.m. Location TBA

“Observation in the Enlightenment” Talk with Lorraine Daston, historian of science and executive director, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin April 15-16, 2013 5 p.m. Location TBA

Category: Society & Culture