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Prof Jon Agar
Room 2.4a
STS
UCL, Gower Street
London
WC1E 6BT
Prof Jon Agar profile picture
Appointment
  • Professor of Science and Technology Studies
  • Dept of Science & Technology Studies
  • Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences
Biography

I am currently Professor of Science and Technology Studies, and Co-Head of Department (with the philosopher Professor Emma Tobin) of the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS).

I joined UCL in 2007, and it is definitely where I want to be!

I think I have always been fascinated by science and technology broadly, and I have always wanted to understand how it fits in our world. As a teenager I was a keen amateur astronomer, ZX81 computer programmer, and loved my chemistry set. I studied mathematics at Cambridge (at the old DAMTP), and, while I enjoyed the analysis of complex variables, fluid mechanics and astrophysics, I knew that further research would become ever more narrow. That is when I found out about an extraordinary subject, one in which the questions were always wide and open: history and philosophy of science./I was lucky enough to be offered a PhD place at the University of Kent, supervised by the biographer of Lord Kelvin, Crosbie Smith, and joined a small unit of like-minded friends and colleagues.

I completed my PhD in 1994, on the history of radio astronomy, during which I had researched (and helped catalogue) papers in the Jodrell Bank archive. In the same year I joined the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), University of Manchester, as a Lecturer in History of Technology. My memories of Manchester are of friends, rain, intellectual arguments, beer, and arguing over history with friends over beers.

In 2001, I had family on the way in London, and I moved south. I had temp jobs for a couple of years. I worked with the Royal Society of Arts, taught bijou courses for Oxford's Museum of the History of Science and UCL. In 2003 I joined the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), Cambridge, on a three-year post where they nevertheless let me introduce a new 'Paper' (set of courses) on history of twentieth-century science. In 2006-7 I spent a year at Harvard University, fondly remembered because we were a young family welcomed in a new country. 

And in 2007 I came to UCL.

Research Themes
Research Summary

My research is on the history of modern science and technology. My broadest book is Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity Press, 2012), which provides a detailed overview of over a hundred years of science in context, and offers the 'working worlds' model as an analytical tool to understand change.

Recent, specific research interests include: history of science and government; history at the intersections of technologies and the environment; history of computing including artificial intelligence, history of Cold War research; and new ways of thinking about technology.

History of science and government. A recent project made extensive use of newly-released official archive documents, to study science and science policy during the Thatcher administration (1979-1990). The result, my open access book, Science Policy under Thatcher (UCL Press, 2019), is available here: Science Policy under Thatcher

History at the intersections of technologies and the environment. Following a successful workshop in 2016, Jacob Ward and I co-edited the open access volume Histories of Technology, the Environment and Modern Britain (UCL Press, 2018). It is available for free here: Histories of Technology, the Environment and Modern Britain

History of computing including artificial intelligence. My book, The Government Machine (MIT Press, 2003) traced the mechanisation and computerisation of government work from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. I not only offered new interpretations of key figures such as Charles Babbage and Alan Turing, but also uncovered the contribution of unheralded centres of expertise. It is a study of two 'general-purpose machines': the civil service and the universal computer. More recently I have investigated how a 1970s report by the mathematician James Lighthill nearly halted artificial intelligence research. The episode unexpectedly revealed deep divisions between scientists about what science is for. You can hear me talk about what I found out, including sources from UCL Special Collections, in this 2021 UCL Lunch Hour Lecture, introduced by Head of UCL History department. Professor Eleanor Robson, here: Lunch Hour Lectures: Why Did a Former UCL Provost Think Research in AI Should be Stopped? - YouTube

History of Cold War research. I am fascinated by how the Cold War shaped science, and my work on this subject goes back to my 1990s PhD project on history of radio astronomy. Recent published papers (see publications), include studies of UK defence research advisory committees, and the history of defence research and genetic engineering. I sometimes collaborate with my colleague Professor Brian Balmer on this topic of mutual interest.

New ways of thinking about technology. Working at the intersection of history, sociology and philosophy of technology, I am exploring how instrumentalist meanings of technology can also make sense of 'scale', broadly understood. Some early thoughts can be found in my 2019 review article, published in Annals of Science (viewed, as of March 2021, 40,379 times), accessible here: Full article: What is technology?



Teaching Summary

Courses taught in the past year or planned for next year:

HPSC0010 History of Modern Science

HPSC0011 STS Perspectives on Big Problems (two sessions)

HPSC0037 Thinking about Technology

HPSC0073 Introduction to Science and Technology Studies (MSc, single session)

HPSC0087 Science in the Twentieth Century (MSc)


Other courses taught in the past:

HPSC0071 Nature, Technology and the Environment

HPSC2014 Science and Global Citizenship

HPSC2015 Technology and Global Citizenship

HPSC2017 STS in Practice

HPSC3002 Science, Warfare and Peace (with Brian Balmer)

HPSC3032 Investigating Contemporary Science

Academic Background
1994   Doctor of Philosophy University of Kent
1990   Bachelor of Arts University of Cambridge
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