Tag Archives: popular science

Playing in the archives of popular science

This was first published in the April edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to get 3 issues free.

magsA pile of 1970s science magazines. They smell amazing.

When I was an undergraduate, one of my favourite ways to procrastinate on the run up to essay deadlines was to get lost in the New Scientist archive hidden at the back of the library. I’d pick one almost at random, open it up, give it a good sniff and dip in and out of their pages to see what I’d find.

I’d try to spot the early rumblings of what would develop into larger stories or simply details that get lost in historical retrospection. The adverts! The amazing old magazine smell! The slightly bitchy reviews of books which went on to be classics! I learnt a lot of the details of history of science in its news-stories, and a lot about the rhetorics of science communication there too. Reading the stories outside of their original publishing context helped me focus on the storytelling aspects of them, considering the ways the language and images we use to discuss new science and technology has changed over time. You could also spot interesting changes in style, and the assumptions they seemed to be making about readers’ prior knowledge or interest.

I rarely work from libraries any more, most of what I need’s online. So now, when I want some pseudo-work procrastination I go to the Popular Science online archive. This doesn’t smell quite so good, and you can’t wander through it in the same way, but you can still potter around its old pages, even if hands don’t touch paper. Type a word in to the word frequency visualiser and see the distribution of its use over 140 years. Try any word. Science. Robot. Internet. Drone. Go, have a play. As with the Google Ngrams, you have to be careful not to analyses them too quickly, without fair thought about the very diverse and individual contexts and contingencies which construct any utterance of each word. Still, as with the Ngrams, these can be a great way into the detail.

There’s certainly a rich set of data to consider. Popular Science was founded in 1872 as a monthly publication largely aiming to help spread scientific knowledge. A fair bit of their content was a matter of re-publishing scientific articles from the UK. The audience was imagined as “the educated layman”; not fulltime scientists, but knowledgeable and interested nonetheless. It was maybe easier to read unmediated science back then. In comparison, the old science editor of the Guardian, Tim Radford, tells a story about ringing up the then editor of Nature (a publication that’s supposed to be readable by all scientists, not just within disciplines) to get help understanding a particularly tricky paper and being told that even he didn’t really get it. Science today has become an intently segmented business.

By the start of World War One, tensions in Popular Science’s initial model started to show. It merged with sever other popular technology magazines and, re-launching with a new editor, took a less-academic stance. Rather than long articles and the odd picture, it focused on shorter pieces and a greater reliance on images, aiming at people with a personal interest in science and technology, especially hobbyists who might be tinkering at home. As machines became more complex and expertise flowed down ever more narrow silos throughout the 20th century, you can arguably spot a greater focus on the various promises of consumer technologies rather than science-in-progress or hobbyist tinkering. It’s always been a varied magazine though.

The focus on the promise of technology might sometimes seem overhyped, especially when you look back and find glimpses of futures that were never realised. If you enjoy these kind of lost futures, I can recommend the Smithsonian Magazine’s Paleofuture blog with it’s tagline “the history of a future that never was”. Matt Novak, its author, invites us to think about the way various imaginings of the future provided by advertising materials, popular science and fiction function to create ideas of progress, some of which we do go on to make, as well as those we don’t. He uses history to show off the dreaming and decision making we all routinely make about technology, but don’t always notice at the time.

Paleofuture recently ran a great series on the Jetsons, weaving references to non-fiction and advertising to discuss the complex range of ways we continue to imagine futures. It’s got a couple of nice pieces, for example, on traveling through a pneumatic personal tube system, and what we might now call videophones. There are also prompts to consider the political and cultural context of the Jetsons vision of the future, and what that means about the ways in which we think technology should be put to use then, and now. One post starts with George Jetson complaining “Yesterday, I worked two full hours!” before outlining some of the long history of technology applied to offer click-button access to increased leisure time (as opposed to simply giving us more work). Another piece argues the Jetsons provides a rather conservative vision of the future, one where images technological future are used to enact and refine existing social structures rather than change them. A message which is as present in the semi-fictions of advertising and so-called non-fiction as it is in the Jetsons (divides around fiction always being slippery, but especially so when it comes to the future of technology).

If you want more, Googlebooks offers access to a host of other science and technology publications, some older even than Popular Science. There are several university archives too. I think my favourite is Virginia Commonwealth University’s collection of Preventive Maintenance Monthly. A US Army magazine founded during the Korean war after realising the ways soldiers were encountering problems with their increasingly complex equipment, it might not seem so exciting as the PopSci visualiser or smart analysis of the Jetsons. Except that “father of the graphic novel” Will Eisner was its artistic director from the magazine’s 1951 launch until 1971, and employed several other artists who went on to be stalwarts of comic book publishing. It’s visual approach to explaining how technology works, as well as the way they rhetorically use humour to warn about mistakes, is fascinating.

