View of Castello Aragonese. Photo courtesy of Nick Hopwood.

View of Castello Aragonese. Photo courtesy of Nick Hopwood.

24 June – 1 July 2017

Ischia 2017: Cycles of Life

The call for applications is now closed, and applicants have been informed. The confirmed faculty are Warwick Anderson (University of Sydney), Peder Anker (New York University), Ariane Dröscher (University of Bologna), Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute, London), Mathias Grote (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Shigehisa Kuriyama (Harvard University), Maaike van der Lugt (Université Paris Diderot), Lynn Nyhart (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG, Berlin) and Lucy van de Wiel (University of Cambridge).

Course organizers

Janet Browne (Harvard University), Christiane Groeben (University of Naples), Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge), Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter) and the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn.

Introduction to the theme

carbon cycle

In the early twenty-first century, organisms are understood as having life cycles, inherited sequences of stages through which they reproduce and adapt to environmental challenges. Strategies to disrupt pest and pathogen life cycles play key roles in agriculture, biomedicine and public health. Organisms are also connected to each other, as well as to the air, soil, rocks and water, by material fluxes forming ‘biogeochemical’ cycles. The continual recycling of such elements and compounds as carbon, nitrogen and water links the life and environmental sciences from biochemistry to geology and ecology. The effects of human activities on these nutrient cycles threaten us with climate change, resource depletion and pollution, some of the biggest challenges in global politics today. Yet if cycles are topical, they are neither all new, nor all the same. Cycles of various kinds are among the oldest ways of framing human existence on earth and in the cosmos, and of thinking about health and disease, animals and plants – and at least calendars and seasons remain fundamental. This summer school seeks to understand the history of ‘cycles of life’ from early times to the present day, to trace connections and to identify patterns of continuity and change.

Cycles of generation and corruption, and of the transformation of the elements, have long structured knowledge and everyday life. The revolutions of the celestial bodies were thought to shape repeated events in the sublunary sphere, from the succession of the seasons to women’s monthly bleeding. Linking microcosm and macrocosm, William Harvey likened the circulation of the blood to the weather cycle. Human beings, their bodily constitutions and fever cycles determined by natal astrology, proceeded through the seven ages of man (or woman) in the hope that individual death would be followed by not just a new generation, but also spiritual rebirth. Religious festivals, calendars and almanacs followed an annual cycle, although Judaeo-Christian theology was based on a finite, arrow-like chronology that would provide an important resource for a transformation in conceptions of time around 1800.

Merian Metamorphosis LX

Maria Sibylla Merian — from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate LX. (1705)

In the Age of Revolutions this world was reconceived as a historical phenomenon subject to natural law. Enlightenment savants, notably James Hutton and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, proposed that nature ran in perpetual cycles. Hutton’s earth was a machine like a steam-engine for producing worlds without beginning or end; in Lamarck’s transformism spontaneous generation initiated series upon series of ascending forms. By the nineteenth century theories of evolution were founded on the reality of irreversible change, not least through extinction. Individual organisms were understood to develop through life cycles that occasionally showed ‘alternation of generations’, the phenomenon of a species appearing in two different forms, such that an individual would resemble its grandmother and granddaughters, but not mother or daughters. Rich studies of life cycles led to new understanding of the reproduction of plants and animals, with perturbations providing variations from which nature would select.

The ground was laid for a more general view of cycles of life and nutrition during the debates that in the mid-1800s pitted Louis Pasteur against Justus Liebig and defined the roles of biology and chemistry in explaining the phenomena of generation, contagion and putrefaction. Biologically, life, even microscopic life, came to be understood as arising not spontaneously, but strictly from reproduction of the same species. Chemically, the cycles were more promiscuous: in accordance with the principle of the conservation of matter, microbes made new life possible by rotting dead bodies, returning their molecules to the earth and making them available for another organism. Pasteur taught that life stems from death and death from life in an eternal cycle. Chemical changes in individual bodies — Liebig’s ‘metamorphoses’, or ‘metabolism’ as it came to be known — were thus linked to life cycles and the larger circulation of elements. Fundamental cycles of photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation and carbon assimilation were identified in plants.

Krebs and blackboard with the eponymous cycle

Hans Adolf Krebs in front of the eponymous cycle

Biological cycles gained currency in the mid-twentieth century, from the citric acid (Krebs) to the menstrual cycle, from nutrient to cell cycles. On a larger scale, by deploying radioactive isotopes as tracers after World War II, ecologists such as Evelyn Hutchinson followed carbon and phosphorus through biogeochemical cycles that included living and non-living compartments of ‘ecosystems’. Cyberneticians touted ‘circular systems’ as a general key to ‘self-regulating processes, self-orientating systems and organisms, and self-directing personalities’; and feedback became a standard concept. Control techniques were invented to intervene in biological cycles and create artificial ones, from the oral contraceptive pill and IVF treatment to the thermal cycling that drives the polymerase chain reaction.

