Category Archives: popularscience

Five Books

Marvin standing

I was interviewed for the Browser’s “Five Books” feature last week, talking about children’s science literature.

I did my PhD on kids’ science books. People sometimes think it was a strange, even trivial, thing to study – that children’s literature is just a bit of fun compared to the serious business of science, or that non-fiction somehow lacks artistitic credibility – but it’s an incredibly rich subject. Literary, and yet also often explicitly rooted in a sense of the material, hands-on and yet abstract, deeply metaphorical in places and often overtly realist, wonderous and mundane, textual and illustrated, diadactic and keen to inspire and open questions. In fact, did you know first ever children’s book was a science book? (well, ish, I like to tell people this anyway).

You can’t really pick five children’s science books that everyone is going to enjoy, and I’m certainly not about to provide a ‘canon’ everyone should read. Instead, I went for five books I thought reflected some of the diversity and sub-genres of the form as well as its history. Here they are:

1) How Your Body Works. I picked this as a nice exampe within the sub-genre of kid’s books about the human body (which at times can be more self-help than science). It  also reflects the number of children’s science books which use cartoon-ish illustrations that offer a somewhat metaphorical form of visual explanation. White blood cells as white knights guarding the ‘battlements’ of a scab, lungs as bellows. One of the illustrations adults seem to remember vividly from reading the book as children is the sex education via robots bit. Clearly the illustrator has really thought about the reproductive system – if you know what you are looking for you can see how it is meant to link to parts of the reproductive system – but it is also taken out of explicit reference to human sex with very box-like robots (second picture down in this blogpost).

2) Eyewitness: Dinosaur. I wanted to include an Eyewitness as they are such an iconic brand in the field. I could have chosen any but thought dinosaurs should probably be included in my list in some way too, so went for this. In many ways, it’s a quite interesting example because they have to rely on several artists’ impressions of dinosaurs, compared to most other books which are very photo-based, reflecting a museum-like approach to science as something immediate, about things you can see and possibly touch. In many ways it is very photo-realist in its approach (like Walking with Dinosaurs, maybe) but still reflects how much content in any science book is based on ideas, whatever the rhetorical references to a sense of the hands-on.

3) The Boy’s Playbook of Science. Here we have a clear sense of the hands-on, as this is an activity book, which instructions of things to make and do. This is also an example of a Victorian book (old blogpost from last winter on it and some others) but there are still a load of science books published sold on the premise of having a go with science. A suggestion that you should put the book down and do something more empirical instead, perhaps. There’s a great essay on John Henry Pepper by Jim Secord if you are interested (and I think everyone should be, a fascinating chap).

4) Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest. This was a bit of a personal choice in some ways. I never read this as a kid, but writing an essay on it in the middle of my BSc was what sparked the interest that my PhD. I also picked it as an example of fictionalisation to explain science. The Magic School Bus books being a key brand I was tempted to include in my list, which do similar things. I also really wanted to choose it as a book which, despite it’s narrative structure, ends with questions. This might go against the idea of children’s science books (or narratives in science literature) necessarily presenting science as finished fact, but the idea that there might be further questions is key to many views of how science works, but is, I think, especially important in children’s literature because it provides a sense of the possible future of science which young people might contribute to if they choose to grow up to be scientists.

5) How to Turn Your Parents Green. I chose this because to reflect the wave of books on enviromental issues aimed at children that have come out in the last five to ten years. As I’ve written before, there was a wave of similarly explicitly green media for young people in the late 1980s and early 1990s too, and a long history of nature books for kids. What makes this book slightly different from others is that it takes a sort of ‘kids know best’ attitude, compared to the ‘sit down and listen now, dear child’ tone. A load of analysts have talked about this in the context of fiction and enteratinment media (brilliant essay on this using Timmy Mallet as case study in this book) but it’s less common when it comes to books about something as serious as science, which tend to be a bit more reverant to adult authority. So this stands as an example of some of the generational politics implicit in any children’s media as well as, being a ‘green’ book, the way science is political even (or especially) when discussed with young people.