Finally, all this play in archives has made me worry, again, about the future of popular science publications like these. Perhaps the web’s ability to connect and provide for smaller audiences provides some hope: Crowd-funded startups like Matter, for example. Or maybe the expectation of free-to-read content will mean it’ll be down to philanthropists to support media, as with Aeon, or models which somehow manage to rely on advertising revenues (and to do so without compromising editorial independence?).

Or maybe we will just stop producing new content and sit getting lost in archives, endlessly reliving promises of futures long gone. Much as I think time spent with old images of the future can help us think more clearly about the future we want to build now, we also have to pay attention to how people are currently building our futures, today.

“Publishing” my PhD


I submitted my PhD thesis in Summer 2008 and am more than a little ashamed that it’s taken me this long to put it up here.

There are lots of reasons for this. Mainly (a) Laziness. (b) A post-PhD feeling of  “Oh this is crap. I have to hide it, and possibly myself, under the largest stone I can find so no one will see how stupid and useless I am”.

It’s also because I was expected to try and get it published as a monograph – bound book in an exclusive handful of libraries – and opening it for anyone to see might compromise the chances of that. The main reason I haven’t sought publication that way isn’t (a) or (b), but simply because I think that it seems so ridiculously outdated and elitist a way to share anything. Yes, publishing it as a book would give it a good edit (though we all know people who simply went Ctrl-F “this thesis”, replace all “this book”) but really, I think I’d get better feedback generated by more people being able to see it. That provides a less-polished product, but overall it’s a greater win for scholarship. I’ve thought this for a long time, I’ve (perhaps stupidly) said so in interviews. It really is just laziness and lack of confidence that has stopped me putting it up here.

So here is it (links to google drive pdf), or at least an image-free version as the full file would be huge and also involves other people’s copyrights than my own. It’s a literary study of the Horrible Science books, in the sociological context of why and how adults write about science for children. Full title: Science as Pantomime: Explorations in Contemporary Children’s Non-Fiction Books. Conducted at Imperial College (2004-8), funded by the AHRC, supervised by Felicity Mellor and examined by David Buckingham and Peter Broks.

I’ve included it and more in an updated version of this blog’s “writing” page. Honestly, I think a lot of my academic work is pretty rubbish. Forcing myself to open it up will, I hope, make me make it better. I can also say that I’ve not published that much since I finished my PhD. This is partly because up until last November when I moved to Sussex, I’ve been employed to teach and do public engagment work, not research. It’s also because knowing that your writing is inaccessible to most of the more interesting people who might read it really isn’t much of an incentive.

We badly need to fix this system. I’m paid to write, but also paid to keep it this writing hidden. It’s stupid.

Talking about climate change

future it be now

Future it be now, Vancouver. 

My column for the December edition of Popular Science UK magazine is online (you have to subscribe to read January’s one, on animal testing).

The column first went live just before the Doha climate talks, and focuses on what I see as a lack of government support on communicating climate change. I remembered Mike Shanahan’s blogpost from the year before; asking his readers what their government tells them about climate change and pointing out that in 1992, 200 governments had signed up to keep their citizens informed on this issue. The answer to Shanahan’s question isn’t especially encouraging. As George Monbiot put it in his end of 2012 column, “our leaders treat climate change as a guilty secret”. They shouldn’t. What’s more, we shouldn’t let them.

Here’s an extract of the full piece, or go over to the Popular Science archive to read in full.

Freedom of information requests to the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change last July showed that its communications budget has been cut by nearly 95% since it had come into existence in 2008. Yet recent research showed some key gaps in the public interest and knowledge of climate change and a desire for more information. Moreover, as Shanahan asked, is our Government “just producing communications” about climate change (which might feel like alienating PR) or is it engaging its citizens in a conversation? And if not, why not?

All too often, public debate about climate change happens by accident or when someone works to engineer a news event: when there is a political scandal – be this “climategate” of climate scientists or “energygate” exposing politicians – or when activist engineer stunts like flashmobs at the British Museum or living up chimneys for a week. At a recent discussion on communicating uncertainty held at the University of Oxford, climate scientist Myles Allen made the interesting suggestion that the IPCC should stop publishing Assessment Reports, as they serve no useful public communications purpose (Adam Corner has a good report on this event).

Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey replied that she liked these reports because they gave a hook for looking back and discussing everything that had happened in climate science since the last one; “it’s like the Olympics for climate change”. She makes a good point. Except climate change isn’t a sport. Also, it’s not Harvey’s job to communicate climate science; she journalistically reports and investigate it (and sells papers). She should be free to do her job, but climate science doesn’t work to a news cycle, neither does environmental change or what we might change in ourselves to deal with it: climate communications shouldn’t be left to what’s in the news.

I’d like to see the scientific community take greater responsibility for the job of engaging with the public on climate change, and I think the governmental bodies that fund them should do more to support them in this. We invest in scientists to look at climate change in detail, armed with special equipment, knowledge and methods to see it happening – but we need to invest in sharing this knowledge, too. If governments don’t take a more proactive role in helping us see this and think about what we might do about climate change, it’s easy for it to get lost.

Science isn’t just about finding out new knowledge, it’s about sharing it and putting it to use, too. As American writer David Dobbs put it so neatly a few years ago; publishing a scientific paper is only half the job. One might argue it’s even less than half. Arguably, many are on this job already, but not enough and it’s hard work. It requires some attitudinal change in areas of science, as well a range of support – not just financial – from the range of governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies that surrounds them.

Communicating climate change is the government’s job. They signed up to it and should be taking more of a lead. Government communication on climate science doesn’t have to be top-down. It can be something we take part in. And it can be something we demand too.

Science: a team sport, but not a national one

A sign outside the Natural History Museum. They’re right, we did totally invent dinosaurs.

One of the many interesting things about the badger cull is the way a sense of Britishness has been utilised so much in the campaign against it. When Brian May played the closing ceremony of Olympics with pictures of a fox and badger on the sleeves of his jacket, he arguably subverted a particular idea of Britishness (the hunting and fishing type), with another (one that is more likely to privilege animal rights over sport). More plainly, there was SchNEWS’ claim the badger was the British equivalent to the panda, or Brain May (again) Kitchener style posing: Badgers need you. Personally, I’m not sure Kitchener is a form of Britishness I personally have much affinity with. May also came dangerously close to comparing himself to Mandela which seems ill advised at the best of times, but perhaps especially for a musician famous for playing apartheid South Africa.

There’s been rather a lot of flagwaving around UK science this summer though, similarly ill advised in my view. First up, David Cameron’s celebration of the discovery of the Higgs boson was just plain crass. Yes, Peter Higgs is British, but the discovery was the result of many people working together, drawing on the resources and expertise of even more. That sort of visionary mass action of human is what we should be celebrating, not way hays for British bosons. Indeed, that’s kind of why CERN exists: to draw on and develop science’s large networks of international collaboration.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills use of the “Britain is GREAT” campaign has been bugging me for months (see pictures above and below, and more in this post, there was also an exhibition at the Science Museum). Considering the recent changes to higher education funding in the UK, I was especially taken by the “knowledge is GREAT” posters, complete with nod to the lofty spires of the UK’s famous universities, next to those proclaiming “shopping is GREAT”. As several people have pointed out – e.g. Mariana Mazzucato – for all the campaign’s rhetoric in British innovation, this wasn’t accompanied by as much visionary, bold public investment as there could be.

Knowledge is so GREAT, wish they’d invest in it. Outside BIS earlier this year.

In many ways, that Natural History Museum poster is right though, we did totally invent the dinosaur. Or at least the word dinosaur was coined by the Natural History Museum’s founder, Richard Owen. Britain has great scientific and technological heritage. It was lovely – refreshing even – to see it featured in the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies. I like that our money has Stephenson’s rocket and Watson and Crick’s helix on it. I don’t want to argue that science lacks any local identity or localities won’t be proud of their scientific and technological heritage. There are many types and stories of Britishness though. “We” didn’t invent dinosaurs, Richard Owen coined the term, and I don’t feel much affinity with him, even if we did work in the same bit of London. By most accounts, he wasn’t the nicest of people. He also died many decades before I was born. I also personally feel a bit alienated by the poshness of the Royal Society, Royal Institution et al. It’s not a culture I feel part of. There’s a colonial history surrounding science and technology which we should be aware and critical of too, and we should be careful of the negative impact a blinkered immigration policy can have on the complex multi-cultural networks of modern science.

