Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Penguins Might Fly

  • Can an object be artistic and scientific at the same time?  
  • Can art have a place in science museums?  
  • Why do museum object labels matter?
These questions are the subject of this post, which was prompted by a visit I made recently to the Bell Pettigrew Museum at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland.

The Bell Pettigrew is the University's zoology museum: "a rare survival of a Victorian teaching museum, and wonderfully atmospheric", according to their website.  It's a small, attractively laid-out place, well worth an hour or so of your time.  But I was surprised to find, among the usual bones, some paintings.  This is the first one I saw, in the case dedicated to flightless birds:

The collage-painting depicts a moa, an animal that has been extinct for more than five hundred years.  Here's what the label underneath says:
Male moa (Dinornis giganteus) in breeding plumage (left) guarding its harem of foraging females in the dense subtropical forests of the Oparara Valley
Paul Bartlett
Now, I have no idea how much is known about the breeding plumage, foraging habits or mating practices of this animal, which was wiped out over 300 years before the arrival of European settlers in New Zealand.*  What I am interested in is the authority of the museum label underneath the artist's impression.

In the nearby Penguin case, there's another picture by the same artist.  You shouldn't have any trouble reading the label this time:

The penguins look rather like they're flying (perhaps they're imagining that they are).  But despite the clear impressionism (small-I and big-I) of this painting, I didn't feel the same discomfort as when I saw the moas.  Why not?  It must have been the label.  The first label, with its impressive Latin binomial nomenclature and technical-sounding words like "breeding plumage" and "foraging females", adopts the authoritative tone of a museum curator.  The second is an incomplete sentence: not at all surprising for the title of a work of art, but obviously not sufficient as the label for a museum object.

The obvious questions are: Who is the artist?  What is his level of expertise?  Fortunately the Penguin case also included a brief biography.  Paul Bartlett studied for a PhD in animal behaviour at St Andrews, before becoming a full-time artist.  According to the biography, "he continually strives to find innovative techniques and styles in which to depict his subjects whilst retaining an element of authenticity."

I found this reassuring and, at the same time, worrying.  The artist whose work is displayed in this museum of zoology clearly has both the expertise and the desire to create authentic depictions of animals in their natural habitat, something that may potentially augment the enjoyment and learning opportunities of museum visitors.  But what does "an element of authenticity" mean?

There's also an obvious difference between painting animals that can be seen in countless videos and photographs, and those that are extinct.  For the latter, artistic licence must surely be tempered by a sense of responsibility.  I was reminded of the paintings of Édouard Riou, the young Frenchman who illustrated Louis Figuier's La Terre avant le déluge (1863).  For this monumental work of popular natural history, Figuier commissioned Riou to produce some attractive engravings.  Riou responded with some hugely vivid but also hugely imaginative works of art, like this one.    

Iguanadon and Megalosaur enjoy mutual chomping
La Terre avant le déluge was an instant bestseller, shifting 25,000 copies in the first two years.  Riou went on to work as an illustrator for Jules Verne.  And his illustrations had a huge effect on the way dinosaurs were - and are - imagined (don't forget, no human ever saw a living dinosaur, but we like to think we have a pretty good idea about how they might have behaved).

In the Bell Pettigrew, it's fairly clear that the moa pictured are extinct (though it might have been helpful to include that on the label).  And we can probably be sure that, despite what appears in the collage, its breeding plumage didn't incorporate printed text.  But it does make you wonder about the authority of museum labels.

I'm not arguing that we should go back to having unlabelled, uninterpreted, unconnected skeletons lined up in cases.  But I'm not sure there's a place for artistic licence in zoology museums either.

*I will note that, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, only "two species of Dinornis are considered valid, D. novaezealandiae of the North Island, and D. robustus of the South."  Another website, the excitingly-named, states that D. giganteus and D. robustus are the same thing - two birds that were long considered separate species have recently been identified as males and females of the same species.  But according to, "Dinornis giganteus lived in the North Island of New Zealand and D. robustis in the South Island ... The species Dinornis giganteus and Dinornis struthoides are now placed in the synonymy of Dinornis novaezealandiae."

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Terror and Trabants in Berlin

What makes a memorable museum experience?  As I've worked and researched in museums this year, I've thought a lot about that.  And I thought about it again this week while visiting two very different museums in Berlin.

