Exploring Traditions: Sources for a Global History of Science

31 May 2013

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT - SG1&2

Online registrations are now closed. Please email conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk if you would like to take part.
Conference fee:
£15 (full); £7 (student)


Dr Sujit Sivasundaram (Faculty of History)

Professor Simon Schaffer (HPS)


This workshop continues an important set of debates and reflexions on the interaction between histories of the sciences and models of global history.  These debates ask fundamental questions about what science has meant on the global stage and how sciences have come to take form through global confrontations, connections and politics. A previous CRASSH workshop in May 2009, entitled, Are we ready to recast the history of science? made a significant contribution to this historiographical conversation and generated a special ‘focus’ issue in Isis (2010).

One question that emerged from that special issue asked about the integration of varied sources from different cultural positions in forging a global history of science. For too long European sources and remains have been prioritised in this historiography. This led to the dominance of a narrowly defined intellectual inquiry, namely the relation between European expansion and science. The prioritisation of European materials has also meant that national frameworks have been central in the narration of histories of science. A second issue that emerged from the special issue was the question of how to interpret the networked past of global science, whilst at the same time coming to terms with the need for collaborative relationships today, spanning different parts of the world, in order to create new global histories of science.

This new meeting marks the first of three workshops funded by the AHRC. The concerns that emerged from the special issue are central to all three workshops. This first workshop marks the visit to Cambridge of Prof. S. Irfan Habib (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Chair, Delhi, India) and Dr.Keith Breckenridge (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa). The aim in the first instance is to link UK-based scholars with those working in South Asia and Africa on questions of the sciences’ past. The network is also connected with the Centres of South Asian Studies and African Studies and the Faculty of History and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in the University of Cambridge. The workshop will involve discussions of work-in-progress by Habib and Breckenridge, and will involve presentations from graduate students based in the Faculty of History and in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Other related events

Other events connected with the visits of Prof. S. Irfan Habib and Prof. Keith Breckenridge:

  • 5pm, 1st May 2013, Professor S. Irfan Habib, "Some reflections on the intellectual legacy of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1925-1931)", South Asian Studies Center.
  • 2.30pm, 2nd May, 2013, Professors S. Irfan Habib and Breckenridge in conversation with the World History Workshop, Gonville & Caius (open to all but RSVP required - please contact Christopher Moffat cjm205).
  • 5pm, 9th May 2013, Professor Keith Breckenridge,"Imperial Biometric Laboratory: Edward Henry on the Witwatersrand in 1900", World History Seminar, New Combination Room, Corpus Christi College.
  • 1pm, 9th May 2013, Professor S. Irfan Habib, "Early Islamic eclecticism and the pursuit of science", Seminar Room 1, Department of History and Philosophy of Science. 
  • 1pm, 16th May 2013, Professor Keith Breckenridge, "Galton's Imperial Science: the African origins and objects of Eugenics", Seminar Room 1, Department of History and Philosophy of Science.


Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Image: sailing chart of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia © Science Museum/SSPL


Location : SG1-2, CRASSH, Richard Alison Building & Cavonius Centre, Stephen Hawking Building,Gonville and Caius College

Date : Friday 31 May 2013

31 May 2013


9.30 - 10.00


10.00 - 11.15

Session 1: Historiographical orientations

  • Dr. Breckenridge: Racial Limits of the will to know: science and government in the making of modern South Africa

Prof Irfan Habib: Discussion of pre-circulated chapters of his book, Jihad or Ijtihad: Religious Orthodoxy and Modern Science in Contemporary Islam (Harper Collins, India, 2012).

11.15 - 11.45

Coffee Break

11.45 - 13.15

Session 2: Graduate work-in-progress presentations

  • Eoin Phillips: Feeling between the lines: Eighteenth-century expeditionary astronomy and the problem of translating movement between the local and the global

  • Tom Smith: Protestant missionaries, islanders, and the cosmology of time in nineteenth-century Polynesia

  • James Poskett: Diffusion before Basalla: the spread of Western science from a Bengali perspective c.1845-1850

  • Devyani Gupta: Postal standardisation in British India: an experiment in scientific rationality, economic profitability, or social engineering?

13.15 - 14.15


14.15 - 15.30

Session 3

  • Dr. Breckenridge: The Geology of Death: the Science and Magic of Deep Level Rock Bursts on the Witwatersrand

Prof. Irfan Habib: The Evolution of the Scientific Research System from Late Colonialism to the End of Nehruvian Era

15.30 - 16.00

Coffee Break

16.00 - 17.30

Session 4: Graduate work-in-progress presentations

Please note that the last session of the programme will be held in the Cavonius Centre, Stephen Hawking Building, Gonville and Caius College, West Road (next door to the Alison Richards building).

  • Natalie Lawrence: Specimens, plumes, and paradise-dwellers: trading the ‘exotic’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

James Hall: Delineating snakes on the Coromandel coast: Patrick Russell in eighteenth-century London and Vizagapatam

  • Jagjeet Lally: “Deindustrialisation”, technology and cotton cloths as crafts in colonial Punjab, c. 1850- c.1900

Camile Cole: Experts, capitalists, diplomats: technological imperialism and irrigation in Mesopotamia