Daniel Liu

Charles C. Price Fellow

  • Phone: 215.629.5188

Daniel Liu is a PhD candidate studying the history of modern biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Program for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. His dissertation, “Molecules in Biology before Molecular Biology, 1920–1950,” examines how biologists coped with the revolutionary changes in theories of atomic bonding and molecular structure in physics and chemistry in the first decades of the 20th century.

Was the living “stuff” at the origin of life a protoplasmic blob or a wispy thread of nucleic acid? Would cells be better thought of as a “colloidal mess a dog wouldn’t look at” or as a “fine meshwork and lattice” of crystalline fibers? Today we’re accustomed to thinking of living bodies and cells as organized collections of large and small molecules. Yet until the 1940s many biologists had little idea of what molecules were or what they looked like, and fewer still thought something as large as a cell could have a stable, molecular structure. Since the late 19th century everyone had assumed that the physico-chemical basis of “life” was the protoplasm, a structureless colloidal substance or gel. During the 1930s scientists in biological disciplines, including zoology, botany, and physiology, selectively used analogies in fiber and textiles science to shift descriptions of cell and tissue structure from a strong colloidal ontology to an ontology based on discrete, repeating molecules. Reimagining cells and protoplasm to have a molecular structure would require the development of inferential techniques and new graphical conventions, many of which are still familiar to us today.

Dan obtained his undergraduate degree in history from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 2008. After a brief stint working in electoral politics with the Oregon Bus Project, he and two friends bicycled from Portland to Duluth, Minnesota, with Dan relocating to Madison, Wisconsin, a week later to begin his graduate studies.