Each time I teach Collecting Nature & Displaying Authority we take three field trips to local museums. Our first outing took us to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Megan, one of the Visitor Services Assistants, led us around on an informative tour and engaging tour of the permanent exhibition, Making Modernity.
The students were pensive and measured but asked really interesting questions about curators, visitors, tours, objects, displays, design, architecture, public engagement, policy, scholars and fellows, funding, etc.
Before we went to the CHF, students compiled a list of questions or issues that they wanted to think about when they visited:
- How does the museum—through its history, its literature, its architecture, its collections, etc.—represent itself? What image is it trying to project?
- Who is encouraged to visit the museum?
- Is there an entrance fee?
- Is there a gift shop?
- How are visitors expected to act in the museum?
- What does the museum expect visitors to know?
- Are there guides or docents or gallery attendants? If so, what role do they play?
- How are the objects arranged, labeled, displayed? What do those choices suggest?
- Are there coherent themes that recur in the gallery? Is there a unified theme?
- Are donors identified in any way, e.g., a wall of donors, listed on individual displays?
- Are donors’ contributions indicated, e.g., by items donated, by amount of money donated?
- What argument is the museum trying to make? What message does it want visitors to take home?
They also thought of a few things to do while there:
- Choose three things (e.g., objects, cases, portraits, books, lighting, plinth) and explain what they are doing in this museum.
- Pick out one or two objects or display cases that surprised you in some way and explain why it surprised you?
- Find two or three things that are part of the display but not “on display,” e.g., lighting fixtures, handrail, curtains, and explain what they are doing, how they affect the display, what choices they represent.
Given the smart questions students asked, I am looking forward to reading their write-ups about the visit.
The History Channel Distorts History
A number of the videos at the History Channel’s “Enlightenment” page deal with the history of science—on Isaac Newton, the Scientific Revolution, and a series Beyond the Big Ban: Copernicus, Beyond the Big Ban: Galileo and Beyond the Big Ban: Newton. Some gesture to interesting points, e.g., the interaction between science and religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but most repeat heroic tales and neat stories of discovery through flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately, the History Channel didn’t enlist the expertise of many historians and fewer historians of science (the eminent Owen Gingerich makes two cameo appearances). Scientists, however, are well represented. I wonder how different these videos would have been if they had consulted more scholars with expertise in the history of early modern science.
Newton the Genius
In Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story Ned Potter is right: telling a good story is more important, perhaps more important than being accurate. His comment about lists of great scientists underscores his point:
Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.
We can argue over such lists — they’re mostly harmless fun — but we can agree that Newton earned his place there.
I don’t think such lists are “mostly harmless fun.” Such lists tell a good story and reinforce a particular image of science, one that misleads and distorts its history and development. They are built on the pillars of the lone genius waging war with the weapons of rationality, empiricism, and experiment to overcome church, benighted society, and ignorant political leaders. Potter’s own description of Newton conforms to this model. Newton alone, in his spare time, invented reflecting telescopes and calculus, and explained light and colors. Only as an aging genius, in his later years, Newton fiddled with alchemy and Biblical chronology.
He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.
Newton turns out not only to have been a genius in science but also in self promotion.
NSF, Astrology, and the Pig-Ignorant American Public
The release (or at least the summary of the release) of the latest NSF survey on attitudes about science and technology has prompted the standard handwringing and fretting. Of particular concern is the fact that 1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really, which echoes One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. The Telegraph jumped on the bandwagon with One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’ and The Space Reporter sprinkled a little history onto its summary of broadcast soundbites and published factoids, Study finds nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun.
Another predictable worry is the “More than half of US millennials think astrology is a science,” repeated in Science News and Slashdot and then with some added commentary (and the standard ambiguities and imprecisions in terms like “horoscopes” and “astrology”) at Mother Jones. Richard Landers worries about possible design flaws in the NSF’s study: NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific.
All this anxiety is part of a more general claim that Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds.
The NSF report generating all this incredibly repetitive and generally uncritical “news” is the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 – (NSF), a biennial report that “highlights some major developments in international and U.S. science and engineering.” The part of the report that has attracted the most attention is chapter seven and the various Appendix Tables (astrology that most resilient of science’s hobgoblins enjoys its own table, Appendix table 7–13). What if we look at chapter seven of the NSF report a different way?
Sure, on average, respondents answered only 65% of the “factual” questions correctly, but that percentage has been steadily increasing, up from 59% in 1992 (according to Appendix table 7–8).
Respondents were asked the following questions about science (“Don’t know” responses and refusals to respond were counted as incorrect):
- The center of the Earth is very hot — 84% got this right.
