Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bowles Debate at

The following is a deeply insightful pedagogical debate about my teaching skills excerpted from the online site I can usually predict when one of these anonymous posts will appear...after a disgruntled student gets a bad grade or an enthusiastic student completes an excellent MA thesis. The truth, as always in life, is somewhere in the middle. Except of course for the last comment, which is completely accurate. 

The Detractors: Professor Bowles is a “poor teacher.”

The Supporters: Just wait a minute, he is an “outstanding professor.” He "provides feedback ASAP."

The Detractors: But his knowledge is “limited to personal interest.”

The Supporters: That is wrong. Bowles really "knows his stuff" and is “extremely knowledgeable in American history.” He was "one of the best professors I have had."

The Detractors: How can you say that? He does not “provide much guidance” for his students.

The Supporters: Are you kidding me? Bowles is “always willing to help out.” He “communicates quite a bit,” and he is “very involved” in his classes.

The Detractors: You know “He can’t handle being corrected.”

The Supporters: I agree with you there, I mean "
Don't disagree with him!!!" But he is “patient,” “extremely helpful” and “one of the best professors I have had.” The bottom line is "I highly recommend him."

The Detractors: No way. "I would not recommend him." Have you noticed the "typos common in his instructions."

The Supporters: Who cares! He has a "great sense of humor," he is "engaging," and "makes the class a whole lot of fun with interesting written lectures and videos."

The Detractors: Maybe so, but I can tell he has a “conservative bias.” He is just "not a great teacher."

The Supporters: Yeah, but "based on his photo, he's hot!"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Becoming a Footnote in History...

When I first considered going to graduate school in 1991 I set a seemingly small goal for myself—to be footnoted just once. I shared this odd idea with my father, and while it seemed insignificant, I explained it to him like this. To be footnoted I would have to: enjoy moderate success in grad school, conduct work in an archives, compose a scholarly article or book based on that research, find a publisher to accept my work, pass a peer review process by experts in my field, hold one of my published works in my hand, convince (or force) other people to read my article or book, and impress (or infuriate) people enough to actually cite my work in their own publication. 

Therefore a single footnote of my work, from my vantage point of just entering graduate school, seemed like a monumental achievement and a way to secure my legacy of literally becoming a footnote in history.

I was fortunate to pass my way though grad school and earn a Ph.D. in history in 1999 from Case Western Reserve University. It was in that year that my first footnote appeared in a book (pictured below).

Zachary, Gregg Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

The author cited me twice and even reproduced a drawing that I made of an early computing device. Here are the two footnotes...the first of my career. 

The footnotes (numbers 26 and 28 above) were to an article I published three years earlier, in 1996, in the Annals of the History of Computing entitled “The Age of the Analog Brain.” 

Since Zachary asked my permission to use my drawing, I knew that I was going to appear in his book and anticipated the release of his book more than I did my first published article.  I remember anxiously going to Border’s Book Store (back in the day when one actually went to a store to buy a book), pulling it from the shelves, and scanning the book not for scholarly content, but for my name. Indeed, it was purely an exercise in vanity, but it meant a great deal. 

My drawings reproduced in Zachary's book.

Since that time I have managed to publish a number of books, and I have also enjoyed serendipitously running across footnotes to that scholarship. It is one of the many pleasures of my career. Each time I do, I think about that promise to my father long ago, who passed away in 2001. 

So my message to aspiring graduate students is “Dream big…become a footnote.”

Here are the covers of my top ten favorite books that I appear in, not in an overtly significant way, but as a footnote to history. 


1.       Black, Alistair, Dave Muddiman, and Helen Plant. The Early Information Society Information Management in Britain Before the Computer. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.

Boden, Margaret A. Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Creager, Angela N. H. Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Dick, Steven J., and Roger D. Launius. Societal Impact of Spaceflight. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2007.

Downey, Gregory John. Closed Captioning Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Evans, Ben. Tragedy and Triumph in Orbit: The Eighties and Early Nineties. New York, NY: Springer, 2012.

Hersch, Matthew H. Inventing the American Astronaut. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Mirowski, Philip. Machine Dreams: Economic Becomes a Cyborg Science. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002.

Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Swade, Doron. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. New York: Viking, 2001.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lament that the US Government will not let me view a waterfall

In riding my bike along the outskirts of a closed national park today I was reminded of the Ken Burns documentary entitled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

In it Dayton Duncan said this: "At the heart of the park idea is this notion that by virtue of being an American ... you, you are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation's got. You own magnificent waterfalls. You own stunning views of mountains and stunning views of gorgeous canyons. They belong to you. They're yours."

Somehow, the American people have lost the right to that ownership.

Below is a waterfall that I was not allowed to explore today. Well, I could have explored it, but there is a penalty of a monetary fine. There is a maximum penalty of 6 months in prison.

Whose America is this?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Prof. Bowles Discusses Capital Punishment

I recently started a heated  Facebook discussion over Capital Punishment and a recent editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer entitled: "Ohio's vanishing stock of execution drugs is yet another sign that it's time to eliminate the death penalty in Ohio." You can read it here:

I strongly agreed with this editorial and while engaging with several people on Facebook who were staunchly in favor of the death penalty, I realized that many opinions about it are simply uninformed by scholarship. As a result, I compiled the following argument for the termination of the death penalty in the United States.

What is true of nearly all debates like this is that often one’s personal beliefs (and life experiences) shapes the validity ascribed to the facts presented. I promised some friends of mine who are in favor of the death penalty some quality research and opinions on this subject. And I offer the following for your consideration. As you might expect, all of what appears below supports my deep belief that capital punishment in America must end.

Here are some key facts about Capital Punishment from a collection of scholars writing a book published by Duke University Press. You can read the book: Garvey, Stephen P. Beyond Repair?: America's Death Penalty. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

1. Public Opinion: Since 2000, more people are seeking the abolition of the death penalty. This includes Republican Governor George Ryan from Illinois who halted executions in his state after the THIRTEENTH innocent man left death row. Read the governor’s address entitled “I Must Act” which he presented at Northwestern University College of Law. It was reprinted in the NYTimes here: In my opinion this alone should convince anyone to rethink the death penalty.  

2. Innocence: DNA technology has shown how remarkably flawed our judicial system has been in sending men to death row. Since the 1970s over 100 men have been set free when DNA technology exonerated them.

3. Capital Juries: Interestingly judges do the sentencing in noncapital cases, while juries sentence in capital cases. Professors John Blume and Theodore Eisenberg have asked the question: “How do jurors decide between life and death?” After extensive research they determined: “The results are disquieting. Far  too many unqualified jurors end up serving; many capital jurors fail to understand the basic constitutional principles on which their deliberations should proceed;…and a defendant’s fate can turn not just on the facts and circumstances of his case but also on the race of the jurors who sit in judgment of him.”

Let’s look more at race in an article published in New York University Law Review. Consider this scholarly article entitled “Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States." The law professors simply concluded: “Stark racial disparities define America’s relationship with the death penalty.They further went to explain their findings: “A new study testing internal attitudes and stereotypes among potential jurors in six death penalty states may help to explain the racial disparities that persist in the application of capital punishment. Researchers Justin Levinson (l.), Robert Smith (r.), and Danielle Young tested 445 jury-eligible individuals and found they harbored two kinds of racial bias: they maintained racial stereotypes about Blacks and Whites and made associations between the race of an individual and the value of his or her life. Those studied tended to associate Whites more with "worth" and Blacks with "worthless." The study further found that death-qualified jurors held stronger racial biases than potential jurors who would be excluded from serving in death penalty cases.”

4. International Law: Remarkably “Most of the nations with which the United States prefers to keep company have abolished the death penalty. Indeed, most of them now see capital punishment as a human rights violation.” Therefore, this weakens our global stature in fighting against other human rights violations. You can read more about this in a National Geographic article which said that only 21 countries in the world executed someone in 2012. The US had the 5th highest number of executions, though China keeps its numbers secret.

By the way, in December of last year 111 countries (that is more than half of the countries in the world) sided with a UN resolution to end state sponsored executions.  