First, a confession: I'm not a good museum-goer.  My attention span is limited, I like variety, and even if I read information panels diligently, I don't always absorb the information they contain.  But you know something?  I'm not the only one!  Studies of museum visitors show they pass over most interpretive labels without reading them, and rarely follow the paths exhibition designers have mapped out for them.  When was the last time you went through a museum from beginning to end, giving every object and its label your full attention?

While in Berlin at the weekend I visited two museums that addressed different bits of Germany's recent history: The Topography of Terror and The DDR Museum.  The former, located on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, focuses on many aspects of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.  The latter tells the story of life in Communist East Germany from 1945 to 1990.  They each have a difficult story to tell, and do so in radically different ways.

"A Ribbon of Panels"
Permanent exhibition, Topography of Terror
In many ways the Topography of Terror takes a traditional approach.  It is laid out broadly chronologically, with descriptive, illustrated information panels hanging from the ceiling.  Where possible it uses primary sources, and some individual human stories, to draw the visitor into the story it is telling.  There are many scanned documents and photographs on display.

But there's something missing.  This is a museum - where are the objects?  Almost everything in the permanent exhibition - apart from a few audio and video recordings - would have been just the same in a well-illustrated book, such as the one on sale at the museum.

I have taught this topic to various ages of school students, and there was little new for a visitor like me: no attempt to tell a familiar story in striking or thought-provoking ways.  But for someone less familiar with Nazism there was the potential for confusion, as the chronology was unexpectedly broken in places by the Museum's separate presentation of the various institutions of Nazi state terror.  So individual events like Kristallnacht were mentioned or partially explained in two or three separate places, as the roles of overlapping institutions like the SS, SD and various police forces were described.

"A Hands-on Experience of History"
Articles from the Communist coming-of-age ceremony
The DDR Museum was completely different.  Billing itself as "Berlin's interactive museum", it openly aims to draw visitors into the experience of life in the old Communist Bloc.  So as well as reading about it, you can sit in an old cotton-plastic Trabant car, watch propaganda films, try your hand at the decision-making process involved in running a factory, and feel the difference between the Party-approved but poorly-dyed Boxer jeans and the highly subversive Levi's.  There's also a restaurant serving authentic cuisine from behind the Iron Curtain.

Stylish products of a socialist utopia
Now, it goes without saying that it's harder to present a museum about the Nazis in an interactive way.  And the DDR Museum could be accused of making life under Communism seem more bearable, even fun, than it really was.  But with its varied, multisensory approach, it certainly made the learning process more interactive.  And it was more thought-provoking as a result.  Even cheap tricks like hiding information in drawers or cupboards that you have to open, like the clothing catalogue shown here, make you look more closely at them.

words + (horrific) pictures -- is there another way?
Did the Topography of Terror eschew such imaginative presentation because it is dealing with a serious subject that needs to be presented in a straightforward manner?  The first point to make is that their simple, words + pictures presentation is not inherently more objective - the information has been selected and the descriptions written by the museum curators to present a particular picture.  You could even say that it's dishonest to hide this subjective selection process from museum visitors.

I'm tempted to suggest that the weight of the subject matter allowed the curators of the Topography of Terror to be rather lazy in their exhibition design.  It's as if they thought: this is important - people should have to work to learn about it.

But that's not why I go to museums.  I don't always expect to have fun - certainly not in a museum called "The Topography of Terror", but I do expect some originality and freshness of presentation.  I want to have an experience, to feel something.  If you want to find out about Nazi terror, read Richard J. Evans' three-part general history, Robert Gellately's groundbreaking work on the Gestapo, or Victor Klemperer's moving diaries of life as a Jew in Dresden.  Best of all, watch the BBC documentary The Nazis: A Warning From History - you will certainly feel plenty as you are gripped by its chilling interviews with victims, witnesses and perpetrators of Nazi atrocities.

Tasteful decor... reliable news... those were the days.
On the other hand, if you want to experience a glimpse of life in the old GDR, I strongly recommend the DDR Museum.  I can't speak for the quality or authenticity of the Jägerschnitzel in their restaurant, but it is an excellent learning experience.

What do you think?  What kind of presentation styles do you like in museums?  How long is your ideal museum visit?  Feel free to comment!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Stars Without Streetlights

I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what it must have been like for a medieval astronomer to use an astrolabe.  It's tricky.  Apart from all the things we might not know, like precisely who used them and why, there's another major problem: light pollution.  Even in a small city like Cambridge the street lights blot out all but the brightest stars.

