Tag Archive for Paul Erickson

Van Vleck Observatory Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition, Event Series

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. Photo by John Van Vlack.

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory is celebrating its centennial this spring, with a series of events and an exhibition beginning in early May.

On May 6, the observatory’s library will reopen to the public with an exhibition on the history of astronomy at Van Vleck. Developed by a team of faculty, students, and staff, the exhibition will use the observatory’s extensive collection of scientific instruments, teaching materials, photographs, drawings, and correspondence to illustrate both the changes in astronomical research and teaching over the past century, and the observatory’s consistent mission of conducting instruction and research under the same roof. The exhibition will incorporate the history of science into Van Vleck’s existing public outreach programs through period lectures, demonstrations of historic artifacts, and gallery talks.

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th-century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The exhibition was spearheaded by Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy, Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, and Paul Erickson, associate professor of history, associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of science in society.

More events are planned in the run-up to the exhibition opening. On May 1, the Wesleyan Orchestra will hold a concert featuring astronomically themed music, including John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed using star charts from the Van Vleck Observatory library. On May 3, Special Collections & Archives will host an exhibition, “A Stellar Education: Astronomy at Wesleyan, 1831-1916.” Located on the first floor of Olin Library, the exhibition documents the study of astronomy at Wesleyan from the university’s opening through the construction of the Van Vleck Observatory. On May 4, the History Department is hosting David DeVorkin, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who will give a talk situating Van Vleck in the history of American observatories.

Courant Explores History of Astronomy at Wesleyan Ahead of Centennial Celebration

cam_vvo_2013-0102225113Ahead of the centennial celebration of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory, The Hartford Courant explored a bit of observatory history, including some recent discoveries of rare artifacts.

A team of Wesleyan professors and students, together with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, is preparing for an exhibit this spring, “Under Connecticut Skies: Exploring 100 Years of Astronomy at Van Vleck Observatory in Middletown, Connecticut.”

“We’ve been looking into every nook and cranny to see what we have here,” Associate Professor of History Paul Erickson told the Courant. One exciting find: a rare early mechanical model of the solar system, long believed to be lost, known as “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium or Columbian Orrery.” Back in the 1830s, the device traveled the country in a wagon to be exhibited to big crowds.

According to the story:

Some of the other finds include an early 18th century French refractor telescope and a late 19th century mechanical calculating machine known as “the Millionaire.” The Swiss-made machine was employed in the principal research of the observatory, attempting to calculate stellar distances. “Astronomy involves a lot of number crunching, so this was a very useful tool before the computer,” Erickson said.

Of particular interest is the observatory guestbook, which records the visits of world-famous astronomers, such as Harlow Shapley, the first scientist to correctly estimate the size of the Milky Way, and Edwin Powell Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named. There is also a visit in the 1920s of a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Read more about a project to restore the Van Vleck Refractor telescope here. The project is set to wrap up this summer.

7 Faculty Promoted, Awarded Tenure

In its most recent meeting, the Board of Trustees promoted seven faculty members.

The BOT conferred tenure on Lauren Caldwell, associate professor of classical studies; Stephen Collins, associate professor of film studies; Paul Erickson, associate professor of history; Matthew Garrett, associate professor of English; Brian Northrop, associate professor of chemistry; Julia Randall, associate professor of art; and Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy.

The promotions are effective July 1, 2015.

Brief descriptions of their areas of research and teaching appear below.

Lauren Caldwell
Caldwell’s research focuses on Roman social history, Roman law, and Greco-Roman medicine. Her recent book, Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity (Cambridge University Press, 2014) investigates the social pressures

Erickson Co-Authors Book on Rationality during the Cold War

Paul Erikson

Book by Paul Erickson.

Paul Erickson, assistant professor of history, is the co-author of How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality,” published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

In the United States at the height of the Cold War, roughly between the end of World War II and the early 1980s, a new project of redefining rationality commanded the attention of sharp minds, powerful politicians, wealthy foundations, and top military brass. Its home was the human sciences—psychology, sociology, political science and economics, among others—and its participants enlisted in an intellectual campaign to figure out what rationality should mean and how it could be deployed.

How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind brings to life the people—Herbert Simon, Oskar Morgenstern, Herman Kahn, Anatol Rapoport, Thomas Schelling, and many others—and places, including the RAND Corporation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Cowles Commission for Research and Economics, and the Council on Foreign Relations, that played a key role in putting forth a “Cold War rationality.” Decision makers harnessed this picture of rationality—optimizing, formal, algorithmic, and mechanical—in their quest to understand phenomena as diverse as economic transactions, biological evolution, political elections, international relations, and military strategy. Erickson and the other authors chronicle and illuminate what it meant to be rational in the age of nuclear brinkmanship.

Order the book online here.

Erickson Receives Young Scholars’ Prize in History of Science and Technology

Paul Erickson. (Photo by Corrina Kerr)

Paul Erickson was honored for his contribution to the History of Science in Western Civilization. (Photo by Corrina Kerr)

Paul Erickson, assistant professor of history and assistant professor of Science in Society, has been awarded the 2009 Prize for Young Scholars from the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, Division of History of Science and Technology (DHST). He received the award at an August ceremony in Budapest, Hungary.

The award was bestowed in recognition for Erickson’s significant scholarly contribution to the History of Science in Western Civilization. The prize is awarded every four years at meetings of the Union Congress to recent PhDs in the history of science and technology for outstanding dissertation projects on topics in the western tradition. Erickson’s dissertation, “The Politics of Game Theory: Mathematics, Rationality, and Cold War Culture” impressed the award committee with its “innovative approach” and manner of making “mathematics and Cold War culture accessible for a critical discussion.”

In citing his dissertation, the prize committee stated “Erickson did a brilliant job in discussing a topic with a mathematical image in a real historical way.” The citation also heralded Erickson’s ability to explain the “incompatible applications of game theory in the military and evolutionary realm.” Notably, Erickson was selected for the Young Scholars award by unanimous vote of the prize committee.

Erickson's award.

Erickson's award.

Game theory, which models strategic interactions between rational individuals, was developed in the 1920s and `30s by the Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann and the Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern. The theory’s original inspiration was parlor games like chess and poker, but in the wake of World War II, military-funded mathematicians found applications of the theory to problems of tactical decision-making and logistics. Subsequently, game theory has become a central modeling technique throughout the social and biological sciences, from economics and psychology to evolutionary biology, according to Erickson.

“Game theory is also a theory of how human beings should behave rationally, perhaps; how they do behave; how they might behave and so forth,” Erickson says.

”My work can be read on two levels. On one hand, it tells the history of game theory as a branch of mathematics. On the other, it presents a history of rationality in 20th century America by focusing on links between game theory and broader currents in American culture and politics,” he says.

Erickson explored the ways in which rationality became a seriously contested concept in the nation during the Cold War—especially from a political and cultural standpoint.

Erickson completed his PhD in the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has been at Wesleyan University since summer, 2008. He specializes in the science of the Atomic Age, the history of ecology, biology and technology, game theory’s wider applications in science and social science, the study of populations and science in public policy, among other research specialties and interests.

Photos from the Union Congress are available here.