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Fragile Objects, Fragile Histories: Paleobotany and the Making of a Scientific Discipline in India

starting April 2018

In 1946, India became one of the two countries in the world, along with the United States, to establish an institution dedicated exclusively to the field of paleobotany, a highly interdisciplinary science of the past concerned with the study of plant fossils across a wide geological timescale. Named after its founder, a Cambridge-educated paleobotanist of international repute, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany in Lucknow has since morphed into an important centre of research that has trained both local and international scientists, among them men like the Chinese paleobotanist Xu Ren. Pondering the reasons for this unique development against the political and socio-economic background of post-independence India, this project explores the making of paleobotany into a modern scientific discipline from three interrelated angles: 1) the development of a conceptual, methodological and material culture of paleobotany, that not only helped to generate insights about the ‘deep’ history of the Earth, but also enabled many commentators to weave the world into a web of natural and social interconnections, 2) the Asian and European scientific networks of collaboration and exchange that underpinned the creation of knowledge in this field, and, 3) the role of women, scientists or otherwise, in the development of this discipline.

Dr. Amelia Bonea

Amelia Bonea was educated at the Universities of Tokyo and Heidelberg and worked for five years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford before returning to Heidelberg in spring 2018. She is a historian of South Asia and the British Empire, with a particular interest in media history, the history of science, technology and medicine as well as the history of interactions between India and Japan. Her research to date has focused on the ways in which new technologies of communication have been used in the field of journalism, the relationship between technology and health and the role of Indian and Japanese scientists in early radioactivity research. Her first book, The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c. 1830-1900 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), was awarded the 2017 AHA Eugenia M. Palmegiano Prize for the History of Journalism. Amelia is also passionate about translation; the languages she works with are Japanese, English, Romanian and Hindi.