In his office, Benjamin Cohen displays a quote by author A.S. Byatt: “The world is full of life and light, and the true crime is not to be interested in it.” A research engineer early in his career, he quickly realized he didn’t want to “do” engineering but was fascinated by studying the reasons for scientific and engineering work.
Now, the assistant professor of engineering studies searches for answers to how science became the dominant way society defines and knows nature.
No wonder then that Cohen is the first professor hired specifically for the College’s interdisciplinary program in engineering studies. The renewed program, formerly A.B. engineering, is right up his alley. He earned his Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Virginia Tech, studying the history of how those disciplines have shaped modern environmental thought and practice. One of his proudest achievements, in fact, is his book Notes from the Ground, which explores the cultural origins of agricultural science in the 19th century.
“The history of science, technology, and the environment reveals a world where people made decisions based on particular conditions in particular places about how to live in nature,” explains Cohen. “But there were and are always more options available. The future isn’t pre-ordained; we have a part in creating it. In that sense, I like teaching engineering students, since in our thoroughly technological world they have a powerful role to play in shaping that future. I hope to help students do that with more ecologically sustainable technologies.”
While Cohen finds it immensely rewarding when his students express curiosity and wonder at the world around them, he knows those are qualities he cannot teach. But he can be there to help them cultivate a passion for understanding nature and discovering new ways of relating to it. His classes aren’t just about disseminating new pieces of information, but teaching new and different ways of thinking. And Lafayette is an ideal place to do that.
“Instead of the old ‘two cultures’ idea from the 1950s, where you have science on one side and humanities on the other – which to me always seemed to deny the chance for interdisciplinarity – I think Lafayette is a place that can avoid the very premise of that neat division,” he says. “I look at science and technology as ways people express their understanding of our world. Art, literature, and music – these too are creative ways of trying to understand and add to the world. To me, seeing all of those ‘ways of knowing’ together is in keeping with the ethos of a liberal arts college.”
Plus, exchanging ideas is just a good time. Cohen enjoys doing this through various outlets, many of which involve writing outside academia. He’s written satire, short fiction, personal narratives, and other commentaries for a variety of publications. He contributes interviews of philosophers of science and environmental thinkers to the magazine The Believer and is a former co-author of a science and culture blog.
“I’m excited when students bring new ideas to class and want to hash out the arguments we’re reading about,” he says. “I love reading and writing in general, so getting the chance to talk about articles and books and stories with anyone – students, colleagues, whoever – is kind of an ideal thing for me. If it helps students discover a new perspective, or come to see something in a new way, or realize that they have a part to play in how things can be, those things are rewarding.”
Cohen sees a bright future for the engineering studies program. He and his colleagues are looking to enhance what he calls the “hard skills” like political philosophy, historical context, cultural familiarity, communication, and environmental knowledge to help students become leaders of creative innovation and design. These skills can encourage a better awareness of what Byatt meant by a world “full of life and light.”
“I’d like to see engineering studies move toward the forefront of that awareness,” he explains. “This can be a major where we balance technical proficiency with the benefits of liberal education in the 21st century, where our students have a kind of bilingual ability to lead debates about technology because they can speak to technical details while knowing the cultural and political and economic language, too. I’d like to see further attention to interdisciplinarity, not just as something someone does but as a form of identity, as something someone is.”
Cohen is at work on his next book project, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, exploring the origins of industrial agriculture in the late 19th century. He’s focusing on the history of food adulteration, or contamination, and purity before the founding of the FDA. It’s a big topic that is exploding anew as debates about organics, genetic modification, and “buy local” movements sweep the country.
“My interest is in figuring out how new artificial foods challenged ideas about nature and ‘the natural.’ Could something fake be pure? Could something artificial be healthy?” he asks. “For me, it’s a cultural history as much as an environmental one because I’m finding that prevailing cultural debates about purity and authenticity – about the real thing – were at the heart of debates about food purity and adulteration. Everybody always wanted the real thing. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to know what ‘real’ was.”
Cohen is the co-editor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice, published by MIT Press, a collection of chapters exploring how the environmental justice movement has influenced and transformed science and engineering in recent years. He is a co-editor of History for a Sustainable Future, a series also published by MIT Press on environmental history’s relevance for 21st century environmental concerns.