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Science historian wins Latsis Prize

Our attitudes towards our close relatives have changed over the years Keystone

Zurich-based science historian Marianne Sommer has won this year’s Latsis Prize for giving the study of science history a “tremendous boost” in Switzerland.

The prestigious award, worth SFr100,000 ($97,000), is presented each year by the National Science Foundation (SNF) to a research scientist under the age of 40 working in Switzerland.

Using methods from the field of cultural studies, 38-year-old Sommer – who studied both biology and English literature and linguistics at Zurich University – examines how the natural sciences go about explaining the history of humans.

In a statement, the SNF said there was growing public interest in such explanations, “which delve deep into the body to tell us who we are and where we come from”.

Sommer is convinced that the emergent field of science history deserves to be put on a stronger footing at Swiss universities.

“The history of science and science studies have become immensely important for a global history of knowledge,” she said.

“Those hoping to understand the networked, knowledge-based societies of our time must try to learn how knowledge is produced and circulated in such societies.”

The SNF said a passion for history had gripped scientists and laypeople alike and that it had chosen Sommer “for her widely acknowledged interdisciplinary research which had given the study of science history a tremendous boost in Switzerland”.

From beast to friend

While cultural studies generally explore the political nature of culture and often span a number of generations, the life sciences (evolutionary biology, palaeoanthropology and the study of genetic history) reconstruct history by analysing the human body.

In her investigations, Sommer has applied the methodology of cultural studies to these developments.

Earlier this year, she won an SNF-funded professorship at Zurich University’s Research Centre for Social and Economic History. She has also held research and lecture positions at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Stanford University.

In her PhD thesis Sommer showed how, with the passage of time, the image of the ape projected by the popular science magazine National Geographic changed from that of a wild beast to a friend and close relative.

“Red Lady”

Her habilitation – a postdoctoral degree with lecture qualification – includes a discussion of how religion’s monopoly on interpretation came to be challenged by anthropology and archaeology.

She traces the history of “human origins sciences” using the example of the “Red Lady”, a skeleton discovered in Wales at the beginning of the 19th century. These bones have been repeatedly reinterpreted through the centuries in different scientific and cultural contexts.

With her latest research project, Sommer aims to identify the cultural and political implications of biology-based approaches to history, for instance the genetic reconstruction of blood relations and the history of migrating human populations.

Today, new DNA technologies have even become marketable: the origins and history of one’s DNA can be traced for a fee.

The Latsis Prize will be awarded on January 13, 2011 in Bern.

The National Latsis Prize is one of Switzerland’s most prestigious scientific awards.

It is awarded annually on behalf of the Geneva-based Latsis Foundation by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The SFr100,000 award honours the outstanding scientific achievements of a research scientist under age 40 working in Switzerland.

The Latsis Foundation, a charitable organisation, was established in 1975 by the Greek Latsis family in Geneva.

The Foundation currently sponsors six awards: four university prizes, worth SFr25,000 each, the National Latsis Prize and the European Latsis Prize, of SFr100,000 each.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR