24.6.2010 – Joseph November „Organization and Information at the Dawn of Biomedical Computing“

24.Jun 2010

Gastvortrag von  Joseph November Department of History, University of South Carolina

Donnerstag, 24. Juni 2010, 18:00 Uhr
Seminarraum 1 des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte
1090 Wien, Spitalgasse 2-4/Hof 1, Universitätscampus

Early efforts to introduce digital electronic computers to biology and medicine in the USA drew heavily from cybernetics, information theory, and especially operations research (OR). The influence of cybernetics and information theory on life sciences computing has attracted much attention from historians, whereas the arguably greater influence of OR in the same area has seldom been discussed. While other approaches to complexity were marginal in terms of generating lasting institutional support – despite the excitement surrounding them – OR´s methods and ideas initially served as the main basis of the National Institutes of Health´s late-1950s to early-1960s push to computerize biology and medicine. To illuminate the influence of OR on early American biomedical computing, this paper will examine the work of polymath Robert S. Ledley (b. 1926), an operations researcher trained in dentistry, physics, and electronic engineering, who spearheaded the US government´s biomedical computerization program starting in the late 1950s. An examination of this program will also shed light on some of the institutional and intellectual forces that marginalized information theory and cybernetics in American life sciences research. Indeed, Ledley solicited guidance on the use of computers from information theorist Henry Quastler and cybernetician Heinz von Foerster, but Ledley´s (and later the NIH´s) particular agenda for using computers in research would at the same time push aside the intellectual ambitions of information theory and cybernetics.

Joseph November is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2006 and served as a DeWitt Stetten, Jr. Memorial Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in 2007-2008. His forthcoming book [under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press], Digitizing Life: The Rise of Biomedical Computing in the United States, explores the intellectual and institutional dimensions of the computerization of biology and medicine.

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