History of Computing Prominent at 3 Societies Conference

The 2008 Joint Meeting of the BSHS, CSHPS, and HSS (aka 3 Societies) held at Keble College, Oxford in July was the site of several talks and sessions of interest to SIGCIS. These included a session I organized, titled ‚"Computing Without Borders: How Information Technology Crossed and Redefined Disciplinary Lines‚" and two others, "Computing in Industry and Academe‚Äù and ‚ÄúComputing and its Applications‚". The good scholarship and turnout across all the computing-related sessions point to a growing interest in computing among professional historians and philosophers of science. More details below.

This year‚ the 3 Societies conference theme was "Connecting Disciplines‚". I'll begin by reporting on the session with which I was most involved. I'm pleased to report -- not without a little presumption -- that within that session all three papers, presented by me (Joseph November), Miguel Garcia-Sancho, and Ton van Helvoort, went quite well.

Our session abstract read:

Computing Without Borders (Saturday July 5, 2008)

    Since their advent, digital electronic computers have served as means to traverse and redraw the boundaries between scientific disciplines. Though historians have devoted much attention to the postwar redefinition of disciplines, there has been only scarce coverage of how the major new scientific instrument of that era, computers, enabled such change. Via three case studies, this session demonstrates how perceptions of disciplinary boundaries were radically transformed when researchers and administrators employed computers.

    • Ton van Helvoort, in "The early development of a university computing centre (1955-1975): cementing disconnected disciplines," investigates how researchers at University of Groningen (Netherlands) used computers, starting in 1959, to integrate diverse scientific disciplines.

    • Joseph November, in "Transistorized Transdisciplinarians: Computers and the Quest to Unify Biology," examines the National Institutes of Health‚Äôs Advisory Committee on Computing in Research (NIH-ACCR) 1960s attempts to unify the life sciences in the USA by computerizing them.

    • Miguel Garcia-Sancho, in "Towards a long history of sequencing: the practice of data gathering and the emergence of the first protein and DNA structural databases (1965-1985)," shows how exploring computerized DNA sequencing could challenge the conventional historical notions of boundaries between disciplines, as well as those between academic and applied research.

Our session chair was SIGCIS's own James Sumner, who in a separate session gave a talk on Douglas Adams and computing, titled, "Six Macintoshes and an albatross: the fundamental interconnectedness of Dirk Gently." Silly aside (that I hope doesn't annoy Jim too much): here's how I would have introduced his paper:

    In 1995 Douglas Adams remarked to Robert X. Cringely, "I think a nerd is a person who uses the telephone to talk to other people about telephones. And a computer nerd therefore is somebody who uses a computer in order to use a computer." How then do you classify somebody who uses Douglas Adams to talk about computers? I'm not sure. . . but his name’s James Sumner.

On a more serious note, our computing session would have never materialized had it not been for the initiative of Rony Armon and Maya Shmailov of Bar Ilan University. Back in November 2007 they had planned for a session on instruments in the life sciences. Among their recruits, I, Ton, and Miguel all had in mind to discuss the computer as an instrument, so we ended up with our own session. Rony and Maya's sessions took form as “Connecting Disciplines in the Life Sciences: Potentials and Limitations I & II”.

Those interested in the history of computers in the sciences had a wealth of choices beside our session. The panels, "Computing in Industry and Academe” and “Computing and its Applications”, were both held Sunday July 6, 2008, which also saw Thomas Lean contributing the paper "Mapping the Micro Generation: Approaching a History of 1980’s Microcomputing" to the session "Interdisciplinarity and the ‘recent’ history of science in Britain".

I was unable to go to Oxford that day and I therefore would be grateful if somebody could report the proceedings of the sessions to us.