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School of History and Philosophy of Science

Placing science in its historical and social context
At the crossroads of arts and science, we examine past and current developments in all areas of science, technology and medicine from a range of humanistic perspectives.

History and philosophy of science (HPS) is an ideal way to critically engage with science and its social and cultural significance. Any student with a genuine interest in science will derive benefit from the study of this discipline.

Teaching at the School of History and Philosophy of Science

Teaching staff in the School of History and Philosophy of Science have published widely in their fields of expertise and have gained international recognition for their research. This makes them fantastic educators, sharing their knowledge and experiences in the classroom so students can be at the forefront of innovations in the field.

The University of Sydney is ranked first in Australia and fifth in the world for graduate employability.* This stems from our immersive, research-led teaching which prepares students for the real-world and a successful career.

*QS Graduate Employability Rankings, 2019.

News bites

Congratulations to Hans Pols now a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW. Hans will present a public lecture " Physicians as Public Intellectuals: Indonesian Physicians in the Dutch East Indies" September 4th 2019. Details Here 

Assistant Professor Sara Langston

Asst. Professor, Spaceflight Operations, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

University of Sydney, Ph.D History and Philosophy of Science; Awarded the Science Faculty Postgraduate Research Prize for Outstanding Academic Achievement.

As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the historic Moon landing with a live TV broadcast and events, there is a focus on recognizing the contributions of the thousands of men and women who made the Apollo 11 mission possible. This year is particularly significant for the legacy of the Apollo program because of the president’s Space Policy Directive 1, which tasks NASA with returning to the Moon by 2024. This time, the mandate requires establishing a permanent lunar base and advancing space exploration to Mars and across the solar system. Read More

Professor Johannes Pols;with Professor Catharine Coleborne; Associate Professor Paul Rhodes; and Professor Anthony Harris

The development of Australian community psychiatry. 

HPS Research Seminar Series 2019 - Most Mondays from 5.30pm Level 5 Function Room, Administration Building (F23)

Dr Maria Avxentevskaya

Max Planck Institute - Berlin

Learned in Translation: Administering the Early Russian Empire

Governmental institutions can be seen as communicative devices, whose language of operation encodes activities and endows governing bodies with a tongue that is instrumental for exercising power. But what if a Babylonian confusion of tongues befalls a national government? When foreign cultural models are adopted by the state, its administration needs to mediate between languages and to alter many codified terminologies and processes. How does the state evolve and yet retain what may be called linguistic sustainability – a commensurability between the changing expressions and the stable enactments of its policies? My talk will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the practices of translation at institutions in Muscovy and early modern Russia, where the formidable pace of reforms caused a genuine struggle to construct an administrative language that would facilitate the exercising of sovereign power and collective actions. I will consider how the state-supported politics of translation encouraged institutional discussions and helped build the legal frameworks of the changing governmental formations. We will examine examples of this on the level of individual cognitive tasks in translation, on the level of using translations of normative documents from the German-speaking realm for producing items of Russian legislation, and on the level of governmental frameworks which were also borrowed from German patterns — this choice of the cultural model was motivated by several macro- and micro-historical factors. I will look into episodes of translation related to medical knowledge and will mostly focus on translation for the needs of forestry and the Navy — two closely related knowledge fields which were essential for implementing imperial ambitions but also for setting up environmental polices and governmental models. By reconstructing the early modern Russian endeavour in translation between languages, knowledge practices, and governmental models, my study seeks to clarify how can the state learn through translation?

Monday 23rd September

From 5.30pm

Level 5 Function Room,
Administration Building (F23)


Emerging technologies – e.g. autonomous vehicles, gene editing, blockchain, and smart drugs – promise an exciting future. Before this excitement can become a reality, though, important concerns about safety, effectiveness, and equity must first be addressed. For instance, processing Bitcoin transactions is said to already chew up as much electricity as all of Denmark; no pharmaceuticals are currently sufficiently safe or effective to make them fit for general public use; and to avoid increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots, autonomous vehicles and gene editing technologies would need to be affordable to everyone not only the wealthy. To these ends, much effort and resources are devoted to identifying and ironing out bugs, and to figuring out ways to reduce the costs of such technologies. The key idea here is that once the bugs are ironed out, these technologies should be made affordable so that everyone can use and benefit from them.


However, what's often overlooked in the midst of excitement about the promise of emerging technologies, is what Tsjalling Swierstra calls "soft impacts". For instance, if sophisticated AI could extract highly accurate predictions and recommendations from vast quantities of data, might we eventually expect one another (and maybe even ourselves) to comply with AI's recommendations, and might we thus lose some freedom to make different choices? Or what if we could no longer take the car out for a spin, or hop on a motorbike, because humans were deemed way too dangerous by comparison with autonomous vehicles to let loose onto the roads — is this something that we might come to regret? Once we eradicate all the genetic conditions that we currently fear, might we then move on to changing humans in new ways which we presently find objectionable? And if everyone could afford safe smart drugs that made them more productive and less prone to fatigue, would free market competition eventually lead everyone to use them just to remain competitive and would we all end up working even longer days? Alas, because unintended consequences like these are often more difficult to imagine, because they critically depend not just on the technology itself but also on how people use it, and because frequently it is not even clear whether those consequences would be good, bad, or just different, voiced concerns about soft impacts tend to either be overlooked or just ignored and even derided as hysterical "scare-mongering" that employs unrealistic and unlikely dystopic Brave New World and GATTACA scenarios. 


However, I will argue that by overlooking, ignoring, and even deriding concerns about potential soft impacts, we effectively relinquish control over how we shall live our lives to the invisible hand of competition fuelled by morally undirected technological progress. Technologies shape the way we interact with one another, how we think of ourselves and others, and even what things we value. Thus, if we wish to have a say over such things – things which matter no less, though are admittedly harder to predict and evaluate, than the more-obvious "hard impacts" which we either explcitly aim to bring about, or can more easily foresee and attempt to avoid – then we will need to pay significantly more attention to soft impacts than we currently do. To live in a world we have chosen, rather than in whatever world we inadvertently create for ourselves, we need to contemplate the full range of consequenes of emerging technologies, not only those that are easy to imagine, predict, and evaluate. In order to make this task easier, in the final part of this talk I will describe a method for doing precisely that — one which builds on an existing approach in medicine to identifying and safe-guarding against the unintended medical side-effects of medical procedures and technologies.

Monday 14th October 2019

From 5.30pm

Level 5 Function Room,
Administration Building (F23)


Dr Peter Takacs

University of Sydney - Charles Perkins Centre

University of Florida


Monday28th October 2019

From 5.30pm

Level 5 Function Room,
Administration Building (F23)

Head of School

Professor Hans Pols
View academic profile

School of History and Philosophy of Science

  • Room 389 Carslaw F07

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