Deborah Coen

Deborah Coen's picture
Professor of History & History of Science & Medicine
HQ Room 246. Office hours Spring '24: Thursdays 3:30-5:00 & by appointment
Phone number: 
+1 (203) 436-8100
Research Areas: 
History of the modern physical and environmental sciences; Central European intellectual and cultural history

Recent Publications

What’s Next for Histories of Climate Change?” LARB (January 2024)

Climate” in Encyclopedia of the History of Science (December 2023)

“Placing diverse knowledge systems at the core of transformative climate research,” Ambio (May 2023)

“The heat wave could force Europeans to rethink flawed, centuries-old ideas,” Washington Post (July 21, 2022)

A Brief History of Usable Climate Science,” in special issue of Climatic Change edited by Deborah Coen and Adam Sobel (August 2021)

“The Experimental Multispecies Household,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 51: 3 (June 2021).

Scientists for the People,” Aeon (December 2020).


Deborah R. Coen is a historian of science whose research focuses on the modern physical and environmental sciences and on central European intellectual and cultural history. She earned an A.B. in Physics from Harvard, an M.Phil. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in History of Science from Harvard, where she was also a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows. Before coming to Yale, she taught for ten years in the History Department at Barnard College and was Director of Research Clusters for the Columbia Center for Science and Society. At Yale she is also a member of the steering committee of the Environmental Humanities Initiative.

One of the questions driving Professor Coen’s research is how scientists cope with uncertainty. Her first book, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (2007), centered on an extraordinary scientific dynasty, the Exner-Frisch family. Contrary to typical accounts of fin-de-siècle central Europe, the Exners reveal a strain of Austrian liberalism that was (literally) at home with modernist subjectivity and uncertainty. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty won the Susan Abrams Prize from the University of Chicago Press, the Barbara Jelavich Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Austrian Cultural Forum Book Prize. Professor Coen has pursued her interest in the history of private life in articles such as “The Common World: Histories of Science and Domestic Intimacy,” Modern Intellectual History 11 (2014): 417-438.

Professor Coen’s recent research has explored the production of environmental knowledge. In 2013 she published The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter, which examines seismology’s history as a form of “citizen science.” In the nineteenth century, standing networks of seismic observers transformed earthquakes into natural experiments at the nexus of human behavior and planetary physics. The Earthquake Observers was a finalist for the Turku Book Prize from the European Society for Environmental History; click here to read a review in The Times Higher Education or The Los Angeles Review of Books.  

Her latest book is Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (2018), winner of the 2019 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society in recognition of an outstanding book dealing with the history of science. Climate in Motion is the first study of the science of climate dynamics before the computer age. Professor Coen argues that essential elements of the modern understanding of climate arose as a means of thinking across scales of space and time, in a state—the multinational Habsburg Monarchy, a bricolage of medieval kingdoms and modern laws—where such thinking was a political imperative. Linking Habsburg climatology to the political and artistic experiments of late imperial Austria, Climate in Motion grounds the seemingly esoteric science of the atmosphere in the everyday experiences of an earlier era of globalization. 

She is currently at work on two related book projects. The first tracks a series of Viennese debates over invisible atmospheric forces detected circa 1800, including animal magnetism, Aereon, Od, ozone, and atmospheric electricity. It uses these controversies to tell a material, cultural, and political history of “physical medicine” in central Europe, a science of environmental health that threatened to expose hidden constraints on human autonomy. The second project, Climate Risk: Historical Roots of a Vulnerable Science, reinterprets formative episodes in the history of atmospheric science since 1700 by bringing to the fore the voices of feminist critics, past and present. It uses history to diagnose contradictions at the heart of today’s science of climate “vulnerability.”