Thursday, 29 April 2010

Can science communication teach the rest of the academy?

I've just given a talk about science communication at an event on public engagement with arts, humanities and social science research.

Although I hoped all the time, money, anxiety and analysis poured into science communication over the last 25 years (250 years...) would mean I'd have something useful to say, I was a bit unsure about it. It's arrogant to assume science communication can tell the rest of the academy how to go about sharing it's research. There are huge differences between communicating the natural sciences and communicating other research areas. For one thing, we shouldn't discount the huge amount of money, professional expertise and institutional support provided by the now huge science communication industry. The standard sociology post-doc just wouldn't have those sort of support systems.

That said, there are similarities too, and I believe there is potentially a lot science communication can learn from attempts to communicate other subjects. For example, Farida Vis' reflections on being trolled by racist online groups has, I think, lots of interesting things to say to those caught up in climategate (Vis' slides are first link here). Also, I say that there are differences between science and everyone else, but it's not as if there aren't huge differences within this big old thing we call science. Epigenetics has a completely different public cultural context to high energy physics. Communicating one synbio project to one audience will be very different from another, to another.

Anyway, it was a difficult gig, so I did the sensible thing and chickened out by getting other people talk for me. Firstly I showed this video by some of my MSc students, which juxtaposes four scientists' ideas about their relationships with the public: one from 1950, one from 1970, another from 1990 and finally, a 2010 point of view.

Debate on science and society from Cecilia Rosen on Vimeo

In particular, I wanted to draw out the difference between the 1990 character's approach and that of 2010: the shift away from talking down to the public and towards a more discursive, interactive and contextual approach: from "deficit model" to "dialogue" to use the sci-com jargon.

There are loads of problems with the 1990 "deficit model" stance, if you really care there are many books and papers summarising them (or this report provides a good overview). Most of the criticisms stressed how simplistic it is to black-box "science" and "the public", and that media audiences tend to contextualise information given to them, sometimes in unpredictable ways. It's often said that the only word in "Public Understanding of Science" anyone could agree on was "of" (and even that had its discontents). Some people objected to the hierarchical set up of the models, which assumed science sits on the top, passing down information to the laity. It was also argued that it doesn't do the advancement of knowledge much good to rely only on scientists: there are useful things to be learned from talking to people without advanced degrees. None of this is to suggest that the public know better than science, just that listening to the occasional outside voice can be useful. To argue against a top-down model isn't necessarily to argue for a singularly bottom-up one (though some people might). If nothing else, going around acting as if your audience are stupid is bad PR. Having a conversation with someone where you build mutual trust, respect and understanding (even if you do not always agree) is, quite simply, more likely to get your voice heard.

However, in showing this video I also wanted to emphasise the way my clever MSc students put the 1950, 1970, 1990 and 2010 attitudes together, making the characters fight it out across-generations. Science communication often likes to pat itself on the shoulder that it's left the problems of the top-down model behind. It hasn't, despite the rhetoric of engagement and dialogue and involvement (and using "deficit model" like it's an insult). More importantly, moving to a more interactive model doesn't solve all our problems, if anything it just creates new ones. There are also several points the older characters make which are still worth listening to. None of this is simple.

I then talked briefly about four science communication projects I thought were worth noting: Colliding Particles, a series of short films exploring the "human stories" of scientists working on the the LHC; Galaxy Zoo, possibly the world's most successful citizen science project; Opal, which uses "community embedded scientists" in a range of interesting ways which both makes and communicates ecology at the same time; and "I'm a Scientist", a dialogue web event which pitches teenagers' questions to scientists. I finished by handing over to Jenny Joplin who works in events at the Wellcome Collection (a fifth science communication project of note). None of these are perfect and you can't necessarily apply their approaches outside of their own specific contexts, but they are all well thought out, successful and (I think) worth a look at.

The twitter tag was #enres if you want to hear what others think/ said at the event, and further blogs/ comments may well crop up on their website.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Treatise on the Astrolabe

Here's a nice TED talk on the astrolabe, thanks to Alun Salt for the tip-off. The speaker uses an example of an astrolabe from the Oxford Museum for the History of Science (also featured in Alun's blogpost). The Science Museum have some pretty gorgeous ones too.

