Ken Alder



Ken Alder teaches a variety of courses at Northwestern University devoted to the history of science and technology.  He offers his courses through the Department of History, and he also founded the Science in Human Culture Program, which offers both an undergraduate major and graduate “cluster” fellowships to students interested in the field of Science Studies.

Graduate training fields:

In addition to teaching the courses listed below, Alder has directed some two dozen major and minor field exams in the history of science, technology and medicine, as well as exams in early modern Europe, and the history of France.  More generally, he has worked with graduate students in the following fields:

- History of science, early modern and modern periods, 17th century to present (specialties: Enlightenment science, science and the law, science and modern politics, the physical sciences)
- History of technology, Europe and America in the modern period (specialties: engineering sciences, comparative Industrial Revolution, 20th-century America)
- History of France (specialties: Enlightenment and French Revolution)
- European political economy (18th and 19th centuries)

Course offerings:

1. History 275-1 (Lecture course): The Origins of Science and Medicine

This course examines the birth of a revolutionary new form of inquiry—science—and how it was used to solve medical, technological, and social problems.  We will focus on Europe and America in the 17th and 18th century: the era of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.  Why did thinkers shun the study of "monsters" and take up the study of "ordinary" phenomena?  How did science distinguish itself from pseudo-sciences like astrology, alchemy, and magic?  Were science and religion really at war or did they, in fact, offer mutual support?  How did medicine treat the differences between the sexes?  We will examine thinkers such as Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, Harvey, Diderot, Mesmer, Jefferson, Franklin, and Condorcet.  And we will consider such sciences as human reproduction, astronomy, and natural history.  Our central theme will be the ways in which science offered a utopian hope to Europeans divided by bitter political and religious factionalism.  Not only did science promise to supply material comfort (technological marvels and medical advances); it also offered itself as a model for how society might be organized into a republic of equals judged by their ability to contribute to the common good.  Did science lay the foundation for democracy?

2. History 275-2 (Lecture course): Modern Science and Medicine

Scientific change has profoundly reshaped our lives in the past 200 years, transforming both material conditions and our hopes for a better world.  But change has worked in the opposite direction as well: social values and political agendas have influenced the development of scientific knowledge and medical practice.  This class invites students in the humanities and the sciences to explore the dynamic relationship between science, medicine, and our broader society.  We will begin with a study of the Faustian relationship between the physical sciences and their power to transform the material world.  How has scientific knowledge been translated into such technologies as modern telecommunications and the atom bomb?  We will then turn to the reciprocal relationship between the life sciences and public values.  From era of Darwin to genomics, bio-medicine has changed in conjunction with social mores, altering our understandings of race, the differences between the sexes, and our definitions of life and illness.  Our guiding premise throughout the course is that science is an intrinsically human activity and hence an integral part of our modern world.

3. History 325 (Lecture course): America: Technology's Nation

Americans have often defined themselves and their nation through the material things they make, own, and use.  This class examines the two-century debate over what America is and ought to be by studying its artifacts, the changing ways they have been made and sold, and the meanings Americans have ascribed to them.  From the pony express to the internet, from the scrub board to the washing machine, from the bicycle to the Apollo mission, Americans have identified technology as central to their personal and national destiny.  How have factory workers, slaves, housewives, managers, scientists, intellectuals, and hackers conceived of technology?  What have some Americans meant by technological progress, and why have other Americans been so suspicious of it?  Is technology a neutral tool, or is it a bearer of social values?  We will consider both the utopian promises of technology and its shortcomings.

4. History 378 (Lecture course): Law and Science: The History of an Encounter

For the past four centuries, the law and modern science have developed in tandem—and in tension.  Both law and science claim to get at “the truth of matter,” by means of reasoned argument, empirical evidence, and a self-correcting method of investigation.  Yet law and science have often been at odds: with scientists complaining about “junk” science in the courtroom, and lawyers complaining that experts do not appreciate the role of citizens in achieving just verdicts.  This course asks: What does the evolving relationship between law and science tell us about our changing standards of truth-finding and our sense of justice?  Our course will begin in the era of witchcraft trials and judicial torture; and it will end in the era of DNA-typing and CSI.  We will consider such topics as changing standards of evidence and how new forms of forensic identification (from fingerprinting to DNA paternity suits) have altered our sense of who we are as individuals and as members of social/racial groups.  Our culture offers two principal theaters of proof: the courtroom and the laboratory; this course examines their similarities, differences, and interactions.

5. History 101 (Freshman Seminar) or History 392/395 (Upper-division seminar):
The “Two-Cultures Problem”:  Science v. Literature

Tolstoy famously said that science does not tell us how to live.  In what ways do the scientific and literary cultures offer distinct approaches to education and self-understanding?  This course traces the history of the “two-cultures problem”: the cliché that science and literature are separated by a deep chasm of misunderstanding and even hostility.  The course will be framed by a comparison between the Victorian debate between Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley, and the Sputnik-era clash between C. P. Snow and F. Leavis.  We will then consider how various scientists and novelists have themselves defined the differences between a literary and a scientific understanding of the world—and tried to bridge that gap.  To do this, we will read literary texts that treat science, alongside some famous scientific autobiographies. These imaginative and personal accounts reveal the assumptions that lie behind such concepts as rationality, creativity, citizenship, and dissent.  One of our central themes will be the value of the “liberal arts” education, a form of education that is unique to the Anglo-American world.

6. History 392/395 (Upper-division seminar): Science in the Age of Revolutions

This course examines the political and intellectual revolutions in eighteenth-century France and America through concurrent changes in science and technology.  Did radical new scientific practices create the conceptual preconditions for revolution?  What role did technological innovation play in transforming the administration of the state and entrepreneurial capitalism?  And what was the cultural significance  of new theories of sexual reproduction, racial difference, and disease?  The course will explore both the high culture of elite science and the common understanding of science in popular culture.  The answers will shed light on the role of science in a democratic nation.

7. History 398: Senior Thesis Seminar

This course is the full-year senior seminar for students writing a senior thesis.  The class meets as a seminar regularly in the fall to discuss common problems in historical method, analytical techniques, and other matters.  We meet in the winter to compare and critique our research proposals.  In the spring students submit drafts of the thesis.  Throughout the year, students meet individually with the honors coordinator, as well as with their individual faculty advisor.

8. History 484 (Graduate seminar): History of Science: Histories of Objectivity
In this course we read recent scholarship in the history of science to examine changing notions of what counts as “objective knowledge.”  In doing so we seek to open up the processes by which certain objects and concepts came to be marked as “natural” and hence (ostensibly) beyond the realm of social and political interrogation.  But how was the boundary between the natural and artificial drawn in the first place?  How were the “facts of nature” made into the sorts of particularities which could be translated readily across time and space?  And how, in particular, was the human body transformed into an object of scientific study?  Our readings will compare two historical moments—early modern Europe and twentieth-century America.  We will closely consider the role of science in the process of colonization and the ways that the bio-medical sciences have reinforced and subverted assumptions about sexual difference and race. 

9. History 570: Grad student research seminar
This two-quarter course guides first-year graduate students in history as they write an article-length research paper in their chosen field.  The skills developed in the process are a part of every historian’s craft.  The expectation is that the finished paper will pose an original question whose answer is of some moment in the student’s chosen sub-field, and invokes primary evidence to answer that question in graceful prose that speaks to historians outside of that sub-discipline.  While it is not expected that the resulting paper will necessarily be publishable “as is,” our goal is that further research and writing might plausibly result in a publishable article.  Students will read works of common interest on the historical method, as well as the research papers of previous students in the seminar whose work was later published.