My talk to the Business History Collective, 6 April 2021

One of the unexpected positive effects of living in Zoomland for the past year is that many of us have found new communities of colleagues that aren’t bounded by geography. Seminars and conferences are being webcast so someone from Cambridge (either one) can tune into a workshop in Charlottesville in a way that was technologically possible before but socially and culturally unusual in many academic circles. Yesterday I gave a talk to the Business History Collective, and it was really exciting to see people tuning in from several continents. Thanks to Manuel Bautista González, Ashton Merck, and Bernado Batiz-Lato for organizing.

It was also fun to discuss a relatively new section of the book that I (largely) researched and wrote during the fall semester, which gave me an opportunity to think about how historians might adapt their sense of possibilities now that so many of our sources are online. What should we expect and do differently?

You can watch the video here. Sign up for their mailing list to hear about future workshops!

Atomic shells (repost)

I wrote the following post for the now-defunct in November 2014. But I enjoyed writing and rereading it so much that I wanted to preserve it here.

Like a lot of us, I’m applying for jobs. In practical terms, that means I have been firing a lot of PDFs into the cloud, with no reason to believe that anyone will ever read them. Months go by with nary an automatic email of receipt. So when, one recent day, I heard from an institution’s search committee, my surprise was so complete that my mind could only grasp its dimensions through an analogy. Or, more precisely, through an analogy to an analogy.

What immediately popped into my head was a famous description of a rather more important shock in the history of science: Ernest Rutherford’s astonishment that alpha particles—today aka helium nuclei—reflected off a piece of gold foil. Being told of the reflection “‘was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life,” Rutherford said in one of his last recorded lectures (he died in 1937). “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

Continue reading “Atomic shells (repost)”

What a joke (repost)

I wrote the following post for the now-defunct in September 2014. But I enjoyed writing and rereading it so much that I wanted to preserve it here.

One frigid February evening, I arrived home from a long day of dissertation-writing and fellowship-applying at my MIT office, and settled down with some kind of takeout to watch the latest episode of FX’s “Archer.” I thought I was done with the history of metrology for the day. I was so wrong.

Continue reading “What a joke (repost)”

Video from CLEAR lab launch event

Yesterday, along with the other faculty members of UVA CLEAR (the Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability, and the Rule of Law), I participated in our lab’s big launch event at the Miller Center. The room was packed—it turns out corruption is a hot topic among a certain crowd these days. Who knew? (It was a fun game trying not to mention the T word, the I word, or the U word.)

My contribution to the conversation was to historicize definitions of corruption at a larger scale, all the way back to the London docks in the 1600s and anti-Reconstruction in the 1870s. But academics weren’t what drew the crowd.

Continue reading “Video from CLEAR lab launch event”

Space oddity

(City of Vancouver Archives)

A little while back, for a reason I can’t recall, I stumbled onto the amazingly well-digitized collection of the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company records at the City of Vancouver Archives. Their laboratory records, in particular, are going to be a huge help.

But by far the best thing I found was filed under “Collected Artworks“: this cartoon of an astronaut in an early-60s capsule radioing mission control to say he’d spotted a 10-pound bag of sugar floating in orbit.

Continue reading “Space oddity”

Paper on reproducibility in npj Digital Medicine


A couple of years ago, two physician-researchers in Boston, Leo Celi and Aaron Stupple, approached me about co-writing a paper on reproducibility. It’s been an exciting, fun, and sometimes twisty interdisciplinary challenge. Happily, the result was published this week in the open-access journal npj Digital Medicine. (npj stands for Nature partner journal.)

There’s no abstract, but here is the introduction:


The reproducibility crisis in the age of digital medicine

If anyone doubts the explosive growth of interest in digital medicine, consider a recent conference and workshop in Beijing, jointly organized by the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital and MIT Critical Data to showcase the opportunities and challenges of applying machine learning to the kind of data routinely collected during the provision of care.[1] In person, 500 attendees heard a keynote and panels and participated in a health data hackathon. Online, however, the event was streamed to more than one million unique viewers.[2]

As databases of medical information are growing, the cost of analyzing data is falling, and computer scientists, engineers, and investment are flooding into the field, digital medicine is subject to increasingly hyperbolic claims. Every week brings news of advances: superior algorithms that can predict clinical events and disease trajectory, classify images better than humans, translate clinical texts, and generate sensational discoveries around new risk factors and treatment effects. Yet the excitement about digital medicine—along with the technologies like the ones that enable a million people to watch a major event—poses risks for its robustness. How many of those new findings, in other words, are likely to be reproducible?

Digital medicine must take steps to avoid a reproducibility “crisis” of the kind that has engulfed other areas of biomedicine and human science in the last decade and shaken public confidence in the validity of scientific work. The goal of this paper is to use a historical perspective on reproducibility and its current crisis to suggest how digital medicine can avoid a reproducibility crisis of its own.

Now a bunch of physicians have heard of Otto Sibum’s great work on James Joule!

What I wrote for The Atlantic over the summer

For years, I’d been meaning to write a story about frozen herring. In 2014, in the course of my research on sugar I’d come across a scandal from the 1890s, where the Treasury Department accused the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts of conspiring with customs officials there to import herring without paying any taxes. The roots of the issue, it turned out, went back decades and even involved real hand-to-hand fighting between American and Canadian (well, Newfoundlander) sailors. It was a fun story and I considered pitching it to the Atlantic or Slate or some similar publication.

One Monday morning in early June, just after Trump started a trade war with Canada, I realized that if I were ever going to write the piece, now was the time. So I did, and here it is! I can’t say it lit the internet on fire, but I’m quite proud of it (which is all down to Kathy and her wonderful editorship).

Also, it resulted in this golden tweet.