I won't rehearse what an astrolabe is here, watch the video. But I can use it to say something about children's science books. The first manual for the Astrolabe was written for a kid (Geoffrey Chaucer's son Lewis, yes that Chaucer). The British Museum has an astrolabe they think matches the one the Chaucers would have used. This book is often described as first children's book. So, the first ever children's book was a science book.

This little fact-ette pleases me immensely. Obviously it relies on a rather ridiculous (not to mention anachronistic) over-simplification of our definitions of "children" "science" and "book". I don't care though. When people at children's literature studies conferences look at me with incredulity when I say I study science books (people have, quite seriously, looked down their noses and informed me "but, non-fiction isn't literature"), I love to direct them to Chaucer.

Via Peter Hunt (1994) An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Opus, Oxford: pp.189) if you want a full bibliographic reference from a professor of children's literature studies.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Science is cool? Considering the "evidence"

I've just written a piece on Comment is Free responding to the "How Science Became Cool" feature they ran last Tuesday. This is the sweary bit I couldn't fit in (though with slightly less swearing than when I saw the headline they'd given it and read comment number 3...)

The piece for the Guardian runs through some of the evidence of science's public popularity. But research into science and the public doesn't just provide evidence, it also provides reflection. One basic tenet of such reflection being that the notion of "science" isn't nearly as uniform as is sometimes imagined (for developed theory and a set of historical examples, see this book). Another central tenet is that whether you like, agree and/ or believe in a piece science is largely cultural (classic study of this being Brian Wynne’s sheep farmers). Baring both these points in mind, we should not forget the tensions within the great big Venn diagram of groups which have connected to form the apparent "new" coolness of science.

I think the most illustrative example of this is last December's "Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People". Or, as it later became known for the post-Christmas TV transmission: Nerdstock. I remember hearing people say they much preferred the term Nerdstock, they would have loved to have gone but were put off by the word "Godless" in the title. And yet people wanting to express their atheism were arguably the fuel of the event. Similarly, within self-confessed science fans, there are those with more space-y interests and those who are rather more David Attenborough in their tastes, both sitting alongside each other with some degree of incomprehension. There are also the wades of commentators on the "How Science Became Cool" piece who wined "don't leave science to the cool kids, that's the last thing we want".

These are all tensions, territories and cultural identities we have to remember if considering the movement of science through popular culture. Moreover, I think that the more activist science communicators (i.e. those who want to change peoples minds) need to take seriously those who disagree or are not sure about particular ideas in science. I don't think it's helpful to write them off as anything as broad brush as "anti" the whole of science. This is not to say you have to agree with them, or even display any rhetorical sense of agreement. But you have to think about what precisely they don't like and why if you really want to convince them otherwise. As I wrote in the post about Shell and the Science Museum, throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you.

I worry that that with a celebration of aesthetics of science the response to "isn’t this cool" will be, from many, "er, no". There's the famous youtube clip of Richard Dawkins saying "Science is interesting, and if you don't like it, you can fuck off." That's great if you already agree with him. It's funny and the appeal to those who "can fuck off" helps emphasise a sense of bonded community by way of noting those aren't in it. But it only puts off those who disagree with you even more. As I've blogged before, I think science communication should say this is awesome because. It should earn and demonstrate wonderment, not assume it.

Of course, another central tenet of science communication research is you shouldn't assume a need to ram science down everyone's throat. Not everyone likes science, not everyone knows much science. And that's ok. Maybe the disinterested can fuck off then, though I can think of a fair few specific examples where I'd rather they didn't (personally, for me: science funding, climate change). It's a difference between liking or disliking that big old complex thing called "science" and having an opinion about a specific scientific issue which I think is the important point here.

I agree the science brand seems to be doing pretty well right now, but let's not get carried away about the novelty or reach of this. Moreover, don't let a sense of glitzy uniformity of a big old thing called "science" obscure the detail in its guts, be this good, bad, useful, pointless, ugly or beautiful. Don’t fuck off if you don’t happen find one or other aspect of it interesting, and please don’t get arrogant or cliquey enough to tell others to do so either.

