Res Obscura means “a hidden thing”

I started writing Res Obscura as a blog in the spring of 2010, when I was a graduate student in history at UT Austin. That incarnation came to an end during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I refocused my attention on becoming a new parent and finishing my second book (which is on the history of psychedelic science, and coming out in January, 2024!).

In early July of 2023, I re-launched Res Obscura as a Substack. I aim to send out a new piece of original writing based on historical research once a week (usually Tuesday mornings), along with a collection of links and a “primary source of the week.”

August 4, 2023 update: Res Obscura now has a little over 1,100 readers and is ranked in the top 100 most read history-related Substacks. Thank you for reading!

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About the author

I am an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz and the author of The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (Penn, 2019). You can find free PDFs of all my academic writings here. I’ve also written for The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Lapham’s Quarterly, Slate, Aeon, and The Public Domain Review. I was also a co-founder of The Appendix, an online journal of “narrative and experimental history,” and the author of many articles for it; two of them were selected as recommended reading by The New Yorker.

My jobs before becoming a history professor included stints as a legal assistant for a labor law firm, a grocery store clerk, a dishwasher at a supermarket deli, shelving books at a library, and (for a period of three days) filling boxes with Magic Johnson-branded ballpoint pens.

Some of the themes covered in this newsletter:

Above all, I try to center primary source research in my writing.

Adam Mastroianni, author of the newsletter Experimental History, declares: “I think science should be done out in the open, unfiltered, and reviewed by anyone who cares to comment.” I feel the same way about historical research. I wish there was more public exposure to the raw materials of being a historian (the confusing sources, the conflicting accounts, and above all the mystery of it all) rather than the polished and simplified “popular history” that is usually served up.

I started Res Obscura (“a hidden thing” in Latin, though it could also be translated as “a mysterious object” or even “dark matter”) to communicate my passion for this actual experience of doing history. And now I’ve moved to Substack because it recreates, better than anywhere else I’ve found, the feeling of history blogging circa 2010. I especially welcome comments and engagement from readers.

Please consider subscribing below to join the community - and thank you for reading!

My other newsletter

Along with my wife Roya Pakzad, I have also just launched a newsletter about the history and present of engineering. You can sign up for that here:

My writing desk in Austin, Texas around the time I started Res Obscura in 2010. The floor creaked a lot, but it had great afternoon light.

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Notes on the history of technology, medicine, science, art, drugs, and empire from UC Santa Cruz history professor Benjamin Breen. Also: using AI in research and teaching.


Historian of science, medicine, technology, drugs, and culture at UCSC.