Historians have investigated only a few biological cycles and largely in isolation; this school aims to encourage synthesis. We shall explore shared properties of cycles, and the differences and relations between one discipline or research programme and another and over the centuries. Modern metabolic and diurnal cycles oscillate. Life cycles are directional and their individual spans finite. Heredity and evolution work through their succession and endless variation. Ecological cycles are open-ended — and yet the ideal of a return to an original state underpins all modern conservation and restoration work. Concepts of cyclicity in the life sciences thus operate on vastly different spatial and temporal scales, and at the same time constitute a productive point of intersection with physics, chemistry, geology and economics. How much the various modern and premodern cycles have in common, or what biological cycles share with those in other sciences, and other domains of knowledge and practice, are open questions. The theme ‘cycles of life’ invites fresh engagement with the history of the life sciences over the long term.

Structure and resources

Lectures will last for up to 30 minutes in one-hour slots, leaving at least 30 minutes for discussion.

Seminars will focus on pre-circulated texts from the readings list. Students have been allocated to individual seminar groups (see programme below), to prepare the seminar in consultation with the seminar leader. Successful formats have included an introduction by the seminar leader (510 mins), then short informal contributions (2–3 mins) in which the student presenters table questions set by the seminar leaders followed by discussion in smaller groups and reporting back led by the presenters; but other collective and interactive ways of engaging with the reading materials are welcome. Where relevant, feel free to draw on your own projects to shape the discussion. 

The discussion forum is meant for school announcements and to facilitate discussion, including preparing for the seminars before the School takes place. The Forum was and remains publically visible, but only Ischia participants can post and/or start new discussion topics, and only Ischia2017 participants can create topics in 2017-related parts. You have all been allocated to seminar groups, and we suggest that you create a discussion topic for each of these groups in order to prepare the seminars. Log on and click ‘Subscribe’ to the 2017 ‘Announcements’ category, to receive emails notifying you of new postings to the forum. We encourage you to present yourself and your work under the ‘2017 Participants’ topic, with at least a link to your homepage. There is guidance on how to use the forum and a FAQ page; otherwise contact the web administrator.

Provisional timetable

Saturday, June 24
16:30–20:00 Registration and welcoming reception at Villa Dohrn
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Sunday, June 25
09:00 – 09:45 Welcome and introductions
09:45 – 10:30 Introduction to the theme, ‘Cycles of Life’ (Nick Hopwood)
10:30 – 11:30 Session 1 (Lecture Shigehisa Kuriyama)
Cycles, crises and slopes: Intuitions of life in the diverse medical traditions
11:30 – 12:00 Coffee
12:00 – 13:00 Session 2 (Seminar Shigehisa Kuriyama)
Cycles of life in traditional Chinese medicine
  • Barbara Di Gennaro, Thomas Erslev, and Sophie Reichert

13:00 – 16:00 Lunch
16:00 – 17:00 Session 3 (Lecture Maaike van der Lugt)
The ages of man, the cause of life and death, and the quest for longevity
17:00 – 17:30 Coffee
17:30 – 18:30 Session 4 (Seminar Maaike van der Lugt)
Cycles and rhythms in medieval medicine and natural philosophy: From theory to practice
  • Jia-Hui Lee, Claire Sabel, and Laurel Waycott

18:30 – 19:30 Open discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Monday, June 26
09:00 – 09:30 Session 5 (Comments Staffan Müller-Wille)
William Harvey and the seasons
09:30 – 10:30 Session 6 (Lecture Guido Giglioni)
The vital cycles of early modern bodies, natural and political
10:30 – 11:00 Coffee
11:00 – 12:00

Session 7 (Seminar Guido Giglioni)
Early modern cycles of life, death and illness