Which is why I was blown away when I saw this picture:

New York 40° 42’ 16’’ N 2010-10-09 lst 3:40

It is by French artist Thierry Cohen.  Here's what his website says about his work:
He photographs the world’s major cities, seeking out views that resonate for him and noting the precise time, angle, and latitude and longitude of his exposure.  As the world rotates around its axis the stars that would have been visible above a particular city move to deserts, plains, and other places free of light pollution.  By noting the precise latitude and angle of his cityscape, Cohen is able to track the earth’s rotation to places of atmospheric clarity like the Mojave, the Sahara, and the Atacama desert.  There he sets up his camera to record what is lost to modern urban dwellers.

Compositing the two images, Cohen creates a single new image full of resonance and nuance.  The work is both political and spiritual questioning not only what we are doing to the planet but drawing unexpected connections between disparate locations. Equally importantly it asks: what do we miss by obscuring the visibility of stars?  As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, there is a disjunction with the natural world which both Cohen and science posit causes both physical and psychological harm.  Cities that never sleep are made up of millions of individuals breaking natural cycles of work and repose. Cohen’s photographs attempt to restore our vision.
You can see more of his beautiful and thought-provoking images of starlit cityscapes on the Danziger Gallery website.

Paris 48° 50’ 55’’ N 2012-08-13 lst 22:15

Touching, But What's the Point?

by Jenny Bulstrode

Astrolabes and Stuff is proud to present its first ever guest post!  For this we must thank Jenny Bulstrode, a student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge.

Quadrants, sextants, octants, none of them really meant much to me until last year. They’re all descendants of astrolabes. They’re all based around a circle with a scale marked on it. They’re all just fans of metal with bits on. The only way I could see the Navy using one was as an elaborate bottle opener.

No, I'm still not sure what it is
If anyone asks all you generally need to know is this versatile bit of kit was a tool for measuring the angle between two distant objects. This made it handy for everything from telling the time to surveying.  Last year I found out a bit on how they were used but rather more on how one particular eighteenth century instrument maker, John Bird, made them, and why we should care. It’s these last two points I want to share with you.

‘Now use your hands to warm the metal.. except you Bob,
your hands are too clammy’ (not Bird’s original words)
Metal expands when heated. Enough to get the lid off that gherkin jar by running it under the hot tap, more than enough to mess up the precision process of marking a scale on a circle. John Bird used the warmth of his hands to standardise the expansion of his tools and the circle he was working on. As if that doesn’t seem odd enough, he then wrote about it, in his instruction manual.

Temperature control was so important Bird wouldn't allow a fire to warm the room. Even candles were forbidden because they gave out too much heat. (Actually my mum has a similar policy for controlling utility bills). With little light to work by Bird detected points and traced guideline scratches using his fingertips. Magnifying lenses were widely used by eighteenth century instrument makers, including Bird, but what he really had faith in was his sensitive touch.   

Almost as though fingertips were designed
to move tiny puncture marks in metal…
Finally, when checking back revealed a point slightly out of position, Bird would ‘coax’ it into place. Extraordinary as it sounds, through fingertip pressure on the brass, he would shuffle the point along. His fingertips worked to control, detect, and even correct the scale marking process.

All very touching (see what I did there?) but what’s the point? Three things stand out to me. Firstly, John Bird was one of the last circle dividers working exclusively by hand. Towards the end of his life new, automated machines started taking up the job. That’s the old story of mass-production taking over, right? Except for nearly a century after his death these ‘automated’ machines used handmade circles, including Bird’s, to cut copies from. The action of the machine had to be guided, by hand. In fact even when the machines made errors, which they did, often, the points were still ‘coaxed’ into place. Bird might’ve died but his hands were still very active...

Not a bomb, just a highly controlled loaf
Secondly, handmade does not just mean surprisingly expensive bread. Of course it means those elements of delicacy, care, and exclusivity we associate with a walnut and fig pavé but it can also mean industrial quality control. When Bird used his hands to control the expansion of the metal he was setting an industrial standard. Granted it was one based on his body temperature but the principle for control was the same.