Other books I wish I’d had space for include any and every piece of science fiction, one of the many popup scuience books, any of the Horrible Science books I did my PhD on, an Isotype book, a manga science book, a revision guide (dull, boring and possibly a bit evil, maybe, but they are also a significant bit of the market), books for under 7s, books for over 13s and the more nature-spotting literature end of things.

What else have I missed?

Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.

A brief history of awesome

ACE! FAB! OMG! EXCELLENT! FAN-BLOODY-TASTIC! AWESOME & AM-A-ZING!!

Some might argue such a preponderance of superlatives has something to with the hyper-mediated nature of postmodernity. Others might more breezily blame the internet. Whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of awesome around.

Indeed, science writer and film-maker John Pavlus recently argued that a sense of awe was the first principle of engagement with science. Pavlus has a point, and in many respects I liked his post. Still, I think there is a politics embedded in popular science’s use of the awesome, and it’s worth being aware of this. So here’s a brief trip through some of the history, ideas and history-of-ideas wrapped up in popular science’s long-standing obsession with this sum-of-awe.

I’ll start with a bit of etymology, and here I think it’s worth acknowledging the overlaps between awesome and other words associated with a sense of wonderment.  In unpicking the history of a sense of ‘curiosity’, Neil Kenny (1998) argues that it shares much with other similar terms enacted to reflect a desire for knowledge: interest, wonder, marvel, strangeness, subtlety, secret and rarity being the few he flags up. He also emphasises that all these terms have an especially notable plurality of meaning (see also Marr, 2006: 2-3) These are flexibily applied words, and the boundaries of what curiosity was supposed to be applied to or might mean was, throughout the Early Modern period, ‘in a constant process of being not only inscribed but also dissolved’. Indeed, the notion of being curious and useful might be, at once, linked to each other and dissociated within a single page (Kenny, 1998: 109). Similarly, ‘interesting’ achieved prominence in the latter half of the seventeenth century, gradually displacing curiosity as the Enlightenment got underway (Kenny, 1998: 143). The history of ‘interesting’ is equally complex, with multiple, occasionally contradictory, meanings, and Kenny argues that such semantic twists arose largely because the terms reflected aspiration and self-interest (Kenny, 1998: 144). They were political terms, reflecting and ascribing a politics to the objects defined as ‘wondrous’. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary characteristics of ‘curiosity’ was its transformation, in the early modern period, into a morally good or neutral quality, but suggests that even this had some flexibility, with theological communities tending to conceive of it as a pejorative term (Kenny, 1998: 14-15). Curiosity killed the cat, after all. Or Faust maybe (c.f. Haynes, 1994).

Such references to theological communities let’s get onto ideas of the sublime, which is when the history of the awesome really kicks in as a sense of awe is so key. In many respects, a history of awe is tied up with religion. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1959) argues, the first writers on the sublime were 17th century explorers who sought a vocabulary to express the new experiences and vistas they discovered. Trained in the classics and the Bible, these were, understandably, the discourses they applied. As Hope puts it, they ‘read into mountains emotions once reserved for God’ (Nicolson, 1959: 271, 224).  This isn’t to suggest popular science which invokes wonder is necessarily doing so in glory of God – I’m not playing a lazy game of spot-the-religious-discourse – only that the history of the language used to express wonder at aspects of the natural world, including studying this (including formalised study, such as science) shares something with the history of language used to refer to God. As I mentioned in a recent post about Victorian children’s books, reading about science was seen a form of devotional activity; it is possible to connect the two. Still, Kenny’s point about the multiple uses of curiosity suggests, such a shared history can lead to spats as much as anything else. As Simon Locke’s (2005) study of ‘enchantment’ around images of science in superhero comics emphasises, this may all seem contradictory, but it is a normal everyday part of the multiple meanings and feelings towards science which we all carry around.

