Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Initial thoughts from the ICHST 2009

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/29 at 02:14 AM

The XXIII International Congress on the History of Science and Technology is taking place in Budapest at the moment. The ICHST conference occurs every four years in different cities around the world (in 2005 it was in Beijing; in 2001 it was in Mexico City) and brings together historians of science and technology along with a wide range of scholars from other fields who are working on historical projects from all over the globe: U.S. and Western European scholars were joined by historians from Japan, Korea, China, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Nepal, Kenya, and the Republic of Iran (just to name a few). This diversity of scholars—who bring sometimes widely divergent methods and goals—creates a very different intellectual and social atmosphere from what dominates the annual History of Science Society conference.

The ICHST the conference feels enormous. This year’s conference lasts five days and concludes with three closing plenary lectures on the sixth day. To accommodate the nearly 1500 participants, four simultaneous sessions run each day beginning at 9:00 and ending finally at 19:30. A helpful if daunting 750-page volume of abstracts was printed and distributed to all participants. Despite the organizers’ best efforts to make sure that thematically or chronologically similar sessions would not run at the same time, the number of simultaneous sessions ensures that you will frequently have to choose between competing lectures.

Sessions ranged widely across time and topic. Along with the plethora of modern sessions, a pleasant surprise for me was the number of symposia and regular sessions that focused on ancient (both classical and eastern), medieval (including Islamic and Byzantine), and Renaissance science. Symposia allowed multiple sessions to explore particular themes, e.g., a full day is devoted to “Questions of Reflexivity: The International Circulation of Knowledge and Techniques” or “Global Visions? The Telescope between Competition and Collaboration.” The Antikythera mechanism has proved particularly popular with participants. In addition to a plenary lecture by Alexander Jones, the “The Antikythera Mechanism and its Place in the History of Science, Technology and Ideas” promises to be something of an Antikythera marathon with its 18 papers over a day and a half. Regular sessions are grouped around broad topics such as “Technology in the Contemporary Period (1800-)” and seem to be more manageable.

Finally, the local organizing committee has taken the opportunity to showcase Budapest and the environs and has arranged a number of tours to nearby sites and evening events, as well as the obligatory conference dinners. Standing here looking forward to the next few days, I am already exhausted just thinking about the lectures, the side trips, the evening lectures and dinners. I hope to post an update around the middle of the conference and a second at the end.

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