Finally, and above all: Bird achieved an unprecedented level of precision in his instruments. In fact, he divided circles so precisely he was commissioned to make the Mural Arc at Greenwich. This Arc set the standard for British Mean Time. I think if there is a point to be taken from all this it is that a huge idea like ‘Time’ can be traced back, defined even, to something as human as the pressure of a man’s fingertip.

While instrument makers were busy constructing time with their hands,
Time the avatar went to all the good parties

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Hasok Chang and the disgruntled internalists

Regular readers beware: there are no astrolabes in this post!  Instead we'll be engaging with some hardcore historiography.  Comments welcome!

The "Histories of the Sciences" seminar series convened by Professor Nick Jardine at Cambridge's Department of History and Philosophy of Science is generally a low-key affair: at each session one or two texts, by important thinkers who have influenced the way the history of science is studied and written about, are introduced and discussed.  There's half a dozen students and rarely any controversy.

But Monday's session was different: a tense, packed room awaited the appearance in person of the important figure we were discussing: Professor Hasok Chang, who had come to discuss his keynote address at July's International Congress in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM).  For anyone who wasn't in Manchester in July and hasn't watched the address since, here it is:

We were examining the issues raised by Chang alongside a critique of his arguments.  This wasn't in a published paper: in what may well have been a first not only for this seminar series but the whole Department, it was a blog postThat post was by Michael Bycroft, who recently graduated from this Department.  Because he is now working in Berlin, Dr Bycroft asked me to write up some notes from the seminar.  That's the reason for my current foray into shark-infested historiographical waters.

I don't have room in this post to explain Chang's paper (you'll have to watch the video or wait for its publication in the BJHS).  But suffice it to say that it was entitled Putting Science Back into the History of Science.  Put extremely simply, his argument was that greater focus on the technical content of past science would be of benefit both to history, and to current science.

Bycroft's critique made three main points (again, apologies for simplifying to the point of misrepresentation):
  1. Chang could have defended purely internalist (content-focused) history of science more strongly against context-focused history.  In some ways he ended up defending a sort of hybrid.
  2. Writers of internalist history of science should defend their work as a valid and valuable form of history.  They should not try and argue that its focus on content makes it superior to other ways of writing.
  3. Internalist history can display many of the virtues normally ascribed to hybrid history of science.  For example, it can demonstrate the contingency of science (i.e. that science tackles problems that exist - or appear to exist - in the here and now, rather than advancing along a straight line towards The Truth).  And it can be a form of cultural history - after all, science is a cultural product.
In introducing his paper, Chang accepted these points, while stressing that he was not trying to suggest that internalist history of science was necessarily superior to other ways of doing history of science.

The Seminar
The discussion during the seminar was free-flowing, and I did not take any notes.  As I only have my vague memories to go on, I will not attempt to reconstruct it blow-by-blow.  Rather, I will try to group the points that were made under 4 general themes.

1.  Cultural history vs. rationality: a false dichotomy?
One point that was made focused on the early part of Chang's address, in which he set out to dismiss four false dichotomies that he believes are widespread misconceptions in history of science.  The third of these was between cultural history, which "treats our own civilization in the same way that anthropologists study alien cultures" (Robert Darnton), and the idea that scientists behave rationally.  Put simply, Chang's argument (at 9:53 in the video) was that rationality can still be meaningful even though we acknowledge that it is "fully embedded in and dependent on social, political and institutional settings."

The question that was raised was: what kind of rationality? Whose rationality?  Can we be rational historians writing in the twenty-first century and still aim to approach (or imitate) the rationality of people in the past?  The quite strident answer seemed to be that that is precisely what historians should be doing.  Our particular skill as historians must surely be to straddle two time zones.

2.  How can history stimulate science?
In my view, the most controversial claim Chang made (at 28:34 in the video) was that history of science can and should be looking to contribute towards new discoveries in science.  This point was not addressed directly but it was noted that there were few historians in university science departments, and we rarely look to push ourselves in that direction.  And even if history is rarely going to produce new scientific knowledge (and it's certainly arguable whether that should be its aim), it is surely a good idea for practising scientists to learn from history about the contingent development of their discipline (a point made fully by Chang at 20:43).