- The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future — 83% got this right.
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — 74% got this right.
- 3a. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Asked only if the respondent answered correctly that the Earth goes around the Sun.) — 55% got this right.
- All radioactivity is man-made — 72% got this right.
- Electrons are smaller than atoms — 53% got this right.
- Lasers work by focusing sound waves — 47% got this right.
- The Universe began with a huge explosion — 39% got this right.
- It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl — 63% got this right.
- Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria — 51% got this right.
- Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (a footnote indicates that only 1,152 of the 2,256 respondents were asked this question) — 48% got this right.
Biologists should probably be worried that respondents seem to know less about biology than they do about the physical sciences.
The Appendix tables are full of other interesting information that has not attracted any attention while the media fixate on the astrology-loving geocentrist Americans. Apparently only 33% of respondents have a grasp on “scientific inquiry,” as demonstrated by their (in)ability to answer two probability questions and either a question about theory-testing or a question about why its better to use control groups in drug tests (see Appendix table 7–11). 70% of respondents claim not to know much about the causes of environmental pollution, according to another table. Another table indicates that males and females would be “happier” if their sons and daughters chose to be engineers rather than scientists.
Engineers are, no doubt, “happy” to learn of this parental esteem.
Despite science purportedly being an international collaborative project, the NSF’s 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators digest of the report makes it a nationalist concern:
Many other nations, recognizing the economic and social benefits of such investment, have increased their R&D and education spending. These trends are by now well-established and will challenge the world leadership role of the United States [page 2].
This rhetoric recalls the debates recently last year in England about investing more in domestic R&D. Kieron Flanagan wrote a nice piece in The Guardian about the problems of framing debates about science and basic research in terms of national boundaries, Does the UK need to spend more on basic research?.
Perhaps we should also worry about the term “scientific,” which is notoriously difficult to define. ↩
A subset of these questions was used in determining the trends in “factual knowledge” reported in Appendix table 7–8: ↩
- The center of the Earth is very hot.
- All radioactivity is man-made.
- It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
- Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
- Electrons are smaller than atoms.
- Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
- The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
- Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
- How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
“Scientific inquiry” here could be applied to most rigorous, rational, evidence based activities. ↩
Some time back I stumbled across Brain Washing From Phone Towers and was immediately intrigued by anybody producing pamphlets today, especially pamphlets that deal with any aspect of the history of science.
Out of the blue, I sent an email to the woman, Sarah Nicholls (a printer in Brooklyn), behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers. She responded quickly and sent two of her pamphlets, one on Isaac Newton and one on the Escape Wheel.
I immediately read and enjoyed both. They do a wonderful job of combining history, science, and the present in an entertaining and informative way—they are pamphlets, after all.
I particularly like the designs and cuts blocks for the illustrations that adorn each pamphlet (see this post for her work designing the image of wave propagation in the “Action at a Distance” pamphlet). Isaac Newton, Isaac Barrow, Edmund Halley, and Gottfried Leibniz all come up, as do the Royal Society, mathematics, alchemy, scriptures, and the plague.
“Escape Wheel” is about keeping time. Sundials, water clocks, pendulum clocks, and other mechanical clocks. Christiaan Huygens, William Clement, John Harrison, and the problem of longitude come up.
As with any good pamphlet, the “Escape Wheel” gestures to politics. In a closing note:
Despite the many advantages of new technologies, there are holes in the technological narrative as well.**
**The depletion of scarce resources, the minuscule lifespan of digital devices, profits from the mining of raw materials for electronics funding civil war, coal-powered factories in China producing new devices, growing piles of e-waste, the death of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, and the burning of more coal to power data centers and wireless networks, so that all our citizens can enjoy instantaneous access to funny pictures of our pets, instagrams of our lunch, and oceans of amateur porn.
Given the number of posts on pamphlets here, my interest in contemporary pamphleteering should be no surprise. ↩
Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections has three amusing 17th-century almanacs: A Yea and Nay Almanack for the People Call’d by the Men of the World Quakers for 1678, 1679, and 1680. The three are bound together in one volume.
These Yea and Nay were the genius of William Winstanley (Dictionary of National Biography entry is behind a paywall), whose Poor Robin almanacs were wildly popular in Restoration England. Winstanley complied various religious almanacs, including the anti-Catholic Protestant Almanack and the Episcopal Almanack. The Yea and Nay almanacs mocked Quaker beliefs, practices, and habits.