There are, of course, differences between Early Modern forms of wonder and curiosity, and those we see today. Yet, as Mosco (2004) has emphasised in the context of allusions to the sublime in contemporary digital culture, some very old attitudes to knowledge and nature echo through contemporary culture within science and technology’s appeals to wonderment. In contrast, George Rousseau (2006) argues that, aside from the occasional ‘bland attribute ascribed to Newton-style geniuses’, the vogue for curiosity in science ended with the Victorians (Rousseau, 2006: 254). By arguing for the prevalence of discourses of curious wonderment in contemporary popular science, I do not necessarily argue against Rousseau. Rather, I suggest that it is not just historians who retrieve a sense of curiosity from the past; a range of people commenting on science today apply a sense of ‘good old fashioned wonder’ nostalgically (e.g. The Dangerous Book for Boys). Perhaps because we feel a sense of awe so deeply it gets folded into ideas of authenticity. Moreover, Jon Turney, in discussing allusions to the sublime in contemporary popular science, suggests that if anything those qualities noted by the first writers on the sublime have only been amplified by the various tools of contemporary science: ‘The universe has become larger, older, and more violent’ (Turney, 2004: 94).

This point about being large, old and more violent is key, and brings me back to the meanings of the sublime and, in particular, the politics of awesome.

For our purposes, the sublime is probably best introduced as a sense of being near greatness, an aesthetic experience of finding something beautiful, but one that is mingled with awe. Traditional examples come from the experiences of 17th or 18th century explorers. As Hope Nicolson emphasises, it is generally associated with large scales, evoked in reference to grand scale views such as those from and over mountain ranges. Such large scales can refer to both time and space; the point is that the sublime object is so great it is (almost) inconceivable as it takes over the subject’s ability to comprehend. As Nicholson’s book suggests, the sublime describes the sense of majesty we might feel when faced with a mountain range. Rainforests or waterfalls are also classic examples, as is the night sky.

Formalised ideas of the sublime date back to the 18th century philosophical work of Edmund Burke (1756) and Immanuel Kant (1760). Crucially, Burke associates the sublime with a sense of terror, using this as a distinction between simple beauty and the sublime. Kant further distinguishes between what he dubbed the ‘dynamic’ and the ‘mathematical’ sublime. The former is akin to Burke’s notion of transfixing terror; the latter, however, extends notions of the sublime to something more abstract. In the presence of a large scale, of a sense of apparent infinity, Kant’s subject experiences the feelings of weakness and insignificance which go with being in awe. Yet, crucially, as the mathematical sublime is slightly more conceptual than the dynamic sublime: the subject then recovers a sense of superior self-worth with the thought that their mind was able to conceive something so large and powerful. As David Nye (1994) neatly puts it in his inspiring book American Technological Sublime, ‘the subject passes through humiliation and awe to a heightened awareness of reason’ (Nye, 1994: 7).

Yes, I have noticed the similarities between this and Douglas Adams’s tale of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex.

What I want to emphasise here is that the pleasure of experiencing the sublime, including this sense of intellectual superiority that comes with it, can be tied up in a sense of one’s significance in the world. Because of the feelings of awe and insignificance tied up in the experience of a sublime presence, allusions to the sublime ascribe power to the sublime object, or at least admit power and formalise it to some degree. Nye suggests the technological sublime invites the observer to interpret the power of technology as an expansion of human power and thus an achievement they can feel linked to (which is also why this is American technological sublime, it’s part of a sense of national identity). No longer do they necessarily feel like an insignificant human with respect to the power of nature: ‘One is both the all-seeing observer in a high tower and the ant-like pedestrian inching along the pavement below’ (Nye, 1994: 285).

