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March 6, 2011

The scientific imagINation!

My first set of readings introduced me to the topic of women in the history of science and the cultural constructions that prevented women's involvement in professional science. As my motivation for this project is to explore the history of women doing field science, the logical next step was to read about the history of field science at large. The journal Orisis, 2nd Series, Volume 11, Science in the Field, contains a wealth of essays related to the history of field science. The two I have already mentioned--one by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang about Elizabeth Campbell and the expeditions of the Lick Observatory, and one by Naomi Oreskes on the heroic rhetoric of field science--focus on the roles and recognition women have received in the field sciences. As I read the other essays in Science in the Field, which cover diverse topics such as the role of Alfred Wallace's personal relationships in his success as a natural history collector and the interactions of the public with the balloon as a scientific instrument in Victorian England, I became fascinated with the notion of scientific imagery and national identity. In examining some of the essays in Science in the Field, I hope to explain the title of this post, "The scientific imagINation!" and why I am so excited about it!

A common theme in many of the essays in Science in the Field was colonialism. Jane R. Camerini highlights how European presence in the Malay Archipelago gave Wallace, the natural history collector, unprecedented access to collection areas, local authority figures, and trade with Europe. "In effect," Camerini writes, "Europe in the Malay Archipelago functioned as an institution, validating and assisting his work" (Camerini 52) Without the European presence, Wallace undoubtedly would not have had the success and acclaim he did as a collector and interpreter. Wallace's connection with the European identity in the Malay Archipelago also biased his science in that it narrowed his scope. Although he explored further reaches as he spent more time in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace often collected where the Europeans were, where he was safe and could associate with other Europeans. But by largely limiting himself to the often altered environment of Europeans, Wallace's understanding of the Malay environment and natural history was likewise limited. Camerini describes one of Wallace's field sites, a European Mr. Coulson's coal works, as fruitful but artificial: "The enormous richness in insects at this site was due not only to sunny conditions following the rains; it was enhanced by the conditions produced by the coal works--newly clearly land adjacent to a large tract of virgin forest and a great quantity of cut, decaying trees. The infrastructure of resource exploitation became the infrastructure of natural history collection" (Camerini 51)

Richard Sorrenson's "The Ship as a Scientific Instrument in the Eighteenth Century" also questions the role of colonialism in the lens of science. In his overview of Captain James Cook's expeditions of the South Pacific, Sorrenson explores the role of science as an agent of colonialism rather than an exploiter of existing colonial forms. Sorrenson describes Cook's mission as one of the science of geography, of locating places, that is inherently tied to colonial endeavors:
When Cook left with the Endeavour in 1768, his mission was ostensibly astronomical (to deliver astronomers to Tahiti so they could observe the transit of Venus). But his secret Admiralty instructions also commanded him to "observe with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover'd by any Europeans, and take possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence... [and also keep] in view, the Discovery of the Southern Continent. (Sorrenson 225). 
One might think that the connection between science and national identity is better explored on home ground, in the actual nation that possesses that identity. I would argue, though, that colonialism, although about money and power and exploitation and conquest, is in an abstract sense about an expansion of national identity through literal expansion of control. This is especially true of the field sciences, which often required study outside of one's home nation. Lynette Schumaker places the connection of science and national identity through colonialism at the forefront in her article on anthropoligsts in Rhodesia in the mid 1900s. The Rhodesian-Livingstone Institue (RLI) for anthropology had colonial origins. It was founded by Britain after World War II, and many of the early anthropologists mimicked local administrators in dress, behavior, and interaction with local communities. "The first group of anthropoligsts [at the RLI] 'to make field research an indispensable feature of anthropological inquiry,' they gained acceptance by colonial governments partly because their 'descriptions of their research methods were very like [colonial] political officers' accounts of their administrative procedures'" (Schumaker 245). However, as RLI anthropologists increasingly studied the urban landscape in Rhodesia alongside increasing public disfavor with the colonial government, the anthropologists had to shape their methods of study to please both local officials and the cultures they were trying to observe. This was in part due to the anthropologists' hiring of African field assistants, whose political sentiments reflected those of the people they were studying. Thus the changing sense of national identity shaped the lens through which anthropological science was conducted.

Outside of the colonial context, national culture and identity shaped how science was validated to the general public. Here we return to the question of scientific heroism. Bruce Hevly, in "The Heroic Science of Glacier Motion," mentions the gender implications of a heroic rhetoric. His larger argument, however, focuses on how a culture that valued sports, "...which were believed to be a formative element in the development of character," skewed the argument of validity of evidence in nineteenth century British glacier physics (Hevly 67). The heroism of the scientist-explorer, the dangers of his feat and the physical rigor his work required, warranted scientific findings greater merit in the public mind than the scientific evidence itself. Nineteenth century balloon-based meteorological observations in England existed within a similar national culture: "Like the exploits of mountain explorers, Glaisher's balloon ascents for the British Association were a place where science and spectatorship met in a context of adventure" (Tucker 154). The popular impression of balloon adventures made science via balloon seem incredible, silly. Glaisher, the chief scientific explorer via balloon in mid-nineteenth century England, appealed to the cultural values of the nation in order to validate his science.  At a lecture to the young men at the YMCA,
Glaisher encouraged diligent and accurate note-taking; he told the young men that at high altitudes, it required the "exercise of a strong will to take any observations at all." He proclaimed that self-help, self-education, self-training, much of the character of every man is dependent.... (Tucker 164)
Glaisher employed the "gospel of work" ideology, popularized in Victorian society by Samuel Smiles Self-Help, in order to make his balloon expeditions valid to the Victorian public.

