Brown Bag Lecture: "Of Shuffled Punched Cards and Errant Polymers: Theory, Industry and War in Mid-20th Century America."

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Date: February 18, 2014
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Juan-Andres Leon

A crucial scientific challenge of the 20th century was the understanding of what came to be known as polymers, the long chains of molecules that were observed in wood, textile fibers, rubbers, and later in plastics and biological building blocks such as proteins and DNA. This was an area of scientific practice closely connected to industrial, medical, and military needs, while at the same time its analytical framework, which originated in the 1930s, was deeply mathematical; a confluence that provides a unique glimpse into the relationship between industry and fundamental theoretical science.

This lecture focuses on the adoption of a concept that was central to attempts to understand and manipulate these substances: the random walk. Much more than a useful analogy, these mathematical entities became the pillar of a radical philosophy of stochasticity or randomness, which expressed itself most strongly in operations research and in the minimalist simulations created for early calculating machines and computers. The lecture establishes parallels between changing forms of doing theoretical science and underlying shifts in industrial and military needs, spanning from the golden age of private research in the 1920s, through the destitute period of the 1930s, World War II interdisciplinarity, and the scientific expansion and petrochemical revolution of the Cold War era.

Leon is the 2013–2014 Gordon Cain Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Technology, Policy, and Entrepreneurship. His dissertation, “Citizens of the Chemical Complex” (Harvard University, 2013), explored the persona of the chemical industrialist in Imperial and Weimar Germany, showing how scientific identity shaped the German business landscape and the practice of science philanthropy. At CHF, he has begun a new research project that analyzes the incursion of mathematical models and computer simulations in postwar industrial and academic chemistry in the United States.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

For more information, please call 215.873.8289 or e-mail

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