War, Science and the Empire: Remaking the Twentieth Century Earth Sciences

Tathagat working in library




Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor In the Social Sciences, Undergraduate Chair

Project Summary

Over ten weeks during the summer, I worked with Professor Etienne Benson, doing research in the history and sociology of science by exploring the life of Ralph Alger Bagnold, who was a noted soldier, scientist and explorer in the twentieth century. Bagnold was used as a window with which to observe the many fascinating developments that were taking place in the Earth Sciences during that period. Through my research, I not only acquired first-hand insights into doing historical research, but also cultivated meaningful professional relationships with the people with whom I worked.

Through the course of these ten weeks, I learned to better appreciate the social context in which scientific work is done and how such seemingly insignificant background details play an active role in shaping the final product of research. In Bagnold’s case, this couldn’t have been truer. In his writings, Bagnold vehemently maintained that he was simply doing science for science’s own sake, it is fascinating to see how intimately Bagnold’s life and scientific work is influenced by the big forces of capitalism, the British Empire and the two World Wars. Incidentally, as someone with an undeclared major, the research I did also had the unexpected effect of giving me more clarity about my academic interests—I have now successfully narrowed down my choice of major from potentially anything to just three.

The best thing about working on this project was how I was treated as a valuable contributor whose ideas were received with respect and patience, despite my inexperience. This was vital in cozying me up to a discipline I had no formal experience with and in helping me feel at ease doing research for the very first time! Moreover, by virtue of working in the department and talking to professors and graduate students who worked there, I was exposed to a world of other research-related opportunities, one of which—part of the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities—I will be working on over this fall, in addition to continuing my work with Professor Benson. I am very thankful to both him and CURF for this fantastic opportunity.