Next month is the second Philadelphia Science Festival. Once again, one of the events will feature a group of historians of science paired with comedians from the Philly Improv Theater. In last year’s show, “Seemed Right at the Time,” historians picked some episode in from the history of science and explained how it was rational and made sense in its historical moment. These included medieval robots, witchcraft, Mesmerism, yellow fever treatments, and astrology (there is a partial YouTube video here—unfortunately, the mic broke during my section so I’m not in the video). The show was a big success.
The new show is “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us” on 26 April. This year’s program promises to be great. We’ve spent more time planning and organizing the show. The topics are both fascinating and potentially hilarious: the banana as food & as comedic prop; vibrators & contraception; the undead in the middle ages; monstrous births in early modern Europe.
Monstrous births were not unusual in 16th- and 17th-century England. Numerous broadsheets and pamphlets reported strange and wondrous births. I’m talking on one particular case of a monstrous birth that occurred in 1569. Agnes Bowker reportedly gave birth to a dead cat. Proceedings began almost immediately to determine if a crime had been committed. Testimony was taken. A postmortem examination of the cat indicated that it had been alive—they found inside it both bacon and bits of straw. Agnes crafted a number of stories about bestiality and sexual relations with men. Finally, she confessed to having been seduced and violated in a church. For an excellent account of this story, see David Cressy’s Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. For a riotously funny account, attend next month’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us”.
Monday I am taking my astrolabe and my ePamphlet on astrolabes to a local grammar school where I will talk to 4th-graders about astrolabes, explain to them how to use it, let them fiddle with one, and talk about science and scientific instruments. It should be fun. This is one way I think about public outreach, about bringing history of science to non-experts. These excursions—this is not the first time I’ve headed to a local grammar school—are, I suppose, what Lynn Nyhart calls thinking expansively about history of science, about becoming one of “them,” though I’d rather think this was something all historians of science did as a matter of course.
Lynn Nyhart, the president of the History of Science Society, is calling for historians of science to think of the profession as extending beyond a few “concentric circles centered on a few successful graduate programs.” In her column in the HSS Newsletter, History of Science Unbound, Nyhart points out that despite historians’ of science unique expertise we play little part in public discourse about the history of science:
Yet we are the experts. We are the ones who understand and care most about the nuances of making scientific knowledge. We have studied science’s entanglements with nationalism and hero-worship and have analyzed the shaping of historical narratives that make certain outcomes seem inevitable. We have theorized about the moral ambiguities of science in a culture saturated with conflicting social and economic messages. We know this stuff. But we don’t own it. So what should the history of science, as a profession, do?
Her advice is to consider history of science as a network of united by training [okay, I added “training”] and “our shared commitment to advancing our subject.” This would allow us to consider as meaningful both centers of graduate education as well as “other kinds of history of science-related institutions,” including museums, K-12 education, and policy development. She encourages us to reach a broader public through writing for that public and by translating scholarly work into forms accessible to that public.
Nyhart echoes a discussion that has been taking place in the newsletters of the AHA, at Inside Higher Education, and blogs at The Chronicle for Higher Education. In No More Plan B Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman wrote compellingly about how the history profession needs to redefine success to include careers outside R1 universities. They followed with Plan C, in which they called for graduate departments and faculty to embrace the legitimacy of multiple career paths, singling out public history. In his Historians at Work, Grafton concluded with a case study of a successful, early career historian working in public history, in this case in the Museum of the City of New York Together, these articles call on faculty and programs to stop denigrating non-R1 careers, to broaden the curricular offerings and graduate training to ensure students have the chance to acquire skills and confidence that will allow them to get jobs outside academia, show some of the real challenges historians have faced when trying to move beyond the walls of the academy, and indicate that success and rewarding careers do await historians who choose public history. These articles have elicited considerable response both praising the authors for drawing attention to the problem and criticizing them for not going far enough. See, for example, History and Politics of Scholarly Collaboration and ‘No More Plan B’.
The point here is that Nyhart’s column joins a growing chorus of voices calling for some sort of reform, to enlarge the definition of successful to include “careers” without the qualifying “alternative.” More, however, needs to be done if we are going to transcend or reject the implicit professional hierarchy that divides the profession into us and them. It is too easy to map this division onto an “us” that works in centers of graduate education and produces original scholarship and a “them” that works in K-12 or in museums and translates that scholarship into forms accessible to a broader public. Only by taking Nyhart seriously can we begin to participate in and contribute to the public discourse about the history of science, the place of science in society, and science policy, or to write for that elusive, interested public.
Elizabeth Kessler spoke recently at Bryn Mawr College on artist appropriations of astronomical photographs. In her talk, titled “Retaking the Universe: Appropriation and Astronomical Artifacts,” she explored the ways three different artists “appropriated” photographs of stars, redeveloping them or cropping them or converting them into pencil drawings. She focused on the work of Linda Connor, Thomas Ruff, and Vija Celmins.
Connor worked through the Lick Observatory photo archives selecting photographs made in the late 19th century by E.E. Barnard. Barnard’s photographs are, like most stellar photographs, emulsions on glass plates. Connor redeveloped the plates, leaving the traces of the edges. Kessler claimed that for Connor, these traces reminded us that what we see depends on practices and technologies. Connor’s approach echoed Barnard’s, who also considered his photographs as the product of a skilled technician and practice. This raises a number of questions: Connor, Kessler claimed, had to deny any authorship to the photos she was reproducing. Yet they were clearly the product of somebody, as Barnard’s very fingerprints and signature revealed.