I think we can extend Nye’s point to science too. Nye says a sense of awe at an awesome piece of technology makes us, in some ways, go wow at the people who made it (e.g. I bloody love bridges, skyscrapers make be go wow too, and all those twinkly lights on the side of Harrods at night are incredible). I say a sense of awe at science can make us go wow at clever scientists who worked things out too. Again, this is an achievement we can feel linked to in some way because they are other humans, even if we might also feel that these people are a bit cleverer than us. I’d also stress that I think this makes the sense of one’s significance in the world is in some respects a form of social significance. A sense of awe at science is not just a power relationship which mixes a sense of superiority and inferiority with nature (or an idea of a Maker) but with other people.

So, my point is that celebrating the awesome in popular science is in many respects celebrating the awesomeness of other people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it’s a good thing. At best, the sense of a shared human ability to comprehend might mean non scientists feel a connection with science through invoking a sense of awe (a collective feeling of “omg, people are amaz-ing”). At worst, that sense of majesty gets carried over to the scientists, and audiences see a difference between their puny little brains and the great cleverness of others (a more divisive feeling connected to disconnects with scientific communities). I’m not sure which one wins out. My best guess is bits of both, and probably neither most of the time, entirely depends on context and individuals involved.

So, there is a politics embedded in the awesome – a story of human connection with natural objects, ideas and other people – and I think is worth bearing in mind.

References:

  • Burke, Edmund (1757/ 1987) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by James T Boulton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
  • Haynes, Rosalind (1994) From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in western literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Nye, David (1994) American Technological Sublime (Camb, Mass: MIT Press).
  • Kenny, Neil (1998) Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998).
  • Kant, Immanuel (1760/ 1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. JT Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 14 (1): 25-46.
  • Marr, Alexander (2006) ‘Introduction’, in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 1-20.
  • Mosco, Vincent (2004) The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press).
  • Nicolson, Marjorie Hope (1959/ 1997) Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press).
  • Rousseau, George (2006) ‘Curiosity and the lusus naturae: The case of ‘Porteus’ Hill’ and Epilogue in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 213-250, 251-254.
  • Turney, Jon (2004) ‘The Abstract Sublime: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten’, Science as Culture, vol.13 no.1, pp.89-103.

EDIT 29/3: see also follow up post on considering the politics of the technological sublime at Milan station.

Science Communication 101 bibliography

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me to post an introductory bibliography for science communication studies. I was slightly wary, because the literature in the field is rather scattered and can be a bit dense in places. Moreover, I don’t like the idea that you need to have read any particular source to understand science communication. I do think they can help, but you can learn about the topic in a range of ways. The idea of a science communication ‘canon’ is silly.

Still, inspired by a recent set of History of Psychology bibliographies and a great one at the Science and Democracy Network, I thought it might be useful. I’ve tried to give sources which are accessible: both in terms of being easy to read and being easy to find (and as much as possible, free to download).

Let me know if I’ve missed something you think is amazing and want to share with others. I should also say upfront that this is quite UK centric.

