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November 25, 2019
5288 Bunche Hall

History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Fall 2019 Colloquium

All talks are held in Bunche 5288 at 4pm unless otherwise noted.

November 25: Vivien Hamilton, UCLA 

“Competing Virtues of Measurement: Physics, Medicine and Quantification in Early X-ray Therapy”


Very soon after the discovery of x-rays in 1895, enthusiastic doctors began to use the new radiation to treat cancer and various skin diseases. This early period of x-ray therapy has often been portrayed as chaotic and exploratory, largely because there were so many different methods for measuring a dose of x-rays. In the usual story, the chaos was contained and progress was made possible when the international radiological community settled on a standard unit of measurement, the röntgen, in 1928. This unit was strongly preferred by the physicists working in the x-ray community, who dismissed the methods preferred by their medical colleagues as rough and inadequate.  Rather than accepting this judgment, this talk will ask us to look more closely at the ways in which x-rays were being measured in clinical spaces prior to 1928, arguing that physicists and doctors evaluated the same measuring practices so differently because each group desired something quite different from the act of measurement. For physicists, the key virtues of quantitative measurement were precision and standardization, while doctors desired accuracy and repeatability within their own practice. The physicists’ vision ultimately won, demonstrating that close collaboration between experts from different disciplines does not always result in compromise or mutual transformation. In this case, the physicists’ values played an increasingly large role in shaping the emerging culture of radiology