Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Progress by Design

Mathematization in Science and Engineering from the Enlightenment to the Personal Computer

Date: June 23 - 25, 2011

Convenors: Ann Johnson (Columbia, SC), Johannes Lenhard (Bielefeld)

What does the design of bridges in the early 19th century share with the cybernetic vision of a world model (Club of Rome), or with recent systems biology? All make use of mathematization, though involving very different political and instrumental contexts.

By exploring and analyzing the conception of mathematization, the workshop combined two perspectives. First, engineering was viewed not as tinkering and variation of established recipes. Rather, the role of mathematization as an instrument or tool was in the foreground and the ways it is enabling a more theoretical and quantitative approach to design. Second, this theme was scrutinized by comparing episodes from very different historical eras. The participants contributed a great variety of approaches, ranging from 18th and 19th century civil engineering, over the development of technological sciences at the turn to the twentieth century, to early computer use in cybernetics and medicine. DNA microarrays and claims about ‘agnostic science’ constituted the latest instance of instrumental mathematization.

This two-day workshop made use of the ZiF’s roundtable room which provides an actual round table for roundtable discussions. The explorative setting intentionally brought together researchers unlikely to meet at a different—less interdisciplinarily-oriented—occasion. Thus it proved possible to link perspectives from history of science, history of technology, philosophy of science, of mathematics, of biology, and of engineering to get a grip on the topic of mathematization and the various predictive and instrumental capacities it was ascribed over more than two centuries. In effect, the encounter of different but overlapping viewpoints created a rich picture of mathematization and the history and philosophy of mathematical models.


Gerard Alberts (Amsterdam), Brett Calcott (Canberra), Frédéric Graber (Paris), Ron Kline (Ithaca, NY), Ulrich Krohs (Bielefeld), Ben Marsden (Old Aberdeen), Domenico Napoletani (Manassas, VA), Joe November (Columbia, SC), Marco Panza (Paris), Michael Otte (Bielefeld), Beckett Sterner (Chicago, IL)

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