Timeless spaces: Field experiments in the physiological study of circadian rhythms, 1938–1963

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In the middle of the twentieth century, physiologists interested in human biological rhythms undertook a series of field experiments in natural spaces that they believed could closely approximate conditions of biological timelessness. With the field of rhythms research was still largely on the fringes of the life sciences, natural spaces seemed to offer unique research opportunities beyond what was available to physiologists in laboratory spaces. In particular, subterranean caves and the High Arctic became archetypal ‘natural laboratories’ for the study of human circadian (daily) rhythms. This paper is explores the field experiments which occurred in these ‘timeless spaces’. It considers how scientists understood these natural spaces as suitably ‘timeless’ for studying circadian rhythms and what their experimental practices can tell us about contemporary physiological notions of biological time, especially its relationship to ‘environmentality’ (Formosinho et al. in Stud History Philos Sci 91:148–158, 2022). In so doing, this paper adds to a growing literature on the interrelationship of field sites by demonstrating the ways that caves and the Arctic were connected by rhythms scientists. Finally, it will explore how the use of these particular spaces were not just scientific but also political – leveraging growing Cold War anxieties about nuclear fallout and the space race to bring greater prestige and funding to the study of circadian rhythms in its early years.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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