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Historian of Science Myles W. Jackson Appointed to the Faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study

May 15, 2018
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Kelly Devine Thomas
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Annette Hornischer
Myles W. Jackson

Myles W. Jackson, an internationally renowned historian of science whose breadth of research extends from molecular biology and physics to intellectual property and privacy issues, has been appointed to the Faculty of the School of Historical Studies, effective July 1, 2018. Jackson is currently the Albert Gallatin Research Excellence Professor of the History of Science and Professor of History of the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University. He succeeds Professor Emeritus Heinrich von Staden, who has served on the Faculty since 1998.

An eminent and authoritative explorer of the intersections between science, technology, aesthetics, history, and society, Jackson combines intellectual curiosity with the highest academic standards to push forward the boundaries of the field in significant and influential ways and to establish fresh lines of inquiry. His scholarship, which interweaves economic, commercial, and scientific insights, has had lasting impact and is noted for its cross-disciplinary methodology and range of study––from the artisanal production of scientific knowledge in nineteenth-century Germany to issues of intellectual property, knowledge sharing, ethical regulation, and bioengineering in recent decades.

“Myles is an extraordinary addition to our Faculty at the Institute,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor. “With his scope of knowledge and multi-sphered approach, Myles will further the Institute’s presence in the field of history of science in ways only he is able to imagine and coalesce, stimulating new interactions with humanists and scientists that lead to revelatory research and deeper understanding.”

“Myles’s indefatigable energy on behalf of his field of study, his exceptional range, his enthusiasm in establishing bridges with other fields, his stellar international status, his reputation for mentorship, and his collegiality make him an ideal appointment for the continuation of history of science in the School of Historical Studies,” commented Yve-Alain Bois, Professor in the School.

Of his appointment, Jackson said, “This is truly an amazing honor, the greatest one could ever imagine. I am still waiting for someone to say ‘April Fools!’ I am very much looking forward to working with the historians, social scientists, natural scientists, and mathematicians at the Institute with the goal of further developing first-rate research in the history of science.”

The history of science has been a field of research at the Institute beginning in the early fifties with the active support of J. Robert Oppenheimer, then Director of the Institute, who saw it as a bridge between the various schools. The appointment in 1950 of Otto Neugebauer, a historian of Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astrology, was followed in 1964 by Marshall Clagett, a specialist of medieval science, and in 1998 by Heinrich von Staden, a classicist and historian of science with a particular focus on ancient Greek medicine.

Jackson’s diverse expertise and scholarly practice are evident in the span of his current appointments at New York University: he is simultaneously the Albert Gallatin Research Excellence Professor of the History of Science; Professor of History of the Faculty of Arts and Science; Professor in the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU–Langone School of Medicine; and Faculty Affiliate of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy in the Law School. He is founding Director of Science and Society, an inter-school minor at NYU, and serves on the advisory board for the NYU bioethics program.

Jackson is the author of three books: Spectrum of Belief: Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics (MIT Press, 2000), Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press, 2006), and The Genealogy of a Gene: Patents, HIV/AIDS and Race (MIT Press, 2015). In addition to two volumes he edited and co-edited, respectively, Perspective on Science: Gene Patenting (MIT Press, 2015) and Music, Sound, and the Laboratory from 1750–1980 (Chicago University Press, 2013), Jackson has published more than fifty articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries on the history of science and technology from the Scientific Revolution to the present.

His first book, Spectrum of Belief, received the Paul Bunge Prize from the German Chemical Society for the Best Work on Instrument Makers and the Hans Sauer Award for the Best Work on the History of Invention. In the book, Jackson explores the relationship between artisans and experimental natural philosophers as the scientific practice of the nineteenth century underwent a dramatic transformation from handicraft to industrialization. Using the career of optician Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826), who is famous in physics for his discovery of “spectral lines,” Jackson explains through a sociocultural history how an inventor of fine glass lenses and prisms led to Germany’s rise as an economic powerhouse where scientific research and technological innovation were merged with industrial and state support.

In Harmonious Triads, Jackson examines questions at the intersection of music, physics, and instrument making in nineteenth-century Germany. The book investigates how musical instruments provided physicists with experimental systems and novel natural phenomena, and how physicists’ research led directly to improvements in musical-instrument manufacture and assisted musicians in their performances. This collaboration gave rise to a number of intriguing questions, which Jackson explores: Could physicists, using the universal principles of mechanics, explain musical skill? Is the virtuosity of a Paganini or Liszt somehow quantifiable? And what exactly was the role of physicists in establishing concert pitch at 440 vibrations per second (a unit of frequency now called Hz or Hertz)?

In The Genealogy of a Gene, Jackson uses the history of the CCR5 gene to investigate the interrelationships between science, technology, and society. Spanning the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, technology studies, law, bioethics, and medical ethics, Jackson examines the gene’s discovery, patenting, and commercialization––from a sequence of DNA to its role in providing near-immunity of the AIDS virus to its becoming a patented product of a corporation. Enthusiastically received by scientific practitioners, historians, and law professors, the book offers a unique analysis of the social, political, and ethical implications of the impact of intellectual property law on scientific knowledge. Jackson places these consequences within the wider context of intellectual property, Big Pharma, personalized medicine, and race and genomics.

Concurrently with pursuing his research on gene patenting and privacy issues in Europe, Jackson returns to and expands the theme of his second book in the study he is currently writing on the relationship between the invention of new musical instruments, the development of acoustics, and the creation of new music from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s. He is also writing a small synthetic book, aimed at an educated lay audience, on the relationship between science and society over the past two centuries.

Jackson earned a B.A. in German Literature with a minor in biological sciences at Cornell University (1986). After starting off in a Ph.D. program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, he earned both an M.Phil. (1988) and a Ph.D. (1991) in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Before coming to NYU, Jackson taught at the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago.

Jackson has been a senior fellow of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin,  the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics, the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Among his honors are the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize (Reimar Lüst Prize) of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2014 and Caltech’s Francis Bacon Award in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology in 2010. Jackson is a Corresponding Member of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, Liege, Belgium; Foreign Member of the German National Academy of Sciences; and Member of the Academy of the Sciences for the Common Good, Erfurt, Germany. He serves on the editorial boards of the journal History of Science and the book series Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century and is a member of the American Council on Germany.