Winstanley’s “To the Brethren” letter pokes fun at the Quakers’ silent meetings and plain speech and inner light:
…I must confess I have not embellished it with Eloquent speeches, nor complemental phrases, which are like the Lace and Ribbon wherewith men of the World do adorn their apparel; but is what is more pertinent to our purpose, we have been very conversant with the familiar epithets of Thee and Thou, Yea and Nay, &c. that our words may be correspondent to our profession, and nothing found herein any waies suitable to the Outward Light, or to sence it self. In the perusal of it I desire thee to put on they spectacles of understanding, and to read it either by the light of the Sun, or a Candle, for the greatest Rabbi of us all cannot in a dark night see to read it by the help onely of the Light within him, which notwithstanding we boast to be so great, yet is not so good for that use as a farthing candle…
Winstanley collected a number of endorsements for his almanac, the first from James Nayler’s ghost—Nayler was an infamous Quaker who joined the army during the Civil War and then reenacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem by riding a donkey into Bristol (this Dictionary of National Biography entry is also behind the same paywall; the Wikipedia entry is free but contains less material). Nayler was tried and convicted of blasphemy and, apparently, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron and was stigmatized.
Winstanley’s satirical almanacs mirrored serious ones, including calendars for each month and humorous predictions for each month. For January, he predicted:
Now friends the darkness shall exceed the light, because the nights are longer than the days, and notwithstanding the light that is within us, yet we cannot see to sup without the help of a candle, verily the coldness of the nights may cause great Conjunctions betwixt the male and female Planets of our Sublunary Orbe, the effects whereof may be seen about nine months after, and portend great charges of Midwife, Nurse, name the Bantling, and other matters attendant to such Conjunctions.
He also mocked the zodiacal man that was found in nearly every almanac. Typically, these figures illustrated the relationships between the parts of the body and the zodiacal signs that influenced those parts. Starting with Aries at the head and working down to the feet through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Winstanley includes the standard diagram but makes fun of it in the poem underneath.
A final note: on the last page of one of these almanacs is an advertisement for Dr. Lockyer’s Universal Pill, that apparently cured “Scurvey, Dropsie, Stone, Consumption, Aches, and Lameness of the Limbs, all sorts of Agues and Feavers, Gripings of the Gut, &c.” The 1670s and 1680s witnessed a rapid development of a patent medicine market. See, for example, the scurvy epidemic or the Pilulae Antipudendagriae or the widespread marketing use of the pilulae.
Joseph Smith’s Bibliotheca Anti_Quakeriana (London, 1873) (online at here, thanks to Haverford College) lists just four such Quaker almanacs, 1677 to 1680. The first is attributed to Poor Robin, Winstanley’s pseudonym. The other three appeared as anonymous, though both EEBO and the Dictionary of National Biography attribute them to Winstanley. ↩
I recently had the chance to talk to the sixth-graders at Friends’ Central Schoolabout the Black Death. I really enjoyed translating scholarship on the plague into terms that middle-school students would both understand and enjoy. Some of it is easy—Gabriele de’ Mussis’s account of plague-infested corpses catapulted into Kaffa, for instance:
The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the Tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.
Boccaccio’s discussion of the pigs that died of the plague in Florence was also popular:
This pestilence was so powerful that it spread from the ill to the healthy like fire among dry or oily materials. It was so bad that it could be communicated not only through speaking or associating with the sick, but even by touching their clothing or anything else they had touched. What I must say here is so strange that if I and others had not seen it with our own eyes I would hesitate to believe it, let alone write about it, even if I had heard it from trustworthy people. The pestilence spread so efficiently that, not only did it pass from person to person, but if an animal touched the belongings of some sick or dead person it contracted the pestilence and died of it in a short time. I myself witnessed this with my own eyes, as I said earlier. One day when a poor man had died and his rags had been thrown out in the street, two pigs came along and, as pigs do, they pushed the rags about with their snouts and then seized them with their teeth. Both soon fell down dead on the rags, as if they had taken poison.
I hoped to convey to them how quickly the plague moved through Europe. To do so, I put together a short film illustrating the spread of the plague. In this film, from 1347 until the end, each month takes about 2 1/2 seconds. This worked to show the rapidity of the spread at the outset and the gradual slowing over the years.
Initially, I set each month to 1 second, but I found that I didn’t have time to fill in details. So I slowed it down to give me more time to fill in relevant or interesting details.
If we accept that de’ Mussis‘s account is accurate: The Tartar armies probably did not use catapults, which are generally incapable of hurling heavy objects very far. It seems more likely that the Tartars used something like a trebuchets, which can send much heavier objects much further. ↩