I could suggest that everyone opposed to the death penalty read Austin Sarat’s book When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition. This is an academic book, published by Princeton University Press with all the peer review and scholarship that goes along with this type of endeavor. His central argument is that capital punishment “undermines our democratic society.” He argues that “state executions, once used by monarchs as symbolic displays of power, gained acceptance among Americans as a sign of the people's sovereignty. Yet today when the state kills, it does so in a bureaucratic procedure hidden from view and for which no one in particular takes responsibility.” There are forces that manage to maintain this culture of acceptable killing that includes “racial prejudice, and the desire for a world without moral ambiguity.” Sarat, Austin. When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Other academics, this time professors of law published by Oxford University Press, ask the following important questions: “Why does the United States continue to employ the death penalty when fifty other developed democracies have abolished it? Why does capital punishment become more problematic each year? How can the death penalty conflict be resolved?” They suggest that the reason that this remains such a divided issue is because it reveals that “the seemingly insoluble turmoil surrounding the death penalty reflects a deep and long-standing division in American values.” The division is this: “On the one hand, execution would seem to violate our nation's highest legal principles of fairness and due process. It sets us increasingly apart from our allies and indeed is regarded by European nations as a barbaric and particularly egregious form of American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the death penalty represents a deeply held American belief in violent social justice that sees the hangman as an agent of local control and safeguard of community values.” The conclusion here is that “the most troubling symptom of this attraction to vigilante justice in the lynch mob.” Zimring, Franklin E. The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

These legal and academic studies go on and on and on…I will list just one more from June 2013. This was from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) who released their report on the death penalty in California and Louisiana. Their main conclusion was that the death penalty in these states was “arbitrary and discriminatory.” The authors wrote, “States must also ensure that all persons charged with a death-eligible offense have timely-appointed, competent, and experienced representation at all stages of a capital case, and that appointed counsel have adequate funding to carry out the tasks necessary to provide effective representation.” You can read the report here:

Finally, here are five salient points on why the death penalty does not work from Amnesty International (

1. Innocent people are on death row. Republican Governor of Illinois Georg
e Ryan said: "I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life... Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate." Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. In 2003 alone, 10 wrongfully convicted defendants were released from death row.

2. The death penalty is racially unjust. In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty." The study concluded that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.

3. It is costly. A 2003 legislative audit in Kansas found that the estimated cost of a death penalty case was 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case. Death penalty case costs were counted through to execution (median cost $1.26 million).

4. It is arbitrary. Almost all death row inmates could not afford their own attorney at trial. Court-appointed attorneys often lack the experience necessary for capital trials and are overworked and underpaid. In the most extreme cases, some have slept through parts of trials or have arrived under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

5. It is not a deterrent. A September 2000 New York Times survey found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty. FBI data shows that all 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the American public will become more informed about the significant debate surrounding Capital Punishment. 

Professor Bowles 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Science in Flux Twitter Experiment

I want to announce what I believe is a Twitter first for the digital humanities: an academic history book written for Twitter.

This is actually a significant revision of my NASA history book I wrote in 2006 called Science in Flux. At the time it won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics award for best book of the year. To find it at a library near you visit:

Re-writing the book in tweets is an attempt to compose “sound byte” aphorisms that convey the narrative in new ways. It also invites conversation in a way that traditional book publication cannot.

I do think that there are very important meanings from the book related to the Cold War, government control, and the commitment to science that are quite relevant today.

Cyrus Mody reviewed my book in Historical Studies of the Natural Sciences. He said that my book, and four others that he reviewed, was representative of new Cold War scholarship that uncovers the “grandiose ambitions of the Cold War.” He said that Science in Flux, and other books, highlighted the “astonishing otherness of the Cold War.” You can read the review essay here: Science in Flux review

I have completed the re-write and have the story now condensed into 756 tweets. I will be starting the tweets on September 1st and will post 3 times a day, appearing at 8:05AM, 4:05PM, and 11:55PM (EST). These will be posted on Twitter to @TheHistoryFeed and linked to the hashtag #ScienceInFlux.

Here is a preview of a tweet scheduled for October 30th near midnight:

10/30/2013  11:55:00 PM: Before WWII the US government seized roughly the size of all the New England states from private citizens.  #ScienceInFlux

Here is one of the homes that the government literally took. The nicer ones were relocated and kept for officer housing. This place became the Plum Brook Ordnance Works during WWII, and later the home of NASA's only nuclear reactor

Along the way I will be attaching some of the rich visual record associated with the project.

I hope you will follow along in the narrative, and most importantly contribute your own thoughts and ideas as we proceed through the Science in Flux journey. Spread the news!

Inside the NASA Plum Brook nuclear reactor.