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Episode 10 Transcript - Martin Bush

This week we welcome Dr Martin Bush to the podcast as he discusses with us the role of imagery and visualisation in the distribution and circulation of science and knowledge. Martin is a member of the HPS department at the University of Melbourne who focuses primarily on the role of imagery in the popularisation and teaching of astronomy. In this episode, he takes us through the different arenas in which science is produced, discussed and circulated, and how these spheres can influence, or gate keep knowledge from each other. Martin then looks at the role that imagery and visualisation plays in the popularisation and understanding of scientific knowledge, and at the use of imagery as documentary evidence.

Indigo Keel: Hi all. From the team here at the HPS podcast, we welcome you to another episode. I'm your host, Indigo Keel, and today we welcome Martin Bush. He discusses with us the role of visualisation as a method of circulation and distribution of scientific knowledge.

How does science move from the lab into the public sphere? What is the role of the public arena in the creation and distribution of knowledge? And how do we use imagery to augment our creation and circulation of scientific knowledge?

Hello Martin, welcome to The HPS Podcast.

Martin Bush: Hi Indi, it's great to be here.

Indigo Keel: I'll start off with the question we always ask, which is how did you come into HPS?

Martin Bush: So I think the traditional answer on this podcast so far is for people to tell their sideways story about how they got into HPS and I can also tell a sideways story, but maybe for a counter narrative, I can also tell a story about how HPS has always been very close to me. This comes about from two books that I was given as a teenager.

First was What Is This Thing Called Science? by the University of Sydney philosopher of science, Alan Chalmers. That introduced me to the idea of the philosophy of science. The second one, possibly, um, even more significant to me was the hardback version of Cosmos, the TV series by Carl Sagan, which was given to me by my grandfather.

This really changed my life. This introduced me to the idea of physics and also introduce the role of the history of physics. What I would now think of as a rather bad history of science, but nonetheless very illuminating and inspiring to me.

So I went off to university, determined to be a theoretical physicist, and I completed my undergraduate degree, determined not to be a theoretical physicist. And decided that what I really wanted to do was a socially engaged form of science, so went off and did my master's in science communication. I completed my science communication degrees and moved to Melbourne and got a job at the museum, did some museum work for a while, and then finally left the museum to go off and do a history of science PhD.

Since completing that PhD, I've worked here at the University of Melbourne on a meta research project evaluating the reliability of published research claims. In the social and behavioural sciences. So I do feel like I've done a bit of a tour of HPS through philosophy and history and meta research with a bit of science communication and museum studies along the way.

Indigo Keel: It's great to see just how wide HPS is and how many fields you can jump into while doing HPS. So what is a topic that you believe would be of interest or value to our audience?

Martin Bush: So the idea that I want to talk about in this podcast is the notion of the circulation of knowledge. So this was a concept that was introduced into the literature by the historian of science at the University of Cambridge, James Secord in 2004. And it both crystallised existing trends and also shaped the endeavours of the particular sub-discipline of the history of science that I work in, which is the history of popular knowledge of science. Now I do have to say that, as often happens in the humanities, we define a subfield, and then argue endlessly about how the name that we've given for that subfield is not appropriate.

There are a lot of debates about how we shouldn't really talk about the idea of popular science, because this gives the misleading impression that there are two kinds of knowledge. There is elite scientific knowledge, which is produced in laboratories, and then this is disseminated out to the public in a popular form. It is precisely this issue that was one of the things that James Secord wanted to address by the idea of circulation. And that is to recognise that in a very important way, the public arena has always been a place where scientific knowledge is formed, shaped and debated. And I can give you a few examples of this.

So very recently, of course, we've gone through the COVID 19 pandemic. And one of the major issues that came up during that was what is the mechanism of transmission of COVID 19? Is it transmitted by large droplets which gather on surfaces? And so we have to wash our hands. Or is it transmitted by small droplets that are airborne, and so we have to wear masks. I think, we will all remember that this was a very important debate that happened, and to a large extent it happened in the public arena. It was being fought out on websites, through Twitter, there were discussions in the media about it. People's direct experiences really fed into the debate. It wasn't something that was simply conducted in academic journals or laboratories. Although, of course, it was also conducted through those mechanisms. This kind of public argumentation around scientific knowledge is not new.