Science functions to observe natural phenomena but also to convey the understanding of these observations to others. Through the examples colonialism and Victorian English values above, I hope to have shown that, historically, both the observational lens of science and the methods by which scientists have framed their understandings of observations have been rendered through a sense of national cultural identity. I wrote the title of this post down while reading Sorrenson's essay, "The Ship as a Scientific Instrument in the Eighteenth Century." Sorrenson discusses Captain James Cook's maps drawn from surveys done off the coast as way to understand the scientific lens: "Such examples of the presence of construction lines in scientific imaging are rare, since they emphasize the specific facts of the construction of the image, even when that image is meant to convey not its making but a general and fixed meaning." Sorrenson's essay was one of the last in Science in the Field and as a result was one of the last essays in the series I read.

When I read this sentence, something clicked. All of the examples I have discussed about flew back into my memory; I had seen these lines of construction brought to light in most if not all of the essays featured in Science in the Field. Perhaps these construction lines are not as rare as Sorrenson suggests. I would argue that the construction lines, the constraints on the scientific lens and frame that national cultural identity places, are ubiquitous--we are often just unaware of them. The notion of science as an unbiased enterprise isolated from the influences of culture often blurs these lines, makes them indistinct in the picture of science. But they are there. How does one distinguish these construction lines where science and natural cultural identity intersect? How does a national identity shape the lens of science? And in contrast, how has science transformed national identity? This is a theme largely absent in Science in the Field, likely because the journal volume is about science and not national character. But science's impact on society has been studied in great detail as well; the Manhattan Project, for example, was scientific but also forever changed political identities in the United States and worldwide. This leads me to my biggest question: can the impact of science on national identity and the impact of national cultural identity on science be inextricably linked through images? Is there a scientific image in nation, is there a scientific imageINation?

Scientific understanding is expressed through numerous mediums, most of which are visual: sketches, photographs, film, satellite images, diagrams, charts, profiles graphical representations of data. Greg Mitman's "When Nature Is the Zoo: Vision and Power in the Art and Science of Natural History," really drew me to wonder what the multitude of scientific images can tell us about this cultural identity-science interplay. In his text, Mitman discusses how the Craighead brothers, two twentieth century ecologists, ever increased the nature of their panoramic, transcendent view of their subjects as they moved from scientific techniques of photographing to mapping to tagging to biotelemetry and Landsat. Through this transformation in technology the scientific image and their understanding of nature was also transformed. 

But what do the specific images of scientific field work impart? And, more importantly, how does this relate to the question of women doing scientific field work? In doing their biological field work in national parks, the iconic identity of nature in the United States, one could argue that the Craigheads also played a role in transforming our national understanding of nature. Indeed, because field work is the work of understanding nature scientifically and in situ, one could argue that field work in a particular place acts as both lens and frame of nature to people who inhabit that place, that nation. Where women fit into this picture is a little more uncertain to me. Colonialism and Victorian English values, markers of a certain national identity, are also markers of a male dominant national identity and therefore are associated with scientific images and ways of understanding that are inherently male dominant. Perhaps, by examining scientific images through time, and in particular images produced in the field, a shift in scientific lens can be identified that parallels a change in how we construct cultural identity in a way that incorporates the female.

On a practical note, what I would love to do next is look for these images linking science and national identity and search for that paradigm shift where women entered the lens. I know the American Museum of Natural History has an extensive library collection of photographs, films, journals, manuscripts, and personal papers. After spring break, I would love to look into these archives and see what patterns emerge. If anyone has other suggestions of places to look, please speak up! I am not only interested in how national identity in the United States is interwoven into scientific images, but how science interacts with national identity in other countries, particularly countries with a more recent history of professional science.

Works Cited

Camerini, Jane R. "Wallace in the Field." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

Hevly, Bruce. "The Heroic Science of Glacier Motion." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

Mitman, Gregg. "When Nature Is the Zoo: Vision and Power in the Art and Science of Natural History." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

Schumaker, Lynette. "A Tent with a View: Colonial Officers, Anthropologists, and the Making of the Field in Northern Rhodesia, 1937-1960." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

Sorrenson, Richard. "The Ship as a Scientific Instrument in the Eighteenth Century." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

Tucker, Jennifer. "Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air: Scientific Observation and the Image of Science in an Age of 'Balloonacy'." Osirus. 2nd series, v. 11, p. 87-113. The History of Science Society: 1996.

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