So perhaps it is in science departments that history of science can be most useful to society.  Where it is in them already, it seems to perform mainly a sort of ornamental function, helpful for PR purposes but totally divorced from any involvement in or effect on the main business of inevitable scientific progress.  Chang has argued in many papers that the history of science can play an important role in science education - and has practised what he preaches by talking to schoolkids about historical experiments in which water didn't boil at 100°C.  But historians are mainly reduced to carping on the sidelines as scientists fill the airwaves and the public consciousness with a view of history of science that is as embarrassing for real historians as Intelligent Design is for most evolutionary biologists.  (Rebekah Higgitt and others have written about how historians of science sometimes seem just to be spoiling everyone's party.)  Perhaps we can do better if we focus our efforts more at scientists.

3.  Isn't this all just obvious?  The insecurity of historians of science
Always one for practising what he preaches, Chang has just launched a new reading/discussion group called Coffee with Scientists, which aims to bring together scientists and historians, to the benefit of both.  It was one of those scientists who raised the commensense objection: DUH! Of course history of science needs to have science in it!  What's the point of studying something if you're not prepared to engage with its content?  This question, and those that followed along the same lines, occupied most of the seminar.

A key question was: if you engage with content, how critical can you be?  Chang himself had made the analogy with historians of art (at 14:29) - they have no problem being historians and art critics at the same time.  But historians of science feel uncomfortable exercising judgment in the same way, for fear of being branded "Whiggish".  Against this, Chang says (at 16:47) "we only need to make sure that our view of past science is not dictated by current scientific orthodoxy.  It is not necessary to abandon all judgment."

There was a sense from some in the seminar that historians of science are too insecure, and spend too much time justifying what we do.  We are obsessed with theorising our own discipline, and perhaps we should just get on and do it!  But it is precisely our desire to change things in the present - changing people's views of science - that forces us to justify ourselves, which is what theory seems to be for.  To take mainstream political history as an example: most of the time it is not especially interested in changing the present, so political historians look for little theoretical support.  But post-colonial history often has an explicit political agenda, and so tends to have far more theoretical baggage too.

4.  Is internalism superior?  Prove yourself!
This brought us back to internalist history of science, which was then presented as a solution to historians' insecurities.  Do we need to prove that we know what we're talking about?  A point was raised that had been made in a comment on Bycroft's blog post: the depth principle, which states that we need to know a lot more than we write about.  But should we have to wear that knowledge like a scout badge?

As time ran out in the seminar, the suggestion was made that we should emulate some notable historians of science, who have written one absurdly complex internalist work at the beginning of their career.  Their scientific credentials thus established, they have spent the rest of their working lives writing contextualist, cultural history of science - and no-one has dared accuse them of ignorance.

What's the conclusion?  I don't know.  I may come back and add one once I've had some more time to mull over the issues raised in the seminar.  For now, please join the debate and add your own comments.  And if you were at the seminar and feel I've missed, misrepresented or misunderstood something, please say so!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Researching King Arthur’s Table at the Adler Planetarium

This post is cross-posted from the blog of the Adler Planetarium, Chicago, USA.  It was written after a research visit I made to the Adler in June 2013.

Tucked away on the lower level of the Adler Planetarium is the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy.  It may be located way below the Grainger Sky Theater, but it can still inspire cosmic wonder in historians like me.
“King Arthur’s Table” – an equatorium built for Derek de Solla Price in 1952.
Courtesy of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge
I’m a student at the University of Cambridge, and I was lucky enough to visit the Webster Institute in June.  I’d been researching a fourteenth century manuscript which describes an equatorium.  An equatorium is similar in some ways to the astrolabes you can see in the Universe in Your Hands exhibition, but instead of tracking the motions of the Sun and stars, it computes the positions of the planets.

My manuscript was first discovered in 1951, by the historian Derek de Solla Price.  Price is now famous as the “father of scientometrics” – the scientific study of science – but back then he was just a student.  When he found the manuscript in Cambridge’s Perne Library, he immediately suspected it had been written by the poet and astronomer Geoffrey Chaucer.  He presented his research at the Royal Society, and to make his presentation more impressive he had a full-scale model of the equatorium built, following the manuscript instructions to the letter.

A page from Derek de Solla Price’s astrolabes notebook.
Derek J. De Solla Price Papers, Adler Planetarium.
The model has a great story – it was dumped in a storage facility, forgotten, given the nickname “King Arthur’s Table” and only rediscovered last year.  And it has plenty to tell us about the way that historians and museums work.  Luckily for me, the Adler is the home of the Derek de Solla Price Papers.  They contain an unparalleled range of his publications and personal papers, so it was a joy for me to be able to access them with the help of archivist Jodi Lacy.