I’m not a fan of nationalism at the best of times and I admit to suffering from a bout of bunting fatigue after our summer of Jubilee/Olympics, but I really wish everyone would put those bloody flags away. Or a least show some more awareness of the way a sense of Britishness may exclude and limit as well as include and celebrate.

EDIT: as Tori Herridge suggests, there are connections to this and some of the recent chatter about the appropriateness of celebrating heroes in science. See, for example, Athene Donald on the topic (and piece I wrote for the Guardian last weekend, which also referred to Cameron’s Higgs gaff).

Summer is over. Damp “time to shine” banner in Autumn rain outside Turnpike Lane tube.

Some of the above is based on something I wrote for the first edition of the new UK edition of Popular Science. The magazine’s been published in the US since 1872, so for a British version I thought I’d have a bit of a poke at the idea of celebrating Britishness in the popularisation of science. If you want to read the full piece, the bad news is the magazine is iPad only. If that hasn’t lost you, the good news is that the first edition is free. This link should take you to the right bit of iTunes.

Pondering PUS

PUS is 20 next year

The Public Understanding of Science journal, volume 1.

The main journal in my field, Public Understanding of Science, is twenty next year. I recently had to look up an old paper in the first edition, and it was slightly depressing to see how little has changed. Still, the fact that I find much of it still relevant was also kind of inspiring, and does (sort of) make me feel part of a historical body of scholarship.

The journal’s name is a bit embarrassing for some; too strongly associated with the Bodmer Report (pdf) and top-down models of public communication apparently popular in the 1980s. Many people working in science communication, especially in the UK, are keen to stress they prefer the term ‘engagement’ over calls for public understanding. The journal takes a much broader view than this, and covers a lot of what might be dubbed ‘engagement’ as well as science in popular culture, science journalism, public attitudes and a lot more besides. It just happens that the journal was founded while the term ‘understanding’ was still in vogue, and keeps the name.

I gave a talk last week about the sorts of worries that prompted the public understanding of science movement as well as some of the reasons people turned their back on it, and Sarah Castor-Perry interviewed me about it afterwards. You can listen to the full podcast, or here’s a rough transcript of her first and last questions to me:

Sarah: What is the public understanding of science, and how is it different to something like ‘science communication’?

Alice: For me ‘science communication’ is an umbrella term which encompasses any kind of communication about science and I’m going to be really broad about the ‘science’ and ‘communication’ words. It could be two scientists sitting in a pub complaining about their boss, or an article in a really esoteric journal that is really hard to get hold of and is written in really difficult jargon than only a few people will ever understand and even less of them will ever read, or it could be Brian Cox on the telly, or it could be a science show with puppets for four year olds at the National History Museum, or parents talking about vaccinations at a schoolgate, or a news story about spaceships. It could be all of those things. Whereas the Public Understanding of Science or PUS is more specially a worry about what ‘the public’ (which I guess we could define as non-scientists) know and think and is generally used to refer to a particular part in history around the 1980s and 1990s when there was a real worry about a need to tell the public stuff. The idea was that scientists would tell the public things, and it was imagined the public would just listen.

Sarah: Do you feel reasonably positive about the public relationship with science, or do you feel there is distrust and a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest, or are you quite positive about how popular Brian Cox and Bang Goes the Theory and things on television, and Lates at the Science Museum? Positive or negative?

Alice: Um, negative because it’s positive? To explain that… if my aim was for people to like something called science then yes, this thing seems to be flying quite high at the moment. But I also think that a lot of this is a kind of glitzy, glamourous ‘science is cool’ way which is not exactly good. If you just think science is great and look at these people who are simply going to give you good knowledge that is reliable, I’m not so sure. I’d rather have a public aware of the problems of science, who questions it and helps make science as good as it should be. I think that’s what most scientists want too. I don’t think most scientists want people to breathlessly go ‘wow, you’re great, tell me your wonderful knowledge’. They’re are happy to have a conversation and they know that what they have done is potentially useful for some people, but they don’t want to be made out to be gods, or painted as music stars. I don’t think that would help science in the long run, or society in the long run either. I worry that a country that loves science ‘because it. is. awesome’ will end up not liking science because something else will come along. More to the point, we’ll like shampoo advert science. Because if you look at those adverts that a lot of scientists get annoyed about – the reason they work is because people like science. People get pulled in by that because they are working with an image of science, rather than real science and real conversations with real people. So if we have more of these conversations, and were maybe more critical, we’d have a more productive relationship. So, yeah, if my concern was if people liked science I’d probably be positive, but I think that’s the wrong concern.

A brief history of awesome


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.


  • 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).