February 10, 2010

Does anyone else think Space is REALLY boring?

On Saturday morning I read this blogpost and it's sent me into a bit of a rant. As I've put directly in a comment there, what annoyed wasn't so much the content of the post, rather the general discourse of space science it sampled. E.g:

The inspirational power of space and rocket ships [...] captivated and fired the scientific and technological imagination of a generation of young people. Some became the scientists and engineers of the Golden Age

When we talk about space in popular culture, we often use such lofty language. The sense that space, especially space exploration, can provide some 'inspirational power', ready to fuel a whole generation of scientists is also a familiar tune. There's been some controversy over manned spaceflight vs other space science recently, and this post isn't about that debate. What I want to pick out is the dependancy on superlatives.

It's not just rocket-science, astronomy similarly bangs on about the majesty of the night sky (and let's just draw a line under cosmology now). All this talk of how space is awe-inspiring/ exciting/ wonderful/ simply-just-the-most-amazing-thing-ev-er just makes me roll my eyes. I'm tempted to say its self-aggrandising, but I think I'll just settle on calling it boring. Mind-numbingly boring.

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July 3, 2009

history of science communication

I’m at the British Society for the History of Science annual conference this week (running a session on Horrible Science and Horrible Histories tomorrow).

As ever, it’s a great conference. Today was especially exciting for me as it was full of history of science communication. This morning we had a whole session on the history of the Science Museum (after all, it was their birthday last week).

We heard all about the motivations for building Children’s Gallery in the 1930s (largely to stop kids distracting grownups), the continual issues surrounding class politics between the museum and its visitors (e.g. suggesting they bring in a fee, so as to keep the ‘hooligan element’ of schoolboys from distracting serious children). I also learnt about a 1975 Science and Islam exhibition (one of the first to charge admission, though it’s not clear why), the role played by Science Museum’s library in 1940s war effort and why the Science Museum did so badly for post-war building works compared to other national museums. Not to mention the long and complex history of relationships with Energy Industry. It's not just about BP's sponsorship of the Energy Gallery. All fascinating stuff (though I do admit I’m a bit of a Science Museum history geek).

In the afternoon, I went to a session on film. This started off with a great paper from Tim Boon (author of this book), on Julian Huxley. He showed us a clip from Huxley’s (Oscar-winning) film ‘The Private Life of the Gannets’ and told us the fascinating story of Huxley’s 1929 trip to British East Africa. This was supposedly to show African schoolchildren his film, but Boon suggested Huxley took they whole project largely as a way of promoting the role of biology education in the UK.

We then had a couple of presentations based around the film achieves at the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), aiming to convince historians of science to make more of the non-fiction film archives scattered across the country. We saw some fascinating vox-pops (of people outside a cigarette factory just after the RCP report linking smoking to cancer), and a few interview with scientists. Watching these clips and Boon's paper I couldn't help but start playing fantasy PhD thesis: a history of cancer reporting; tensions of nationalism and local cultural identity in national/ local science reporting; the role of women in science filmmaking; the increasing television-literacy of scientists; a history of scientific visualisation on screen (fantastic shot of a 3d map starting the Huxley movie, and some lovely 30s microscopy films).

These are only a snippet of the possible stories bursting to be told from these rich archives. To keep everything on a kids and science focus, I also think there’s a fantastic PhD to be written on the history of children’s science television, and Boon pointed out what a peach of a PhD topic the early history of schools-films would be. More PhDs on the history of science communication, that’s what I say.

June 8, 2009

Practising 18th Century Science, Today

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Hasok Chang's inaugural lecture as Professor for the Philosophy of Science at UCL. He used this lecture in part to make points about science education, so I thought it was worth blogging some of his ideas (and my response) here.

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October 21, 2008

Design and Science: on the work of Will Burtin

The book Design and Science: the life and work of Will Burtin, published just last year, is well worth picking up. It is a nicely illustrated account of the life and work of Will Burtin (1908-1972), an American graphic designer who gained notoriety for, among other things, his interpretations of scientific topics for the general public.

