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Presented By: Science, Technology & Society

STS Distinguished Lecture. Vulnerometry: Historical Reflections on the Quest to Measure Climate Vulnerability

Deborah Coen, Yale University

A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert. A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert.
A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert.
This presentation will track a series of discoveries of previously unknown atmospheric forces, made in Vienna between the 1770s and 1850s: animal magnetism, Aereon, and Od. I propose that these belonged to a larger category of atmospheric influences on living things whose workings were obscure yet tantalizing, including ozone, moonlight, and “atmospheric electricity” (the last a new designation to distinguish it from that generated by electrical machines).

The controversies that surrounded the discoveries of these forces need to be recognized as episodes in an overlooked history: the history of investigating the interrelations of life and the atmosphere. I show how this strain of research reflected the Habsburgs’ imperial and industrial ambitions. It is a story with telling parallels in present-day attempts to study the determinants of environmental health and to measure what experts refer to as “degrees of vulnerability” to climate change.

Co-sponsored by the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies.
A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert. A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert.
A register of susceptibility to atmospheric influence: the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is said to have modeled his Character Heads on the expressions of Franz Anton Mesmer's patients during magnetic therapy. Photo credit: Jon Lambert.

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