  • Science in Public, by Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. This textbook is comprehensive, clear and ever so slightly cynical (in a good way). Annoyingly, it is also about 15 years old. It looks a bit dated in places and I wish they’d do an update, but most of the content still stands up and it’s still the first book I’d recommend.
  • These two recent books from the OU on Science Communication in an Information Age are designed as introductions and are pretty good (even if they don’t really get to grips with what they mean by information age…).  I especially like the essays by Alan Irwin, Robert Doubleday, Jack Stilgoe, James Wilsdon, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor.
  • See Through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis, published by Demos. This is free, downloadable, clearly written and reasonably short. It’s the manifesto for ‘upstream’ science communication, but’s also a great introduction to ideas in public participation in science. I tell students to read it to help revise for exams. Other Demos publications The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are recommended.
  • Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of science which are relevant to science communication. Its focus is environmental science, but much of it is more broadly applicable. I can similarly recommend Steven Epstein’s  Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge as a book on a reasonably specific topic which manages to introduce a load of key ideas along the way.
  • The 2000 House of Lords Report on Science and Society. Yes, a Lords report that is totally readable and incredibly influential. For real. The government recently tried to update this with a series of more specific reports, and the one on trust is worth a read (though most of the others dated quite quickly). This recent study of scientists talking about public engagement from LSE’s BIOS Centre will also help bring things up to date.
  • If you want the classics, you should read Misunderstanding Science? from Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne. It’s worth listening to Wynne’s interview in the CBC “How to Think About Science” podcasts for a bit more context. Irwin’s Citizen Science is also worth a read. These will help explain why people bitch about a so-called ‘deficit model’. Stephen Hiltgartner’s paper on the ‘Dominant View’, is also useful for understanding a shift from talking down to the public about science and instead attempting to inspire conversations between science and society.
  • Peter Broks’ Understanding Popular Science is good for the long view, including some clear introductions to areas of social theory (or at least notions of ‘modernity’ etc). Don’t be put off by the title, it is about science communication in general (by which I mean it includes what some people prefer to call ‘engagement’ rather than ‘popular science’). If you like your social theory with a more sociological smell, try Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge by Alan Irwin and Mike Michael.
  • Oh yeah, I edited a book once. I forgot about that. You should totally read that. Ok, don’t. It’s really rare, but the introduction, which you can download for free, is probably quite useful. My essay in that book – on the way we frame children’s relationships with science – is also free to download.
  • There is an Encyclopedia of Science Communication. Obviously it is BRILLIANT because I wrote two of the entries. It is also huge, heavy and £220. So… um, see if your local university library has a copy.
  • If you are interested in studies of what the public think/ know about science you really should try to get hold of Bauer et al’s ‘What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research’. It introduces all the main approaches and publications in this area, with brilliant clarity and fair context.
  • If you are interested in science in the news media, Stuart Allan’s Media, Risk and Science is a nice clear introductory textbook. I can also recommend this report from the University of Cardiff. It’s nothing especially shocking and starting to show its age, but I’ve found myself sharing it loads over the last couple of years as a great introduction to basic media analysis of science. Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science is another classic, and Martin Bauer’s longitudinal analysis of 20th century British science news is fascinating. There are loads of other great books on the topic, but they are quite rare.
  • If it’s popular science writing you are interested in, then have a read of some of Jon Turney’s essays on the topic. Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics is also worth a look, and for a historical view, it’s hard to beat Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace (it’s not just about books either).
  • When it comes to ‘new-ish media’, science bloggers are a reflexive bunch and what they write about themselves is often worth a look. It doesn’t always have the same depth or breadth of view as you’d expect from academic research, but their subjective experience can be useful and interesting too. Ed Yong’s journalism category is certainly worth keeping a eye on. Alternatively, Brian Trench has some neat overviews of science online in these three books.

As with any list of introductory texts, it’s a bit vanilla in places. If you want the juicy bits, follow up the interesting sounding references in bibliographies. Or, for more up to date and detailed work, have a dig around the field’s main two journals: Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. You might also find Science as Culture, the Social Studies of Science, and Science, Technology and Human Values useful. There is also the Journal of Science Communication – a fair amount of it is just masters’ dissertations, but these can be interesting and it’s open access.

The beauty of a grazed knee

You might have heard the poem Lamia by John Keats, which includes the lines: “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine. Unweave a rainbow…”.

Richard Dawkins takes this to task in a book, Unweaving the Rainbow. In the introduction, he argues Newton’s optics, far from destroying the beauty of Keats’ rainbow, opened up a whole new set of wonders. They revealed mysterious beauties rather than destroying them. Dawkins isn’t the only person to express this sort of aesthetic appeal of science. We could equally mention Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, or a host of other people writing about science, right back to the 17th century.

It’s also an approach used by the Horrible Science books I wrote my PhD thesis on, and I can be quite cynical about it at times. Still, if I’m honest, it’s an aesthetic I often share, and I was reminded of Dawkins’ response to Keats at the Wellcome Images Awards last night.

A picture of a mouse’ kidney was put up, and the guy behind me whispered “wow that’s quite cool” and I found myself replying “that’s VERY cool”. It wasn’t the only image to make us go wow. This was my favourite: A scanning electron micrograph of clotting blood caught between the fibres of a plaster.