On my recent visit to the V&A's Cold War Modern (about art and design in the post- and cold war period of 1945 to 1970), I found Design and Science on sale in the exhibition gift shop. Fitting, since Burtin's work embodied (and probably advanced) the rising general interest in new technologies and scientific discoveries in the 1950s and 60s.

A good review of the book has been published by Eye magazine. Here I want to highlight some of Burtin's projects that I think exemplify his approach to design.


Among other clients, Burtin worked for the pharmaceutical company Upjohn from the late 40s. The company would fund many of his walk-through models, as well as the magazine Scope for which Burtin is well known. The covers (above) are notable for their particular aesthetic take on design for science. He also worked on layout and information graphics; the diagram below compares the impacts of penicillin, streptomycin and neomycin on bacteria:


Burtin's more expansive projects include the large-scale, three dimensional models which broke new ground in exhibition design. The Cell (1958) was a giant walk-through model of a 'generalised' human red blood cell. It illustrated the interrelations of cell functions through visual and tactile means, using light and newly available plastics.


Cell is described in the book as 'a huge plastic tent full of all the invisible components which made up a cell, shown imaginatively, clearly, and in a way which enchanted scientists and the general public alike'. The model was later shipped to London and featured in two BBC television science specials in 1959.

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September 6, 2008

Actor Network Theory and the jungle of design research

Having made the trip to Cornwall to attend the DHS' Networks of Design conference last week, and since a post about my own panel is preempted (Marie Neurath's isotype books have made their appearance here already), I can write about the theme of the conference. The 'networks' of the title refers the work of the keynote speaker, Bruno Latour, eminent writer on the philosophy and anthropology of science and central proponent of Actor Network Theory (ANT). I didn't know anything about Latour's work before the conference, but his keynote and frequent subsequent references in other panels certainly gave me a few pointers!

I'm interested in how ANT is born in a reflection on science and technology, but that it is being applied in various ways to design studies, and even to practical design education. Latour's work seems to be interpreted in a myriad different ways by different researchers; Alice confirms that some of the issues I raise in this post have been taken up over and over again in science studies and elsewhere.

Although Latour gave an excellent lecture on the nature of design as he sees it, other researchers re-purposing this stuff are reinterpreting as well. How does Latour think design theorists are doing? The title of this post is inspired by his closing remarks, in which he lauded the work of Otto Neurath and called for a new, non-modern equivalent of the Isotype approach to design. He referred to us (his audience), in contrast, as 'a jungle of monsters'.

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January 9, 2007

The exhibit as film set

We visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada, a relatively new museum with a focus on British Columbia history and natural history. The exhibits are immersive and give the impression of walking into the past, whether you find yourself standing by a lifelike woolly mammoth (that is a real sheet of ice by the way, which children walking by are encouraged to touch), walking along a seashore with sea lions and puffins (and a real shallow pool of sea creatures they are definitely not supposed to touch) or making your way through a recreated 19th-century town.


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October 6, 2006

And now, the periodic table in oil paints

Alice's post about Brainiac reminded me of the scores of other kids' shows that specialise in make-based learning, by showing experiments, recipes or art projects of varying quality and educational value… (I should note that Brainiac claims the exact opposite, that we are not supposed to imitate their stunts.)
It got me thinking about a project I will teach at Reading in mid-November, which I am still working on, but which will broadly involve design for science instruction, for active learning. It will involve information design and book design, to create 'book-like objects' demonstrating scientific principles through experiment or activity.
Through thinking about the possibilities for this project, it occured to me that drawing is an under-developed resource in this genre. Why not use drawing, which requires re-iteration of knowledge, to teach? So many basic concepts in the sciences are inherently visual. Drawing, for example, a close-up of an animal cell, or a cross-section of the earth with layers, or an atom… this seems to have some potential, by involving readers through curiosity for the subject or a penchant for drawing. Similarly, it would be nice to see some of these TV shows bridge the gap between science and the use of 'art' in make-based learning: illustration, painting, and other media.