Among the papers I found Price’s complete résumé, allowing me to check many facts about his life and studies.  There were his own hand-drawn diagrams of astrolabes he’d seen all over the world.  There was a guide to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, where I work, written before the Museum even opened in 1951.  And there was an article about the ever-increasing specialization of scientists, which Price wrote for his college newspaper in 1941, when he was just nineteen.

It all gave me a deeper knowledge of the life and work of this great historian and sociologist.  The materials I found have already informed conference papers I have presented, and they will continue to be useful in my research. Thanks to everyone at the Adler for their help.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Video: Connecting with Collections Symposium

I was pleased to be able to speak at (and help organise) the Connecting with Collections Symposium a few weeks ago.  That event showcased some of the work that was done as part of the AHRC-funded Connecting with Collections internship scheme.

The day went pretty well, I think.  For those that weren't able to make it, I have put a recording of my presentation together with the slides I used, to create a lovely video which summarises the research I did during my internship.  I hope you enjoy watching it!  As always, I'd be very grateful for any feedback in the Comments section.

Below the video you can find the abstract of my paper.  And if you're interested in some of the themes it raises, why not check out the Symposium keynote address by Sam Alberti, Director of the Hunterian Museum, on the Connecting with Collections blog?

“King Arthur’s Table” is not a table, nor has it anything to do with King Arthur.  It is a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fourteenth-century astronomical instrument: a planetary equatorium described in a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer.  Conceived by historian of science Derek Price as a huge, tangible realisation of Chaucerian astronomy for Cambridge’s then-newly-opened Whipple Museum of the History of Science, it was displayed, discarded, stored, catalogued with that rather whimsical name, and finally rediscovered.

This paper will use the biography of King Arthur’s Table as a route to understanding the early, inchoate years of both a museum and the discipline of history of science.  Its construction in the Cavendish Laboratory, under the patronage of Sir Lawrence Bragg, and its first display at the Royal Society allow it to tell us much about the significant scientific institutions and figures of that period.  Intended both as a replica instrument and as an homage to the life and work of a great historical figure, its own life story has reflected changing research priorities and curatorial attitudes, especially concerning reconstructions.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Museums and their Public

What do museums owe the public?  And what should the public give museums?

These questions have been on my mind recently, as I've been completing an internship at Cambridge's Whipple Museum of the History of Science.  The Whipple is part of Cambridge University and has an ambiguous relationship with the public.  It is open to all, and entrance is free.  But the founding charter of the Museum emphasizes its importance as "a teaching instrument and an accessory to modern research."  So it is first and foremost a resource for the University.

Visitors to the Museum sometimes ask if the opening hours - currently Monday to Friday, 12.30-4.30 - could be extended.  And the Museum has started opening on a few Saturdays each year.  But because it doesn't charge for admission, and is not publicly funded, it can treat its visitors as guests rather than customers: they are welcome, but their rights are limited.

Nevertheless, of course it's ridiculous to say that the public has nothing to offer the Whipple.  For starters, there is a donation box right in front of you when you walk into the beautiful 17th-century main gallery.  And the Museum has benefited in the past from bequests and legacies from large-scale individual donors, and will continue to welcome such gifts in the future.  Those donors are not all connected with the University.  Less directly, if the Museum is primarily a research institution, it needs researchers.  How will the next generation of reseachers gain access to, and become interested in, the material culture of science?  Finally, what's the point of doing research unless you're going to tell people what you've found out?

The question underlying all of this, of course, is: who is the public?  It's a question that has been implicit in a lot of recent media coverage of arts funding, with renewed discussion of the reintroduction of admission fees to publicly funded museums.  Among other points, it's been suggested that museums don't truly serve the general public - only a minority, from the middle and upper classes - so they shouldn't be publicly funded.  And I've heard several people ask why UK taxpayers should subsidise the vacation activities of foreign visitors to this country.  Maybe we should make tourists pay?

The new 1 WTC, set to be 1776 feet tall
These questions were put into new perspective for me when I visited the USA recently.  In New York I went to two top attractions: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Both are open seven days a week, and they have the same policy on admissions fees: pay whatever you like.

