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Of Light and Darkness

The Discovery of Photosynthesis, 1840–1960

Project of Prof. Dr. Kärin Nickelsen

"Of Light and Darkness" traces the history of the experimental investigation of photosynthesis between 1840 and 1960, a time of dramatic change in the biological sciences. The project understands the search for a biocemical understanding of photosynthesis as a collective construction of a causal model of explanation.

The project´s central questions are methodological ones – of special interest in this case is the question of how exactly did the knowledge which was gained in experiments incorporated into a comprehensive model via causal links. Among other heuristics there can be observed a typical "building block-strategy" as basis for the construction of models: One can meticulously trace just how predecessors´ cogintive and material knowledge components are being adopted or how such knowledge components are imported from entirley different fields of study and consequently integrated into a new model of explanation. Actions, aims and priorities will be reconstructed, taking special note of the research activity´s cooperative interplay inside the collective.

Currently different aspects of this process are being examined, for instance the systematic question of knowledge transfer at discipline borders, mainly the biology / physics border; however, the genuinely historical issue of how (bio-)energetic questions took on a whole new meaning in the tense atmosphere of post-war Europe are also of interest – the investigation of photosynthesis developed an entirely new dynamic as one possible alternative to nuclear energy.

There exists a close cooperation with one of the central scientific actors of this field, Prof. Dr. Govindjee (Univ. of Illinois/Urbana). In 2015 a book called "Explaining Photosynthesis. Modelling Biochemical Mechanisms 1840-1960" was published by Springer Publishers (Series: History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, Vol. 8).


Further publications connected with this project:

Nickelsen, K. (2018): On Otto Warburg, Nazi Bureaucracy and the Idiosyncracy of Moral Judgment. Photosynthetica 56.

Nickelsen, K. (2017): The Organism Strikes Back: How Chlorella Changed Photosynthesis Research 1920-1960s. In: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 39. Online.

Nickelsen, K. (2015): Explaining Photosynthesis. Modelling Biochemical Mechanisms 1840-1960. Springer, Dordrecht u.a. (Series: History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, Vol. 8).

Nickelsen, K. (2016): Otto Warburg, die Quanten und die Photosynthese. Acta Historica Leopoldina 65, S. 37-64.

Nickelsen, K., Scholl, R. (2015): Discovery of Causal Mechanisms: Oxidative Phosphorylation and the Calvin-Benson Cycle. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 37, S. 180-290.

Govindjee, Björn, L., Nickelsen, K. (2012): Evolution of the Z-Scheme of Electron Transport in Oxygenic Photosynthesis. In: Tinyun, K., Congming, L., Lixn, Z. (Hrsg.), Photosynthesis Research for Food, Fuel and the Future. 15th International Conference on Photosynthesis. Springer, S. 827-833. (PDF online available)

Nickelsen, K. (2012): The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis: How to Construct a Model of a Biochemical Pathway. Ambix 59, S. 266-293.

Nickelsen, K. (2012): From the Red Drop to the Z-Scheme of Photosynthesis, Annalen der Physik 524 (11), A157-A160.

Nickelsen, K. (2012): Of Light and Darkness: Modelling Photosynthesis 1840-1960. Verhandlungen zur Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie, Bd.17 VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung: Berlin; S. 13-36.

Nickelsen, K. (2009): The Construction of a Scientific Model: Otto Warburg and the Building-Block-Stratege. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 40, S. 73-86.

Nickelsen, K. (2009): From Leaves to Molecules -- Botany and the Development of Photosynthesis Research. Annals for the History and Philosophy of Biology, Vol. 12, S. 1-40.

Nickelsen, K. (2008): Ein bisher unbekanntes Zeitzeugnis -- Otto Warburgs Tagebuchnotizen Feb.-April 1945. NTM 16, S. 103-115.

Nickelsen, K. (2007): Otto Warburg's First Approach to Photosynthesis. Photosynthesis Research 92, S. 109-120.


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