It is our very great pleasure to share some excellent news! BEC member Daniel Liu has just been awarded the 2020 Everett Mendelsohn Prize for his article 'The Cell and Protoplasm as Container, Object, and Substance, 1835-1861'. You can read more about the prize announcement here.
We were able to get hold of Daniel and asked him in what ways this particular paper might be of interest to the BEC crowd. He writes:
Very many thanks to Dan for taking the time to write to us, and our hearty congratulations to him for such a well deserved award!
We are pleased to share two new publications from BEC members which our readers might find of interest. Both have been included in our updated list of publications.
The Artificial Cell, the Semipermeable Membrane, and the Life that Never Was, 1864–1901
Since the early nineteenth century, a membrane or wall has been central to the cell’s identity as the elementary unit of life. Yet the literally and metaphorically marginal status of the cell membrane made it the site of clashes over the definition of life and the proper way to study it. In this article I show how the modern cell membrane was conceived of by analogy to the first “artificial cell,” invented in 1864 by the chemist Moritz Traube (1826–1894), and reimagined by the plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer (1845–1920) as a precision osmometer. Pfeffer’s artificial cell osmometer became the conceptual and empirical basis for the law of dilute solutions in physical chemistry, but his use of an artificial analogue to theorize the existence of the plasma membrane as distinct from the cell wall prompted debate over whether biology ought to be more closely unified with the physical sciences, or whether it must remain independent as the science of life. By examining how the histories of plant physiology and physical chemistry intertwined through the artificial cell, I argue that modern biology relocated vitality from protoplasmic living matter to non-living chemical substances—or, in broader cultural terms, that the disenchantment of life was accompanied by the (re)enchantment of ordinary matter.
The Diversity of Engineering in Synthetic Biology
A recurrent theme in the characterization of synthetic biology is the role of engineering. This theme is widespread in the accounts of scholars studying this field and the biologists working in it, in those of the biologists themselves, as well as in policy documents. The aim of this article is to open this black-box of engineering that is supposed to influence and change contemporary life sciences. Too often, both synthetic biologists and their critics assume a very narrow understanding of what engineering is about, resulting in an unfruitful debate about whether synthetic biology possesses genuine engineering methodologies or not. By looking in more detail to the diversity of engineering conceptions in debates concerning synthetic biology, a richer perspective can be developed. In this article, I will examine five influential ways in which engineering is understood in these debates, namely engineering as applied science, as rational methodology, context-sensitive practice, cunning activity or design. The claim is first of all thus to argue that engineering must not be seen as something stable or characterized by a fixed essence. It rather has multiple meanings and interpretations. Secondly, the claim is that most of the debates on synthetic biology cannot be indifferent towards the question which conception of engineering is at play, since the specific questions and concerns that pop up depend to a great extent on the precise conception of engineering one has in account. Many of the existing debates around synthetic biology can thus be reinterpreted and readdressed once one is aware of which conception of engineering is at play.
We would love to see this position filled by someone with interests in biology meeting engineering! The full advert can be found here: ADVERT.
Dr Helen Curry and Dr Sarah Wilmot are advertising a PhD studentship that might appeal to those interested in the BEC. You can learn all about it here, please do spread the word: https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/potato-farming-pharmaceutical-factories-businesses-plant-virus-research-britain-1920-2020
Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice meeting 2020 - expressions of interest for papers on intersections of biology and engineering
We are keen to hear from anyone interested in contributing papers on intersections of biology and engineering at the next SPSP meeting. We are happy to explore possible themes with interested parties.
Please write to Dr. Janella Baxter by October 31st 2019 with expressions of interest: firstname.lastname@example.org
Authors: Dominic Berry, Janella Baxter and Rob Smith
It is our great pleasure to welcome you to the Biological Engineering Collaboratory! This is an interdisciplinary network for scholars working in the history, philosophy and social studies of science, technology, and engineering, who have an interest in knowledge at intersections of biology and engineering. While there are many ways that one might be interested in biological engineering from the perspectives of history, philosophy, and science and technology studies, and many things that 'biological engineering' might be taken to be, the Collaboratory has emerged thanks to some more specific shared starting assumptions, which you can learn more about on the Introduction page.
This network has been brought to life thanks to some excellent feedback the three of us received at a recent meeting of ISH, which you can learn more about on our Events page. Of course, the recency of that event belies a much longer history of scholarly attention given to cases where biological knowledge and engineering knowledge meet, intersect, overlap, compete, and so on. One of the first resources we are planning on making is an annotated bibliography which will give you all a chance to see how the network Members are building on a diverse and dispersed range of scholarly work and the significant debts we all owe.
In building such a resource, and others like it, we hope to offer means for researchers to more collectively navigate the problem space, even as their distinct questions and approaches continue to distinguish them. We also of course hope to attract new people to these areas, offering starting points for future inquiry. This is a larger overall agenda for the network, one that we will pursue in a number of ways. We recognise that interest in questions concerning biological engineering in either the history, or philosophy, or social study of science, is relatively small. We are interested in seeing what happens when we work together. Interdisciplinary collaboration is therefore intended not only as a potential good in itself, but as a way to gather momentum around shared questions, create opportunities for more precise and better defined critical inquiry, all with the aim of pushing understanding of biology, engineering, and their significances in our respective fields, further forward.
One of our most important primary objectives is to win sufficient funding to host an international conference, so keep your eyes peeled for that kind of notification. We will be running a Twitter account, but not a mailing list (we think everyone gets enough emails). Anyone invested in the network should remember to send us news of their publications and planned talks or events so that we can include them on the site. We are also running a blog, so if you have a topic you’d like to write about (1000 words or thereabouts) do let us know.
Last, if you would be interested in becoming a member, please write to Dr Dominic Berry with a few lines explaining your interest. Please use what we have written on the Introduction page as a good starting point, to see if your interests really do coincide! Our contact details can be found on the Contact page.