The Met is quite secretive about this policy.  The word "recommended" does appear about the admissions fees on their website, but they advertise the principal benefit of membership (basic cost: $70/year) as free admission to the Museum, which would be odd unless most people were unaware that it is free anyway.  (Or almost free: I believe the official policy is that you must pay something, if only 1 cent.)  I certainly wouldn't have noticed unless I had been tipped off.  In fact the Met was recently sued for not making it clear enough that it was free - a charge vigorously contested by the Met's Director, who pointed out that not only are there clear signs that it is free, but also all their special exhibitions are free too - something that can't be said of our own cherished institutions such as the British Museum and National Gallery.

The Met Museum Cloisters: definitely worth a special trip uptown
So what does this policy tell us about the Met?  Simply, I guess, that it is there for the public, but that it needs to maximise its income (only a small proportion of its running costs come from the public purse).  Locals can come and go as they please, but by making visitors line up and collect a ticket, the Museum does its best to ensure that it extracts at least a small donation from them.  (I did pay something, albeit not the full recommended fee.)  By giving people the option to pay less (or more), visitors are forced to consider what the opportunity to see a world-class collection of culture is worth to them.  Is it worth as much as a trip to the cinema? A ticket to a sports game? Dinner at a restaurant?

A little history of science at the Met Museum Cloisters
Yes, I felt a little uncomfortable when I stood at the ticket desk and handed over my smaller-than-recommended banknote - but that's as it should be.  It made me think about the value of all this - and in any case, it's a small price to pay when you consider that the admissions fees not only fund the acquisition, conservation and presentation of the peerless collection, but also first-rate visitor facilities such as the excellent MyMet pages on its website, which together with free Museum wi-fi mean you can save any object to look at later, or download high-resolution images.  I wish all those people taking photos of the Monets knew about this!

The issue is a little different at the 9/11 Memorial.  The front page of their website has a large highlighted option to "reserve free visitor pass", though there is an online booking fee, and when I went to the Preview Site/gift shop to get a ticket on the day I visited, I was asked how much I wanted to donate.  Once again the question has to be: who is the public?  Who is this for?  Is it a memorial to the 3,000-odd people who died on that day in 2001?  A park for relaxation and contemplation amidst the hubbub of downtown Manhattan?  A defiant statement against terrorism from/for the people of the world?  Can it be all those things?

It could be argued that the best way to defy the terrorists would have been to redevelop the site as if nothing had happened, filling it with more high-rise hotels and office blocks.  Indeed I might (somewhat facetiously) note that the tight security measures - my bag was X-rayed and my ticket checked fully five times - suggest that, in some way, Osama bin Laden won.

Even without the airport-style security, it's hard to see people using this as a tranquil green space.  For one thing, the two huge waterfalls that fill the footprints of the Twin Towers are incredibly loud.  This means that visitors are not as hushed as I would have expected.  When I visited the makeshift memorial that preceded this one, in 2007, there was a respectful, awestruck silence; you could sense the raw emotion.  I didn't feel that this time.  Was it because of the noise?  Or simply the passing of time?

In Spring 2014 the 9/11 Museum, whose design, in the words of the architects, was "guided by the principles of memory, authenticity, scale and emotion", will open.  This, perhaps, will be a more reverent space.  But one with an admissions fee - perhaps $20-25.  (The Memorial park will remain free.)  I wonder what further changes will occur with time.  Will the security measures be eased?  As memories fade - remember that most kids starting secondary school next month weren't born on 11 September 2001 - will the Memorial become less a place of pilgrimage and more a peaceful spot for office workers and tourists to sit and enjoy a sandwich?  It will be very interesting to see how this site, its atmosphere, and its public, change.

Have you visited these places?  If so, I'd be interested to hear about your experiences - please leave a comment below.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

How to cast a medieval horoscope

I wrote this post for the blog of the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM), which takes place in Manchester on 21-28 July 2013.  Loyal readers of this blog won't find much new here, but it's a fair summary of my research so far.

I have modified my views slightly since writing this, mainly about how sophisticated an astronomer the equatorium's creator was, and how sure we can be about Schöner's purposes.  I'm looking forward to discussing these issues with people at the conference.

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In preparation for iCHSTM 2013, I’ve spent the last few weekends indulging my creative side.  Sawing and filing wood and brass into a disc, ring and pointer may have disturbed the peace of my neighbours’ Saturday afternoons, but it has meant I will be able to demonstrate a particularly ingenious, user-friendly medieval device: a planetary equatorium.

