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Of Light and Darkness

The Discovery of Photosynthesis, 1840–1960

Project of Prof. Dr. Kärin Nickelsen

“Of Light and Darkness” investigates the history of experimental research on photosynthesis in the years between 1840 and 1960 — a period of dramatic change in the biological sciences. Within the project, the search for the biochemical pathway of photosynthesis is understood as the collective construction of a causal explanatory model.

At the center of this study lie methodological questions, which are primarily pursued through concrete case studies, e.g. how experimentally generated knowledge concerning causal relations is built into a comprehensive model. Among other heuristic strategies, a common “building block” approach appears as one basis of model construction: it can be traced in detail how knowledge elements, both material and conceptual in nature, were taken over from predecessors or imported from entirely different fields and integrated into new explanatory models. The actions, goals, and priorities of the actors are reconstructed with particular attention to the cooperative interplay of collective research activities.

At present, various aspects of these events are being further researched, among them the pervasive issue of knowledge transfer at disciplinary boundaries, especially at the border between biology and physics; but also the historical question of how (bio-)energetics questions took on a whole new meaning in the charged atmosphere of the postwar era—such that photosynthesis research presented, to some extent, a possible alternative to developing nuclear energ

This research is pursued in close cooperation with one of the key actors in the field researched, 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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