Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series: Catastrophe, Data, and Transformation (Dagomar Degroot and Jessica Otis)

Thu April 11th 2024, 5:30 - 7:00pm
Wallenberg Hall, Room 433A

Historically, catastrophes and disaster occasioned early efforts at social data collection. With these data before them, early modern authorities considered how best to respond to disaster and ward off recurrence. Meanwhile, modern catastrophes have inspired examinations of premodern data with an eye to understanding the deep patterns of the longue durée, with hopes of yielding not only a better understanding of the past, but also actionable data relevant to our contemporary crises. 

This workshop interrogates the historical relationship between disaster and data. How have catastrophe and data collection have fed into and conditioned historical transformation? How did the accumulation of biopower develop in the early modern world? What patterns and practices of catastrophe and transformation can human and non-human data illuminate? 

Dagomar Degroot and Jessica Otis examine early modern catastrophe through a variety of data sources, from early modern human data through physical and biological data which evidence past disasters. Please join us for a conversation about catastrophe, data, and transformation.

There will be a reception at 5 pm prior to the event.

If you cannot attend in person, you can register for a Zoom link here.


Jessica Otis is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Her book By the Numbers: Numeracy, Religion, and the Quantitative Transformation of Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2024) explores how changing technologies of knowledge impacted how early modern people understood and interacted with the world around them. Her NSF-funded Death by Numbers project ( is transcribing, publishing, and quantitatively analyzing the London Bills of Mortality in order to investigate how lived experiences of plague outbreaks intersected with an emerging quantitative mentality among the people of early modern England. She is also one of the Project Directors of the NEH-funded Mathematical Humanists Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities, which is offering a series of workshops on the mathematics that underpins common DH methods.




Dagomar Degroot is an associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University. His first book, The Frigid Golden Age, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018 and named by the Financial Times as one of the ten best history books of that year. His forthcoming book, Ripples on the Cosmic Ocean, is under contract with Harvard University Press and Viking, and he is editing several books on past climate change - including the Oxford Handbook of Resilience in Climate History. Degroot publishes equally in historical and scientific journals, including Nature and the American Historical Review, and writes for a popular audience in, for example, the Washington PostAeon Magazine, and The Conversation. He maintains popular online resources on the history of climate change, and has shared the unique perspectives of the past with policymakers, corporate leaders, and journalists in many cities, from Wuhan to Washington, DC.