States of Secrecy

Scientific secrecy from alchemy to the atomic bomb
A transhistorical conference at Harvard University
April 11, 2009, Science Center 469


NOTE: More abstracts are coming soon.

Mario Biagioli «

Good Secrecy: Constructing Confidentiality In Early Modern Science and Technology

Secrecy has got, by and large, a bad name. Confidentiality, instead, is treated much more kindly (also thanks to its kinship with the notion of privacy) and is acknowledged as a key elements in the process of knowledge making. For instance, peer review or the publication system of science would hardly work if the referees or editors felt free to divulge the contents of the manuscripts or grant applications they have reviewed prior to their publication or award. The main difference between secrecy and confidentiality is not just about the cultural and professional contexts in which they emerge and are deployed, but primarily about their temporal specificity. That is, confidentiality is important and indeed necessary only in one specific segment of (some types of) knowledge production — before knowledge is made public. In this paper I want to reframe discussions about secrecy in science through the window provided by confidentiality, its role, and its temporality. My examples will come from the interactions and tensions between early modern scientists and inventors on one side, and journal editors and patent clerks on the other.

Daniel Jütte «

Commerce and Secrecy in Early Modern Jewry

The association of alchemical treatises with (Pseudo-)Jewish authors is a phenomenon well-known to scholars of the history of science, in late antiquity, the middle ages or the early modern period. Legendary figures of supposedly Jewish origin such as Maria the Jewess populated the alchemical discourse as well as the popular imagination. Yet, such chimeras tell the historian little about the role of this secret science in Jewish everyday life. They also don't reveal much about the role of Jewish alchemists within the Christian society, above all at courts. In my proposed talk I would like to unfold the biography of the Jewish alchemist and engineer Abramo Colorni (1544—1599) whose life and achievements are still very much undertstudied. Colorni was active at major courts in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire — among them the Rudolfine court in Prague — and widely praised by his contemporaries. However, even recent scholars have refefred to him as a "charlatan." In contrast, I would like to argue that his broad range of activities — among these the production of weapons, cryptography and antiquarianism — rather underlines his clever assessment of courtly needs as well as his interest in practical alchemy, and not his alleged "charlatanism." I would like to put Colorni in the broader frame of the early modern history of Jewish alchemists and professori de' secreti. The business of alchemy and secrecy, above all at courts, became a fascinating space of mutual contact between Jews and Christians in the early modern period. I contend that phenomena such as arcana and alchemy that have commonly been neglected in the historiography of Jewish life in the early modern period may provide important insight into the economical and political dynamics of interaction between a religious minority and the Christian authorities.

Kristie Macrakis «

Secret Communication and the Origins of Modern Science and Espionage

During the Renaissance there was an explosion of interest in secret communication. Whether to conceal scientific secrets or secrets of state, cryptography (the science of codes and ciphers) and steganography (hidden writing or invisible ink) flourished. Although excellent book chapters exist on the major Renaissance contributors to the evolution of cryptography, no one has pointed to the connection between the leaders and luminaries of the intellectual and organizational revolution surrounding the birth of modern science and the science of secret communication. This paper argues that secret communication flourished because of the intersection of heightened political intrigues in Europe and the birth of modern science.

Daniel Margocsy «

Patenting Secrets, Open Knowledge and the Invention of Color Printing

In the early eighteenth-century, artisanal and artistic techniques were increasingly viewed from the perspective of Newtonian theoretical science. Theorists and practitioners both increasingly believed that beautiful images could be produced by applying a set of well-defined mathematical laws to the canvas, without recourse to bodily knowledge or the je-ne-sais-quoi of the genius. Artistic inventions, like color printing, could also be expressed in a few mathematical statements. Unfortunately, these mathematical statements could be easily communicated. Inventive artists therefore began to fear that their theoretical solutions for the problems of art could be appropriated through poaching. To prevent piracy, they resorted to trade secrets and patents to protect their inventions. Using the example of Jacob Christoffel Le Blon, inventor of color printing, I argue that secrecy, patenting and intellectual property become important for the arts when artistic knowledge is understood to be communicable. If art is not a bodily knowledge acquired through years of practice, its production methods can be exchanged and appropriated like commodities.

Alex Wellerstein «

The Question of Secrecy: Science, Nuclear Weapons, and Policy in Postwar America

The invention of nuclear weapons in the Second World War revived old debates on the freedom of science while at the same time creating new ones. Both scientists and policymakers were faced with a new and vital question: what sort of information control regime, if any, should—or could—be used to control the spread of nuclear weapons? My paper will look at the variety of answers that emerged inside the nuclear complex from mid-1945 through the early 1950s. I argue that this was the key period in which the United States made an uncertain and at times shaky transition from a wartime secrecy model into a postwar, and ultimately Cold War, approach to scientific information control. Specifically, I will examine how different philosophies about the relationship between knowledge, technology, and the state were articulated through the interaction of government weapons scientists and political insiders in the formation of the modern American nuclear secrecy system.