Full details at Wellcome Images

Maybe it’s because I fell flat on my face outside the British Library last week (leaving me with grazed-knee a 7 year old would be proud of…) but I was captivated by this image. It’s something really mundane, indeed something we might flinch at the ugliness of. In many respects the very opposite of Keat’s rainbow. However, here, it is shown in a way we would not normally be able to see. Science has ‘unwoven’ it, maybe, but in doing so has changed and abstracted it into something very beautiful. It’s woven something new.

Moreover, this image is not only wonderous in itself, but makes you wonder. Or at least it made me wonder. It drew me in, made me remember what I knew about blood clotting and question what I don’t already know. Because if we take Dawkins’ point seriously, it’s not just beautiful as a piece of abstract art, it is because I know something about the context of the image too. It is beautiful because it opens up new ideas, and stands as a reflection of years of history of people working to open such ideas up.

I’ve been planning to do a post on the philosophical and historical points around this – a sort of ‘brief history of awesome’ – but explaining the technological sublime in a couple of hundred words has, so far, proved tricky. I do promise to get around it at some point though. EDIT: done! A brief history of awesome, or a short treatise on the politics of wonder, featuring Immanuel Kant and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Science and its spam filter

Yesterday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries?’ at the Science Online conference. You can see an abstract for the panel over on Marie-Claire’s Shanahan’s blog (scroll down to second half of post).

My talk spoke in quite general terms about science and social boundaries. I did this using an analogy I’ve stolen from David Dobbs; a spam filter.

Cast your mind back to the ‘Great Arsenic Bug Saga of 2010’. If you can’t recall the details, I can recommend Ed Yong’s link-filled timeline of the story. In terms of the point I want to make, all you need to know is that some scientists criticised a paper by a team of NASA astrobiologists. Some of these critiques were voiced on blogs. When asked about the critique, a spokesperson from NASA was reported as saying ‘the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers’. Instead, they’d keep to ‘scientific publications’.

David Dobbs blogged about this statement from NASA, suggesting it was a call to ‘pre-Enlightenment thinking’. Later, he told the Guardian Science podcast:

I got a lot of reactions saying ‘you can’t just open this process to everyone or there’ll be a rabble, you’ll spend all your time arguing with anti-science people and so on’. Well, you’re trying to have a spam filter here, right? You’re trying to draw a circle within which trolls can’t come in and dominate the conversation. I guess to an extent that makes sense, but you don’t want to draw a circle that boxes out legitimate scientists like Rosie Redfield.

I love this analogy. In some respects, science has always had a spam filter. On one side there’s a commitment to free debate, on the other side there is frustration with those who are seen as at best time-wasting and at worst, mendacious. Science has always sought to break, or at least not be limited by, social boundaries. At the same time science has always needed these boundaries to, and benefited from them.

Another analogy which can help us think about this issue is that of a map. This one I’ve stolen from sociologist/ historian Thomas Gieryn. In his book The Cultural Boundaries of Science, he argues that rather there being one, singular essential criteria for what makes something scientific, this thing we call science is the consequence of many different declaration of boundaries which, over time, have helped define what science is and what it is not. To quote Gieryn in more lyrical mode:

Mount Science, located just above the town of Reason in the State of Knowledge, which is adjacent to the States of Fine Prospect and Improvement, across the Sea of Intemperance from the State of Plenty, all this on the other side of the Demarcation Mountains from the towns of Darkness, Crazyville, and Prejudice, and the islands of Deaf, Blind and Folly (Gieryn, 1999: 6. See also pages 8-9 for actual map)

A Gieryn stresses, this is ‘not idle play with Venn diagrams’ (Gieryn, 1999, 12). Just as a map provides a traveler with physical directions, such ‘cultural cartography’ for science is used as shorthand when faced with a range of practical decisions (e.g. do we get a flu vaccine; is a hybrid car worthwhile?). Modern society is rooted in the advantages of specialist knowledge. We can’t all be specialists in everything, so we have to rely on trust, something Gieryn’s metaphorical map aims to capture.