Closer to my own field of study there has been the question of the possibility of life on distant planets or distant universes. Now, this is a topic that has interested astronomers for a very long time, and while there certainly have been many scientific publications about this, it has more often been something that has been talked about through popular medium through novels, books, magazines and recently TV shows, internet, documentaries, and podcasts.

This is an example of a scientific question which gets, to a large extent prosecuted, developed, discussed through the public realm. Now this is not to say that those more traditional scientific sites are not important. Analogously to how Rachel Brown was talking about values in science in an earlier podcast, that's not to say that anything goes. To say that the public realm is an important medium for scientific discussion is not to say that the laboratory and the observatory and the fieldwork sites are not important sites of knowledge generation. Of course they are. But the traditional view has been that this is solely where knowledge is created and that it then emerges from those sites into the public realm. The field that I look at emphasises that the public realm has always been an important site of negotiation and development of scientific ideas. So, that is one of the aspects of the circulation of knowledge that is important.

A second really important aspect of the idea of knowledge as circulation is a focus on this idea of knowledge as practice. And by this, I don't just mean the technical skills that would allow you to build a smartphone or to perform a DNA assay, but really in a much more fundamental level that knowledge allows us to do things that we wouldn't otherwise be able to do. So knowledge of theoretical physics allows us to think about a multidimensional world and to analyse space in those terms. Knowledge of psychological personality types allows us to understand and study people in a way that we wouldn't otherwise be able to do. So knowledge very much allows us to do things and that's an important part of it.

This focus on knowledge as practice helps us to solve what is something of a puzzle. And that puzzle is that over the last few decades, the history of science has really focused on the local and the particular in forming knowledge. What -to make a shout out to a previous HPS podcast -what Donna Haraway talked about as situated knowledges. That we always produce knowledge from a particular place, and that involves particular skills and particular perspectives. So, just for one example, the role that art and design and printing played in the development of botanical knowledge through the creation of drawing.

And so, historians of science have been very engaged and focussed on this particular in the creation of scientific knowledge. And yet we know that science has an enormous and indeed global reach. So, how do we put those things together? How do we understand how knowledge that is constructed in a very unique way, nonetheless manages to have a global reach? And this idea of knowledge as something that is practiced and circulates is really one of the most productive ways of trying to understand how we can bridge that gap.

The third aspect of the idea of knowledge as circulation, and probably the closest to the work that I do, is this idea of science as being a general cultural value. So even where scientific ideas are produced in the laboratory or observatory, when they enter the public realm, they take on a cultural life of their own. And an example of this is some work that I've done recently on the image of the lunar landscape. And by that I mean the picture that would be seen by an observer who was standing on the surface of the moon, looking out, across the craters and mountains of the moon, often looking at a earth suspended in the starry sky behind. An image that I'm sure is familiar to most of your listeners. But this was an image that arose very suddenly in the middle of the 19th century. For much of the period before that the image was literally unimaginable. When the first few lunar landscapes started appearing in print, they were described as a freak of imagination.

But once it appeared, within decades of the first lunar landscapes being printed, It became a visual cliché. Now this change from something being unimaginable to being a cliché was associated with a whole lot of changes in both science and in social understandings of science. So there was a change in how scientists understood the moon as a geological body. And there's change in how science understood geology itself and the practices of science.

But, importantly, there was also a real change in how the public viewed the moon as a place rather than as an object of imagination. This, of course, was associated with the rise of classic Vernian and Welsian Science fiction, but it's important to note that these lunar landscapes were being produced before the rise of this kind of science fiction. So, it's very much a change that was associated with that literary movement, but not caused by it.

And this is one of my favourite examples of how the cultural understandings of science and the practices of science really mix together in a particularly fluid way.

Indigo Keel: So you were talking a lot about imagery in that last little bit and its role in the circulation and distribution of knowledge.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit more to that.

Martin Bush: Yeah, sure. I do a lot of work on images in science and in popular representations of science. And there's a range of ways in which images get used in the history of science. So I'll talk through a few of these.

Firstly, images provide useful evidence for the history of science. Historians have traditionally and rightly been focused on documentary evidence as their primary source, and up until a few decades ago, images were largely treated as a second class kind of evidence, subjective and not really particularly useful.