I have recently begun PhD research into a unique fourteenth-century manuscript.  Known as The Equatorie of the Planetis, it describes how to construct an equatorium.  This makes it one of the earliest pieces of writing about a scientific instrument in the English language.  The first person to study it, Derek de Solla Price, was convinced not only that it was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, but that it was a draft in Chaucer’s own handwriting.  The authorship debate still rages; meanwhile, I am looking at some of the other fascinating aspects of this manuscript.

The equatorium nears completion
Much like their better known cousins, astrolabes, equatoria were medieval calculating devices.  These devices made use of astronomical theories and models that were long-established, having first been refined around 150 CE by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy.  In both cases, they existed in something close to their complete form in the late Classical period, before being further developed in the Islamic world from around the tenth century, and refined still further in western Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. While astrolabes could be used for a range of functions, from telling the time to measuring the height of a building, equatoria just did one thing: modelled the motions of the planets.

They did this by recreating the essentials of Ptolemy’s planetary theories as a kind of diagram with moving parts.  These became progressively simplified, so that a single device could model the motion of the Sun, the Moon and the five known planets.  After an initial investment of time making his equatorium, an astronomer could then predict the location of the planets to a high degree of accuracy, far faster than by the alternative method – trigonometric calculation.  Using this basic computer, planetary astronomy could be as simple as looking up a couple of values in a table, and using them to place some pieces of brass, wood and string.  The question is: why?

For early modern astronomers such as Johannes Schöner, who included cut-out-and-build equatoria in his 1521 Aequatorium Astronomicum, they had a largely educational purpose: they could be used to demonstrate the fundamentals of the Ptolemaic theories, just as many classrooms today use globes (another favourite device of Schöner’s) to teach children about latitude and longitude. [I'm no longer so confident about this claim: Schöner’s equatoria could be used for practical astrology, though it's hard to be sure that they actually were.]

But equatoria also had practical importance.  Although nowadays we are dismissive of astrology, and think of horoscopes as a simple matter of making (up) predictions about people’s future fortunes based on the month of their birth, it wasn’t always that way.  In the medieval period there was no hard distinction between astronomy and astrology, and the calculations that could be made using personal and planetary information were complex and varied.  They had a range of possible uses, too, guiding anything from political decision-making to the timing of medical procedures.

In the case of The Equatorie of the Planetis, the simplifications made by its designer make it less suitable as a demonstration device, but much easier to make, transport and use to calculate planetary positions.  The designer has shown great imagination in paring the instrument down to its bare essentials.  It could be argued that by simplifying the Ptolemaic model, he demonstrated a lack of understanding and precision, but I think it is the reverse: he showed great sophistication in understanding where approximations could be made for the sake of greater usability, without sacrificing too much accuracy.

It’s sometimes suggested that these medieval “instruction” texts were not really designed to be followed except in the reader’s imagination. Certainly it’s true that it would be expensive and rather unwieldy to make it at its full six-foot scale! (Though that is precisely what Derek de Solla Price did in 1952.)  But with my newly built equatorium I’m looking forward to showing people at iCHSTM that these six-hundred-year-old instructions can be followed to produce a user-friendly, and useful, little computer.

This blog post is based on the paper , “Putting classical astronomy to work: the design and use of a medieval equatorium,” which [I am] due to give as part of symposium T157, “Pre-modern astronomy and cosmology,” on Saturday 27th July at ICHSTM.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Tweets from the Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop - Part 2

Here is the second instalment of my tweets from the Eleventh Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop.  If you missed the first batch, you can read them here.

Once again, if you enjoy reading them, don't forget to follow me on Twitter!

Congratulations for making it through all those!  Remember, if you missed the first instalment, you can find them here.

Tweets from the Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop - Part 1

I've spent the last few days at the Eleventh Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop, at the University of Notre Dame (in the USA, not Paris).  It was a tremendous learning experience and very enjoyable.

I hope to post some reflections on the conference soon, but first, I've collated all the tweets I wrote during the last five days.  I found the 140-character limit made for an interesting challenge in summarising what was being said.  As there were quite a few tweets, I've split them in two (you can find the second batch here).  If you enjoy reading them, don't forget to follow me on Twitter!

Wow! Did you really read all those tweets?  If you're a glutton for more punishment, click here for the second instalment.