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What’s actually meant by the “life” and “biography” of new materials?

Posted Mar 27 2011 8:40am

Historians and curators of medicine might be interested in the conference ‘The Life of New Materials’ organised by the  Hagley Museum and Library , the Chemical Heritage Foundation , and the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science ,17 - 18 November 2011.

The conference will explore “the lives of the new materials that have made possible many of the technological advances of our age. Whether based on plant, metal, chemical, or nano technologies, the development, use, re-use, and disposal of new materials is an embedded feature of our industrial society”. The organisers wish to understand “the relationships from which new materials emerge, and which they in turn often refashion”, and they are especially interested in proposals that focus on

The life history of a new material: its biography, use cycle, place in supply chains, or features as material culture. We encourage papers to address the reasons and methods for development of a new material: its design, manufacture, testing, and subsequent incorporation into final products or already existing technologies; its reuse or disposal after completion of its primary purpose; and its impact –anticipated or not–on subsequent innovations. Exploration of the creation of new materials should situate those scientific and technological processes within the commercial, institutional, or social contexts that lead to their development.

It’s a great topic for historical and museological investigations. My only caveat is the peculiar use of the terms ‘life’, ‘life history’ and ‘biography’ in this context. What do they actually mean when they suggest that, say, plastic has a ‘life’ and that it can be written as a ‘biography’? What is meant by a ‘biography’ of polystyrene? What does this metaphorical use of the notion of ‘life’ and ‘biography’ add to our understanding?

In my view absolutely nothing. Such unnecessary metaphors only confound the issues at stake. I know it has become fashionable to speak about the ‘life’ and ‘biography’ of inanimate things, but when the metaphors are extended from things to materials in general, fashion becomes folly.

Anyway, deadline for proposals is 1 April.  Travel support will be available for those presenting at the conference. More details here .

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