Introducing Intern, First Class: Hanna Sophie Frey

DailyDose_PosterThis week, we are featuring a post by our new Intern, First Class, Hanna Sophie Frey.

Hanna Sophie is an anthropologist from Munich, who is currently working towards a Master´s degree in archives at Simmons College in Boston. She is doing research on the production of knowledge, its connections to Science and Technology Studies, and Material Culture Studies. You can find her on twitter @hannasophiefrey.

Without further ado, here is Hanna Sophie.

HannaSommer2015As the new intern first class, anthropologist and archivist in training, this is what I nerd out about:

Remember The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman? Remember the ghosts and their stories lost to most human ears?

Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose has shown me so many of the ghost-stories of history. Just last week, Anna reviewed From Eve to Evolution, a book detailing the female voices confronted with the possibilities and changes to the category “woman,” instigated by a new general discussion around evolutionary theory. This story has not been told yet, but Anna found another silence within this closed gap: the issue of race as part of feminist discourse between Darwin and theology.

The relationships between the voices heard and the realities forgotten are part of the political aspect of archives and history, which is exactly why I am on my way to becoming an archivist. I have seen archives as both spaces full of dusty boxes and shiny new shelves on wheels, I have seen ink fingerprints on manuscripts from the nineteenth century, and I am reading about the struggle to preserve technologies that evolve faster than our budgets. In all these experiences and readings, I have never seen archives as neutral spaces. Archives collect, they preserve, they make accessible, and they do so as institutions and as individuals. They (we) are tied to their backgrounds and biases as political beings, and as such, we work in a sensitive spot in our society´s memory-practices.

These political interactions with primary sources are vital to the keeping of memories, and I use the plural here on purpose. Sources carry multiple stories in them, which can again be read in a multitude of ways. These pluralities are communicated in a political space, as we negotiate meanings by interacting with the sources, both as researchers and as archivists.

Archivists can perform these interactions almost invisibly to their patron´s eyes, but this does not have to be the case. The way we process the collections gives us unique views on the content of the dusty boxes and shiny shelves, and our biases and general humanity shapes the way we arrange and describe the collections. This fact does not have to be invisible. We can talk about it. We can have discussions, as patrons and archivists, on the way we see and experience the collections we interact with. If we bring multiple perspectives together in the writing of history, everybody profits. That is the potential of archives. They give us the possibility to interact with each other and past stories, to create multiple perspectives of the past. Archives are the place where we can find the stories that show us history as a web of experiences.

So go into your local archive, use their excellent online databases, and engage in a conversation.

Let´s collaborate in archives as political spaces, and build intersections of perspectives.

We can also start the conversation right here, in the comment section, or through your submission to our CfP! Or you can join the DERAIL forum at Simmons College, a student organized conference about highlighting critical approaches to Library and Information Science practice and education.

A Reprise on Physics: Quantum Mechanics and the God of Probability

DailyDose_PosterI spent yesterday reading a book published by John’s Hopkins University Press: Einstein’s Jewish Science. In one of those lovely and rare moments, something I am working on for my non-fiction/Dittrick-related projects overlapped with a concept I’m working through in fiction. That is: what are the intersections between religion and science, between belief in God and belief in the universe? For Einstein (and forgive the oversimplification), the universe was God. Rather than a supreme rule-giver, he saw the many mysterious filaments of space and time as the outreaching principle of “god”ness. This idea comes, in many ways, from Spinoza–accused of heresy by Jews and Christians alike, Spinoza’s concept of ultimate logic binds the idea of God into creation, creation and God are one and the same. I spent time with Spinoza in my dissertation, so again, this is a generalization of what’s really far more complex. But that is the point really; it’s all far more complicated than we have words to capture. And for Einstein, it was the mystery of that which spurred humanity. We are always on the edge of knowing, the edge of seeing, the edge of something bigger than our minds can fathom. It put me in mind of a blog post written a few years ago, when I got my first dose of quantum entanglement. 


