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Climate in word and image: science and the Austrian idea

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One of the most urgent challenges of climate research today is that of conceptualizing interactions across scales of space and time. In her book in progress, Deborah Coen examines how this problem was addressed in the late Habsburg Monarchy, where scientists developed an unprecedented conceptual apparatus for tracking the transfer of energy from the molecular scale to the planetary. Her presentation will offer an overview of this project. The central argument is that these innovations arose in part as a solution to a problem of representation, a problem that engaged Habsburg scientists as servants of a supranational state. The problem was to represent local differences while producing a coherent overview; that is, to do justice to the vaunted diversity of the Habsburg lands while reinforcing the impression of unity. This problem was worked out at the interface between physical and human geography, and it stimulated technical innovations across a range of media, from cartography, to landscape painting, to fiction and poetry, to mathematical physics, while also shaping political discourse. In this way, Climate in Word and Image writes the history of climate science as a history of scaling: the process of mediating between different systems of measurement, formal and informal, designed to apply to different slices of the phenomenal world, in order to arrive at a common standard of proportionality. A focus on scaling emphasizes not only the cognitive work of commensuration, but also the corporeal, emotional and social effort that goes into recalibrating our sense of the near in relation to the far.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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