Gieryn talks about ‘boundary work'; the active process of producing symbolic boundaries which our location in cultural space. We all do this all the time, and it’s not always intentional, neither is it necessarily malign. Educational researcher Basil Bernstein also wrote about the importance of symbolic boundaries back in the 1970s: the positioning of furniture in a classroom to emphasise the authority of a teacher, curriculum divides between subjects, the use of language or cultural references which some children understand but may be lost on others (Bernstein talks about this in terms of social class and the perpetuation of social inequalities through education).

One of the things I like most about the cartographic approach is that maps articulate shared space as well as boundaries. I think it’s worth emphasising that community and exclusion can be  two sides of the same coin. Jargon and in-jokes are nice examples here.  Jargon can provide precision for those who understand, just as it confuses those who do not.  An in-joke makes you feel left out if you are on the outside of it, but can be a lovely expression of friendship if you understand it.  Most importantly though, in-jokes and jargon are good examples of types of boundaries we can put up without realising it.

Keeping to communities we already know is tempting. It’s sometimes said that the various long tails of online communication allow us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us: self-curated bubbles of cozy agreement. This can be useful. It lets us network with others who have similar tastes, interests or worries, allowing us to share skills and information, to build movements (see also my London Science Online talk on ‘the science vote’). Interaction in niche groups can also be rather limiting. In his great book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins compares this to ‘choosing to live in red states and blue states’ (yep, sorry, another geographical metaphor, Jenkins, 2006: 249). Jenkins goes on to argue that we tend to join web communities for recreational interests rather than political ones. So, by hanging out at, say, a knitting blog, you might engage in discussion with someone of a different political viewpoint from yourself, a different religious one, or cultural, generational, professional.

We might argue that the science is one of these recreational interests, and so still suffers from people opting in or out of it. I honestly don’t know how this effects science blog readership. I suspect it varies. I’d like to stress, however, that one of the great things about Gieryn’s cartographic approach is that it helps us view this thing we call ‘science’ as rather heterogeneous in itself. Science isn’t a bubble, it’s a field teeming with diversity.

Moreover, science in all its diversity looks at a load of different topics, in a load of different ways, for a load of different reasons, many of which will have some non-scientific link to peoples lives (or at least non-obviously-scientific link). Another term I can offer you from sociology/ history of science: ‘boundary objects’. This refers to items of shared space that several different groups can – simultaneously – use, spend time with, be attracted to, and find meaning in. Locating this sort of shared space is something I suspect a lot of science writers aim for, or at least science writers who want to draw new audiences into science. Star and Greisemer, who’s paper on Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology I take this term from, note the active work that often has to go into making something shareable. For example, they suggest libraries as an example of spaces built to deal with problems of heterogeneity: ordered piles, indexed in a standardized fashion so that people with a host of agendas can use or borrow from the pile for their own purposes without having to negotiate differences in purpose. Boundary objects do not always simply offer themselves nakedly, and I think that’s an important point.

Star and Greisemer also reflect on the problems of working in shared spaces. They refer to people who have feet in two cultures and stress that managing multiple identities can be volatile and confusing. Such people may resolve these problems by denying one side of their identity, oscillating between worlds, or by forming a new social world composed of others like themselves (Star & Giesemer, 1989: 411-412). None of this is easy.

Boundaries are an unavoidable part of social life. They are useful, and they are limiting. We need to be as clever as possible about them: to keep an open and enquiring mind about who might be on the other side of a boundary; to be careful of accidentally building them and inadvertently seeming standoffish or snobby. We all have spam filters, and we’ve all nearly missed some great email or blog comment because of them. The trick is to keep an eye on them.

The brain: the new weather?