[REPOST] Last night, I spent an hour watching NOVA’s Fabric of the Cosmos. I then spent several additional hours researching quantum mechanics and “spooky action.” Why? Well, for starters, this is what passes for big fun on a Monday night in the Schillace household. But it is also true that I’ve maintained a fascination for physics since my youth. I was even lucky enough to teach with Dr. Philip Taylor of Case Western Reserve University–and though I was “co-teaching” I think I learned as much as or more than the students. That class concerned energy resources, but I am particularly interested in quantum mechanics, probability, and the extremely improbable (and yet testable) actions of very small things: Quantum Entanglement.

Hang in there, though! I promise this foray is very much for the uninitiated novice–since I am one myself. Physics need not be unapproachable; for me, it is a useful lamp enlightening my understanding of self, of reality, and of God: the Big God of very small things.

File:Niels Bohr Albert Einstein3 by Ehrenfest.jpg
Bohr & Einstein, Public Domain

Quantum Problems
The bizarre nature of Quantum Entanglement spurred a famous debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Bohr’s theory–which I am not remotely qualified to explain, though I will try–suggested that: 1) two particles could become interrelated or entangled and 2) after which, they could interact even at astronomical distances, without any visible connection. This alone is not so wild a notion. But there is more. The location and action of very small particles, electrons, let’s say, can only be predicted in terms of probability waves. We can’t fix an electron until we have measured it. We can’t even tell if it is spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise until we have measured it…and here is the mind-blowing part–the act of measuring it determines both its spin and its location.

Two dice in space
Wellcome Image, Creative Commons

Let me try to break that down a bit better. If I measure Electron A, I have just “forced” it to have a specific location and spin. And, somewhere out there, Electron B (which is entangled with A), has also been “fixed” because of my measuring. What? That makes no sense. That’s what Einstein said, too, and he compared it to playing dice with the Universe: “I’d like to think the moon is still there, even when I’m not looking at it.” Wise words. And yet, again and again, physics has proven that this entanglement–what Einstein attacked as “spooky action”–exists. It’s weird. It’s as though by the mere act of looking, we make reality–we make things exist. To Einstein, that flew in the face of certainty and–in a sense–of a God-ordered universe. But does it? This question leads me to my own fascination with Quantum Mechanics: for me, the flex of all particles, the nature of probability and the fact that we can influence that probability by “fixing” reality enlarges (rather than threatens) my picture of God and my understanding of the world.

The Power of Words
Should it be so strange to us that “looking” makes reality? Isn’t that true of so many of our experiences? What is “gender” or “race” but a word that we have used to define things which are, in fact, in-determinant, always changing, individually distinct and never truly fixed? I was nearly five years old before discovering that I was “female” and so different from my “male” playmates, with different expectations (and some unfair limitations). The day previous, I was a child, free to do as I liked. The day after, a fixed entity that would either conform or resist–but in either case, conform to or resist against a “thing” that had been suddenly created in my world. As an electron, I had been pinned. This has been part of a sad history in our culture, one of naming so as to exclude–but mightn’t it also be a force for good? For change? Mary Wollstonecraft, Francis Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, Martin Luther King Jr. and more would say yes.

We use words to make reality, and words–like the mathematics described by Bohr–are really systems of measurement. We speak things into being. We talk ourselves into the labels and roles and even feelings that make up who we are at some fixed point. We do not “be”–we “become.” To Einstein, at the quantum level, this looked too much like a universe ruled by chance. However, if we step back–back to the Word, the Logos, the speaking of worlds into being–then it seems much more like a universe wherein we are all, constantly, effecting change through seeing, through entangling, through speaking. Multiple worlds may exist at any one moment, determined on waves of probability and fixed only when we name them. Word is powerful. Word has been creative and destructive. And it is a power left in our finite hands. This does challenge my view of the cosmos and so also of God–but only because my picture of God was too small, too limited. How wonderfully freeing to think there is a realm, somewhere on the other side of the Big Bang, where Life, the Universe and Everything (to quote Douglas Adams) is just on the verge of being born, on the crest of a probability wave of becoming.