EDIT 19:45 20th April: just in case you worry I'm quoting Dawkins out of context, he is repeating a New Scientist editor with the "can fuck off" line. There's great context provided in this longer video of the event, which I can heartily recommend anyway (ta Scott)

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

On the repackaging of technological objects (or not)

new laptop case - zips

This is my new laptop case. The design features the "TG12345 Mk II recording desk" from London's famous Abbey Road studios. You can read a bit about that mixing desk, and buy your own laptop case (or notebook, t-shirt...) here.

It was a birthday present from my mother. It reminds us both of my father, a professional musician who spent a lot of his life working at those studios. Most people hear "Abbey Road" and think Beatles; I think "Ah, Dad's got sessions this week, he'll be wandering around the house distracted, loosing his glasses, making endless cups of tea, muttering about percussionists and swearing at his piano at 2am...". My brother did loads of work experience there as a teenager and, or at least so he says, met Paul McCartney. Apparently I spent a fair bit of time there as a baby too, quietly sleeping in the corner of the studio (I must have been an unusually quiet baby).

Personal connections aside, I think this laptop case is interesting object. It's a desirable consumer product, at least for those of a certain aesthetic. I'm very much looking forward to showing it off at the British Library. I think it's fascinating that what is, in many ways, a technical object designed for utilitarian purpose has been repackaged purely for its image. I think this is interesting. Also, it's a relatively "retro" piece of technology. These desks were used between 1975 and 1985, somewhat before the emergence of the laptop case as a consumer product. So it signals technology and geekiness, whilst at the same time reflecting a form of nostalgia. Technostalgia perhaps.

I've blogged elsewhere about some of these issues before, inspired by some children's t-shirts which recycled old cover art from Popular Mechanics. Now, I could bang on about the everyday anachronism of postmodern technological media consumption. Clothing remade from cassette tapes, or our delight in old internet sites, for example. I could also return to the personal connection and use it to make a point about the personal relationships we all have to technological objects. I don't name my laptop, phone, ipod, bicycle, etc, but I know a fair number of people who do. Or, there's that odd disconnection between the public cultural associations of Abbey road compared to my more individual domestic one: ripe for a bit of structuration theory. Or perhaps, in honor of Susan Leigh Star who died recently, I might reflect on the ways in which single objects may have multiple meanings for multiple peoples; this multiplicitous nature allowing them to be sites for both the making and unmaking of boundaries. Cultural theorists of technology do love an artefactual case study. And er, emphasising plurality and words like multiplicitous.

But I won't drone on about all that. It's my birthday and although I've worked a chunk of it already, right now I'm going to zip-up all my sociological citations firmly inside this laptop case and potter down to the pub for lunch (a pub with its own history of technology associations, but a pub nonetheless).

new laptop case - sliders

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The "booms" of 20th C popular science

Just before Easter, I co-ran a small conference entitled Science Communication in the 20th Century: The “Booms” of Popular Science Publishing. I almost don't need to blog about, as Scott Keir's already done such a thoughtful (and bloody funny) job over at Nature Network. You can also read a short piece by me posted last week, inspired by a slide used in one of the talks (of a 1958 girls chemistry set). Still, I thought it was worth typing up some notes, and I could provide a link to a googledoc of the abstracts for anyone who's interested.

In stumbling around for some sort of theme for an academic(ish) event on popular science, my co-organiser, Dr Hauke Riesch, and I (after much debate) settled first on the 20th century, then more specifically on that century's so-called "booms" of pop sci publishing. The initial idea was to to devote the morning to discussions of early 20th C popularisations of relativity, with an afternoon on more recent "Hawkin/ Dawkins" matters. However, our call for papers tended seemed to attract papers emphasising other trends or moments in popular science. Perhaps this says something about how important these apparently high profile booms really were, or maybe researchers are just bored by them by now.

