Caltech's Atomic-Age Greenhouse: Exploring the Laboratory Side of the Lab-Field Borderland

Sharon Kingsland, Johns Hopkins University

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science

Friday, January 23, 2009 - 3:00pm

Ewell Sale Stewart Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences

Time: Discussion, 4:00 - 5:30 p.m.,
followed by social hour and light dinner
Location: Ewell Sale Stewart Library,
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
(directions) Please download the paper and read it in advance of the colloquium. Abstract. In Landscapes and Labscapes Robert Kohler focused on the dynamic relationship between laboratory and field cultures, arguing that there was a move away from laboratory ideals of science and the creation of new “hybrid” or mixed practices in field research as the field sciences matured. This article explores related changes occurring in the laboratory, especially the use of novel designs and practices aimed at the analysis of organism-environment relations in the mid-twentieth century. Victor Shelford envisioned a new kind of climate simulation laboratory for ecological research in 1929, but his ideas were too ambitious for the time. In the postwar period Frits W. Went, plant physiologist at the California Institute of Technology, created a new high-tech laboratory, dubbed a “phytotron,” in the hope that it would transform plant sciences by allowing for unprecedented control of environmental variables. Went’s aspirations for his laboratory, the research conducted there, and its impact in initiating an international movement, are considered. Went’s laboratory can be seen as the locus of a “hybrid culture” emerging in the laboratory that complemented and intersected with some of the hybrid field practices that Kohler described. It was also a countercultural movement against the reductionist trends of molecular biology in the 1950s and 1960s. Putting the laboratory into the history of field sciences enables us to explore what Kohler referred to as the “coevolution” of field and laboratory science and raises further questions about the development of field sciences in the postwar period.