But there's been a turn towards images in recent years. And we now see that there's very important and interesting details that we can get from looking at images. And one example that I'll give here is to do with the reports of lecture tours in Australia. So I've done a bit of work on the tour in 1880 of the famous British astronomer and popularizer Richard Proctor.

And if you read the newspaper reports of accounts of his visits. You would hear about all of the important men that were attending, the mayors who turned up, the heads of scientific and other societies that turned up. But then, when you look at a illustration of his lectures, you see almost the entire front row is filled with women and children who don't get much of a mention in the documentary sources. But of course we do know from other sources that women were highly engaged in popular science in the 19th century as one of the ways that it was permissible to get a scientific education and to engage with scientific ideas at a time when women were largely locked out of formal education or membership of societies. One example of how looking at images really does tell a different story to just reading the documentary evidence.

A second and really important aspect of images in science is their use as a tool in the generation of scientific knowledge. So, there's been a lot of interest recently in the idea of paper tools in the way that forms of notation or diagrams or production of images allows the creation of scientific knowledge in a way that simply writing things out or even doing equations does not allow. Classic examples of this are the idea of the periodic table in sorting out relationships between chemical elements or Feynman diagrams in allowing theoretical physicists to think through the kinds of interactions that happen at a quantum level. And of course, the production of images has been fundamental to sciences like astronomy or microscopy. And so images can be themselves a really important aspect of the study of the scientific process.

And a third aspect of images in the history of science, coming back to things that are closest to my own heart, is the role of images as cultural meanings. I've done a lot of work on the popular astronomical lecturing in the 19th century, and these lectures were almost universally illustrated by magic lantern slides, or wall charts, or various other wacky technologies.

And it's interesting to think about what this role of images played in the dissemination of astronomical knowledge. It might be straightforward to say, well, astronomy is a visual science. Certainly in that period, people did astronomy by looking up and gazing at the stars and making maps of what they saw. And so it makes sense that when you talk about astronomy, you're also talking about the things that people see.

But in fact, the images that dominated this kind of lecturing on astronomy were not the visual representations of the heavens, but were much more abstract and mathematical diagrams showing the orbits of the planets or the way that gravity operated. And these images of this diagrammatic form really emphasize that idea of astronomy as being the pure mathematical science, the perfect form of knowledge, the model for other sciences.

They presented the kind of God's eye view of the solar system, where everything is seen from above, operating according to perfect harmony. So, I'd say that the images that we used in this kind of lecturing were not reflecting the visual character of the science, but were reflecting the cultural understanding of what astronomy meant.

And there's some interesting sidelines to this. I mentioned the God's eye view of the solar system, and indeed astronomy was one of the core sciences that was used in the debates between religious people and atheists in the late 19th century.

So on one hand of the debate you have people arguing that these mathematical laws indicate the mind of the Creator and show how everything is according to God's will. And on the other side of the debate, you have people arguing that the absolute kind of knowledge, mathematical knowledge, shows how the universe can operate lawfully without the input of a God at all.

And at one stage, in Christchurch in New Zealand, there were two lecturers lecturing almost side by side on the same Sunday using the same images of astronomy to demonstrate wildly different interpretations of the universe. This shows, you know, sort of not only can these images take a whole lot of cultural value, but in fact that that can be a very wide ranging and disparate forms of cultural values.

Indigo Keel: And this kind of image use in science as a dissemination method for knowledge is something that continues to this day.

Martin Bush: It certainly does. We've all seen the release of the James Webb Space Telescope imagery. A very highly coordinated activity, I mean, I think building on the success of the Hubble Space Telescope and their image archive. Which is something that I think probably, became clear what an important tool for public communication of science those images were during the Hubble project.

When the James Webb launched, they had a strategy in place from day one. A very deliberate and coordinated release of those images in a way to create maximum effect for what is a very exciting scientific project.

Indigo Keel: Beautiful. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Martin.

It was great to have you.

Martin Bush: It's an absolute pleasure to be here.

Indigo Keel: Thank you all for listening to the first season of the HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science. We want to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne for their support. To learn more, check out our website at There you can also find links to our blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Insta, as well as show notes for today's topic. I'm Indigo Keel and my co-producer is Samara Greenwood. We look forward to having you back again next time.


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