IntroductionResearch Fellow Staffan Müller-Wille is in Berlin for six months as an invited visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
Staffan is contributing to the research program ‘History of Scientific Observation’. He is currently working on a major research project studying the manuscripts, letters, herbarium, and library of pioneering naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).
“As a consequence of overseas discoveries, early modern naturalists were faced with what has been termed the 'first bio-information crisis'.” said Staffan. “The sheer amount of exotic, as yet unknown species that reached the shores of Europe forced naturalists to reconsider the ways in which they wrote about the natural world. The Linnaean collections at the Linnean Society in London contain large amounts of manuscript material, offering a unique opportunity to study the intricate problems of information processing in an age restricted to paper-based information technologies.
“Linnaeus has been described as a 'pioneer in information retrieval', and a better knowledge of his actual day-to-day working methods would be of wider significance to the history of science and medicine. In particular, Linnaeus was one of the first to suggest that 'natural' plant genera and families share similar pharmaceutical virtues, and that herbal drugs might be sought out on that basis. Botanical and medical concerns intersected in Linnaeus’s daily work and studying that intersection will contribute to a better understanding of the challenges that biodiversity studies face today.
“While my project focuses on the corpus of manuscripts and publications of a single scientist, Linnaeus, I conceive it as a pilot that will serve to develop both a terminology and a methodology that is attentive to the materiality of writing, and provides better understanding of how scientific observation is mediated by writing and reading practices. My time at the Max-Planck-Institute will provide me with an ideal opportunity to develop the theoretical side of this project.”