I do not know if Dr. Bohr would necessarily follow my reasoning here; there are many physicists who probably don’t equate this quantum view with an expansive notion of a creative God. Some of them might even argue that what I am weighing in my mind are two entirely different things, even mutually exclusive things. But to demand that we settle on one or the other–or to imagine that somehow a change on the one side could not affect change on the other–would negate, in a sense, the principles of Quantum Mechanics itself.  “God does not play dice with the Universe,” Einstein claimed… But to this, Bohr supposedly replied: “don’t tell God what to do.”

All things are possible; we are only limited by the parameters of our own system of measurement. Why should we limit ourselves to a godless universe, when infinity itself beckons?

The Act of Becoming: History and Process

DailyDose_PosterAs I have been researching for the Dittrick Museum’s NEH funded How Medicine Became Modern project, one thing continues to rise, like persistent smoke over a not-dead fire: We are all becoming.

If you take a slice of time, section it out from history, and reproduce it, you necessarily remove it from its social, economic, cultural, and medical context. We might compare this to other dissections; if you were to remove an organ from the body with the object of “preserving it,” you would cut the vessels and arteries, sever the nerves. You would preserve a moment in time, cut off from the living, constantly changing organism in which it once flourished. Our bodies, our systems, our governance, our societies, are in a constant state of flux.

Some call this entropy. In thermodynamics, entropy is the measure of disorder–of decay. In ecology, however, entropy is the measure of biodiversity–of life itself. Change is the indicator of life, or living, and of have-lived. We are change.

IMAGE_2In the history of medicine, this sense of change shows up as very non-linear progress. A quick case study: germ theory offered a true paradigm shift, a huge leap forward in understanding the cause and consequence of disease. But the implementation of the theory went in several directions; living in the moment, you could not have predicted its course. The carbolic acid sprayer represents one way forward; you could spray down the surgery, the surgeons, and everything else with the caustic stuff and kill the germs that were there. It saved lives! But it was, itself, short lived. Why? Because aseptic medicine (gloves, gowns, sterilization, etc) made it possible to keep the germs from getting in to begin with–no need to hose down the hospital room. The latest innovation gets relegated to the museum in short order, and that, for a successful device! Imagine those unsuccessful ones, the attempts, the trials. “What was 19th century medicine like?” There isn’t a single answer. And someday, when the same question is posed about our modern medicine, it will be just the same.

Looking at a slice can be useful–as useful as examining a preserved organ. But it can be misleading, too. Slate carried a response today to the Vox Victorians, the couple (Sarah Chrisman ad her husband) who claim to live “just like” the Victorians. The criticism: you cannot. Because this is not the Victorian Age. That era has passed, and along with it, many of the diseases and public health problems that plagued its people and dirtied its cities. Sarah Chrisman herself suggests that historians make this error all the time, misinterpreting the past. Of course, as historians, we are often very cognizant of our limitations (and usually list those very biases in the research). But Chrisman’s attempt at recapturing the past is likewise flawed. Just as the Victorians were in their own process of becoming–driven by the thrush and thump of a nation’s heartbeat, fed by its food, circulated by its air, debilitated by its diseases–so too is she (and all the rest of us). We cannot escape our moment in time, though we trail the spiderwebs of by-gone eras, and grasp at the starry field of yet-unfolded tomorrows.

It is a privilege to look into history from so healthy and unencumbered a vantage point. I know I am enriched by the discoveries and progress of my forebears, even while I inherit a still-ailing world. I say frequently that you can’t know where you are going without understanding where you have been; I think, though, the inverse is also true. You cannot really know the past without a recognition of your present, and of your hopeful contribution to the future.

And it is something I continue to be mindful of, even as we seek to share: How Medicine Became Modern.