What’s with the brain these days? This was the question Steve Woolgar started off a conference on Neurosociety, held at the Saïd Business School late last term (see also my post on STS and the Bernalian nightmare).

Why do we increasingly seem to feel the need to explain, plan and sell with reference to research to neuroscience, or at least with allusions to such research? Why do we ask questions of what we can know, what we must do and what we may hope couched in terms of various transcriptions of the brain? Are we living in a neurosociety, or at least moving towards one?


Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

It seems that neuro is the prefix of the day, perhaps interchangeable with ‘e’ or ‘information’, or similar hype over the idea we are living in ‘the era of the gene’. Or perhaps, neurosociety could be a development of such previous technoscientific epochs: arguably, much discussion of the brain stems from worries about digital culture, and is couched in genetic terms. Whether we see ourselves through the brain, our genes, or the technology we use, the central object we take as a figure of human behaviour seems to have changed slightly over time. Is the heart next?

(Perhaps illuminatingly, no one seemed to reflect on the prefixes of ‘big’ or ‘no such thing as’ for the word society. We largely stuck to science and technology framings)

Jonathan Rownson of the RSA was one of the many speakers to argue that the brain has become an object that brings people together, it functions as a social device to get people together to talk. In STS terms we might, very loosely, call it a ‘boundary object’. As Rownson put it: you ask people about their psychology, their behaviour, and they feel defensive but ‘the brain animates people, the brain interests people’. Is the brain, Rownson asked, the new weather?

Rownson also mentioned what I felt was the most interesting theme of the conference: that of social reflexivity. We are aware of our own condition more than ever before, and use this understanding to self-analyse. As Umberto Eco might put it, we are ‘non-innocent’ about culture, including neuro-themed culture. We no longer see the brain naively. We know we cannot simply say ‘as neuroscientists would say’. We know it is not so simple. We are not so unquestioning of science these days (if we ever were).

Who this ‘we’ might be exactly is ambiguous though, there was a fair amount of talk at the conference about the pervasiveness of ‘neuromyths’ and the need for some active mythbusting around neuroscience.

There was some connected discussion of what STS scholars can offer our understanding of neurosociety, and whether they should retain some ethnographic distance from neuroscientists. This debate included the idea that scientists themselves are insufficiently sceptical of their own work. This is an arguably unfair prejudice of many STS schoars which I suspect has its roots in a loose application of Kuhn’s idea of normal science. In contrast, Nikolas Rose argued that from his perspective of someone who has been studying the field very closely for several years, neuroscientists are incredibly critical of their own work, as well as the ways in which aspects or images of neuroscience are applied/ alluded to commercially or in popular culture. As Rose put it, ‘if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get’.

It’s all to easy to assume some other people blindly believe what they are told, be these people ‘the public’, ‘scientists’, ‘humanities graduates’, ‘the media’, ‘politicians’, women, children, the working class or another social group. But, as Dorothy Nelkin and Celeste Condit argued over the reality of ‘the DNA Mystique’ in the mid ’90s, we should be careful of assuming a lack of critical faculties in others (just as we should be careful of assuming too many in ourselves).

Thinking broadly about this non-innocence view of the brain, if and wherever such non-innocence might exist: perhaps it is simply the moment in late modernity our move to neurosociety has occurred within. Maybe we live in non-innocent times no matter what we are looking at. Or perhaps the brain is a topic which invites reflexivity: we cannot help thinking about what makes us think. More pragmatically, I wonder if the historical associations between some areas of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are worth noting. Perhaps this frames knowledge and debate on the issue in more questioning ways that discussion of genetics or computing ever did.

Or maybe it really isn’t all that more reflexive than other issues. We might argue that there has always been a mix of credulity and criticism about science and technology, in various places, in a variety of ways. No one ever really took a gene’s eye view? Technological determinism was always a strawman argument?

The conference website should be updated with audio with some of the keynotes soon.

For my part in aiming to learn more about conversations surrounding neurosociety, I have started a small research project on bloggers (details of how you can help).