  • Dániel Bárdos, Andrea Ceccon, and Laura Sumrall
12:00 – 12:45 Session 8 (Commentary Hans-Jörg Rheinberger)
Times and cycles in biology
12:45 – 16:00 Lunch
16:00 – 17:00 Session 9 (Lecture Lynn Nyhart)
The emergence of the life-cycle as a unifying concept in nineteenth-century developmental biology
17:00 – 17:30 Coffee
17:30 – 18:30 Session 10 (Seminar Lynn Nyhart)
Developmental life-cycles and progress in the 19th century
  • Sarah Erman, Nina Kranke, Gustave Lester, and Susanne Schmidt
18:30 – 19:30 Open discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Tuesday, June 27
09:00 – 09:30 Session 11 (Comments Janet Browne)
Evolution and cycles
09:30 – 10:30 Session 12 (Lecture Ariane Dröscher)
Conflicting visions of cells in developmental and regeneration research around 1900
10:30 – 11:00 Coffee
11:00 – 12:00 Session 13 (Seminar Ariane Dröscher)
Lines or circles? Ways to understand the role of cells in developmental phenomena
  • Carola Oßmer, Alessandra Passariello, and Hanna Worliczek
12:00 – 13:00 Open discussion
13:00 – 20:30 Lunch and time for activities
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Wednesday, June 28
Naples day
08:30 – 10:00 Ferry Ischia → Naples (Alilauro, boards 8:40) and
transfer to the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (SZN)
10:00 – 10:30 Coffee break (foyer of SZN) and transfer to the Conference Room
10:30 – 10:45 Welcome (Roberto Danovaro, president of the SZN)
10:45 – 11:15 Presentation (Christiane Groeben)
The Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn
11:15 – 11:45 Presentation (Sandra Hochscheid)
Research and conservation at the new SZN Marine Turtle Research Center in Portici
11:45 – 12:15 Presentation (Graziano Fiorito)
Octopus research at the SZN
12:15 – 13:00 Transfer to the Fresco Room and
Presentation of the Fresco Room (Christiane Groeben)
13:30 – 19:00 Free time to discover Naples
19:00 Ferry Naples → Ischia (Caremar 19:25, n.b. from Porta di Massa)
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Thursday, June 29
09:00 – 10:00 Session 14 (Lecture Warwick Anderson)
From parasitic life cycles to disease ecology
10:00 – 11:00 Session 15 (Seminar Warwick Anderson)
Relations of life histories/cycles to population cycles
  • Brad Bolman, Sophie Greenway, and Thibaut Serviant-Fine
11:00 – 11:30 Coffee
11:30 – 12:30 Session 16 (Lecture Peder Anker)
Cold War ecological cycles
12:30 – 15:30 Lunch
15:30 – 16:30 Session 17 (Seminar Peder Anker)
A history of sustainability
  • Stefan Gawronski, Mikey McGovern, and Claire Webb
16:30 – 17:00 Coffee
17:00 – 18:30 Open discussion
20:30 Dinner at a local restaurant
Friday, June 30
09:00 – 10:00 Session 18 (Lecture Mathias Grote)
Molecular cycles in metabolism, 1930s–1980s
10:00 – 11:00 Session 19 (Seminar Mathias Grote)
Cybernetic cycles in biochemistry
  • Christopher Halm, Nicole Labruto, and Caterina Schürch
11:00 – 11:30 Coffee
11:30 – 12:30 Session 20 (Lecture Lucy van de Wiel)
Temporalities of reproduction: Life cycles and IVF cycles
12:30 – 15:30 Lunch
15:30 – 16:30 Session 21 (Seminar Lucy van de Wiel)
Viable rhythms: Cellular aging in time-lapse embryo imaging
  • Eira Bjørvik, Alfred Cheesman, and Charlotte Hoes
16:30 – 17:00 Coffee
17:00 – 18:30 Open discussion
18:30 – 19:30 Concluding discussion
20:30 Dinner at Villa Ciccio
Saturday, July 1
Departure Ciao – Arrivederci!


The 2017 School is supported by grants from the Wellcome Trust and the National Science Foundation.


There is a charge for students of 300 Euros each. This will cover hotel accommodation and all meals, but students will need to pay for their own travel to Ischia.

The directors will consider requests to waive the fee from qualified students, especially from developing countries, who are unable to raise the money themselves and whose institutions cannot provide it. These must be supported by a detailed financial statement and a letter from the applicant’s head of institution.


(Applications have been closed since March 2017.)

Applications should include:

  1. a statement specifying academic experience and reasons for interest in the course topic (max. 300 words),
  2. a brief cv,
  3. a letter of recommendation.


28 February 2017
Deadline for applications – applications must have been received by Midnight CET
15 March 2017
Students to be notified of application outcome
26 May 2017
Registration fees and/or registration forms due


Please send applications to this email address:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The body of the email should start with the applicant's full name (first name, surname and middle names or initials if desired). The statement, CV and recommendation letter should be attached as (preferably PDF) files, named surnamefirstname and statement ('st'), CV ('cv') or recommendation ('rec').

Example: Applicant Alfred E. Neumann attaches to his email (1) his 300-word statement named NeumannAlfred-st.pdf, (2) his brief CV named NeumannAlfred-cv.pdf and (3) his supervisor's recommendation letter named NeumannAlfred-rec.pdf.

You should receive confirmation within 24 hours of submission that your attachments arrived in readable form. Please contact the website administrator for any technical problems.

If email submission is impossible, you may send paper versions of the three documents to:

Nick Hopwood
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RH
United Kingdom

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The summer school is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the National Science Foundation, and the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.

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