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Friday, March 05, 2021
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
Online Event

Critical Intersections: Conversations on History, Race, and Science

The Molecular Vision of Life | Reading Group Pt. 1

Open to the Caltech Community only. REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED.
If you RSVP, you are enrolled to all four events. You will receive event details via email a week before each event. To register and to get more information, please click here.

Building on the histories of eugenics leading up to World War II and the coerced sterilization practices that have persisted to the present day, which were explored in the fall Critical Intersections events, this month-long reading group takes a new approach. Participants will discuss the influence of the eugenics movement on later mainstream science and medicine. To explore this question, the reading group will work through Lily Kay's 1993 The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology, a classic book in the history of biology and chemistry which grapples with this question in the context of the origins of molecular biology at Caltech.

We'll meet each week over the course of March. Each session will begin with brief presentations from members of the Caltech community, providing additional historical context for the history in The Molecular Vision of Life or points of comparison in their own experiences as scientists. We will then discuss a portion of the book and what it can tell us about the past, present, and future of molecular biology, Caltech, and the political uses and purposes of scientific research.

Participants are welcome to attend as many meetings as they choose. We'll work through the book on the following schedule:

  • March 5: Caltech and the Rockefeller Foundation before molecular biology (introduction and chapters 1-2)
  • March 12: Biology at Caltech from flies to molecules (chapters 3, interlude 1, and chapter 4)
  • March 19: Bioorganic chemistry, immunochemistry, World War II, and Neurospora (chapters 5–7)
  • March 26: Postwar science, bacteriophage, and DNA (interlude 2, chapter 8, epilogue, and conclusion)

Thanks to Caltech Library, the book is available online to members of the Caltech community. Please plan to read approximately 70 pages to prepare for each meeting, or 120 pages in the digital edition, which has fewer words per page.

If you would like to present briefly on some historical context from beyond the book, such as from other histories of the same periods in biology, chemistry, science funding, or Caltech; to tell us a bit about how the history in the book relates to your own experience as a scientist; to develop some questions and facilitate a discussion; or to otherwise contribute to these meetings beyond reading and discussing, please email Peter Collopy.

For its inaugural year of 2020-2021, the "Critical Intersections: Conversations on Race, History, and Science" seminar series is dedicated to the history leading up to and beyond eugenics. The events are jointly organized by faculty in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences [Maura Dykstra (Assistant Professor of History), Jennifer Jahner (Professor of English), and Hillary Mushkin (Research Professor of Art and Design)] and University Archivist Peter Collopy. Artists have been invited to participate in these events as part of the Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture. Their participation in this series is supported by the James Michelin Distinguished Visitors Program.

For more information, please contact Cecilia Lu by email at