Joseph NovemberMay 14, 2013
Digitizing Life in the United States
Johns Hopkins University Press 2012
There are pigeons, cats, and Martians here. There are CT scanners, dentures, computers large enough to fill rooms, war games, and neural networks. In Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Joe November mobilizes this ecology of instruments and objects, people and programs, in a story that maps out the early years of the introduction of computers to biology and medicine from 1955 to 1965. As computing technology was gradually integrated into different spaces of biomedicine that were characterized by agents with very different agendas (a set of processes not without significant contestation), biomedicine and computing transformed one another. Life itself was changed as a result, as the objects of biomedical computing were translated into the kinds of system-entities that computers could describe. The historian of technology who reads November's book will find fascinating stories of machines like LINC, ENIAC, and UNIVAC. The historian of science will find accounts of the ways that military funding shaped the computerization of biomedicine, windows into the mid-century work supported by the NIH, stories of the transformation of diagnostic medicine in the US, and chapters from the history of crystallography and molecular biology. The historian of networks and computing will find analyses of the importance of operations research, expert systems, and transdisciplinary research practices to the work of some of the central figures in the history of the computational sciences. In addition to all of this, November's book can also be read as a history of the modern personal computer. (There are also men in RNA-themed neckties sprinkled throughout the early part of the story.) Enjoy the interview, and imagine as you listen that you're here with me at the National Humanities Center, Skyping with Joe as a thunderstorm booms overhead, rain falls loudly outside the window, and brilliant humanities scholars share excited conversation about their work outside the door. It was a special afternoon.