I wanted to keep our definition of "popular science" reasonably loose, to include a range of media, but Hauke was adamant "popular science" means books. In the end we compromised with the word "publishing". As the papers presented at the conference demonstrated very neatly, however, you can publish all sorts of things, and publishing about one medium often gets tangled up in discussion of another. So maybe I got my way after-all (though the previous event did include discussion of songs, I missed the singing). We ended up with a fair bit of discussion of magazines, toys and, via a set of books, blackboards. So, the photo I'm illustrating this post with isn't a big pile of Dawkins and Hawkins. It isn't a dusty pile of early copies of New Scientist either, but a snipped from a 1980s computer magazine.

Einstein vs Zombies FTW

To move onto the day's content: I'll give some notes on Peter Bowler's plenary, and then say something about the event as a whole. I won't dwell on the papers themselves. You can read more in the abstracts, and google the speakers to see if they'll give you a copy of their paper (i.e. don't bug me for papers, I don't have them). We're looking into publishing a collection of the papers as a special edition of a journal, so the researchers might have a chance to develop their points elsewhere anyway.

Peter Bowler's talk was truly lovely. As Scott's blogpost puts it so nicely, Peter seemed to relish the word boom (which really is a fantastic word). More substantively, I think Peter really got to the heart of the issue. Much of his talk referred to inter-war science magazine publishing which he argued was not nearly as much as a boom area as it was sometimes made out as. Bowler started with the example of Conquest magazine, founded in 1919 under much rhetoric on the demand for public information about science. It was soon absorbed by Discovery though, a much more "top-down" publication, very much organised by the academy (edited by one CP Snow) and ran at a loss. 1929 saw the emergence of Armchair Science, once again under much rhetoric of a new boom in public interest, and once again of limited financial success. He showed us a great slide of its cover, with headlines including "Why eat bad cheese but not bad meat?" "What is noise?" and "Wonders of the night sky". From these studies, Bowler went on to talk more broadly about where the booms are imagined to stem from suggesting it was, in some respects, double-sided. There is a rhetoric of a public-led boom (i.e. fulfilling a desire from potential readership) and also a science-led one (i.e. suggesting the 'inspirational power' of a particular scientific idea, person or discovery drives the boom): a sort of conflation of both bottom-up and top-down models of science communication. Peter noted the 'modern synthesis' as a scientific moment which interestingly didn't provoke any sense of publishing boom, maybe because by then anything connected with evolution was seen as 'old hat', or maybe because (as a synthesis) it couldn't be easily tied to a single character like relativity and Einstein. He also reflected on three publishing areas which he thought could be seen as a popular science boom of the interwar period: serials of popular science books, such as Huxley/Well's The Science of Life which was serialised in thirty fortnightly parts; "boys books", highly illustrated pieces celebrating warfare, exploration and wonder largely marketed as prizes and Christmas presents; and self education guides such as the Home University Library, which would were general knowledge guides but often stressed scientific content in their PR.

What then was the key topic of the day? Well probably not booms, despite Bowler's beautiful set up of the topic, the word "booms" was occasionally referred to, but rarely explored in any depth by the papers which had other things to say (this isn't a failing in the papers, and maybe Bowler said it all). The rhetoric and cultural standing of mystery with respects to popular science was, for me, was the most dominant theme, though I'm sure other delegates would disagree.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

museum sponsorship, climate change and the Smithonian

This video comes via a Treehugger piece on the Smithsonian's new human origins gallery. That's the new David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, as in "coal empire billionaire" David Koch who sponsored the gallery. The complaint made by Treehugger, Joseph Romm (the guy in the video) and some others being, simply, that this gallery's depiction of human evolution is being used to peddle some rather unscientific ideas about climate change. Specifically, how much the climate has changed since the industrial revolution, and the ways humans have/might adapt to such change. To get an idea of their argument, just watch the video of Dr Romm at the exhibition.

Last week I blogged about Shell's sponsorship of a climate change gallery at the London Science Museum, so thought it was worth flagging up this controversy from over the pond too. I don't pretend to know nearly as much about the Smithsonian. Still, whether Treehugger et at are being fair or not, the controversy is interesting in itself. Googling from a desk in South London (e.g. see also write up in USA today, and the review and curator Q&A in the Washington post) it does look scarily as if the Smithsonian have managed to avoid having to even pay lip-service to Intelligent Design, only to have their story of evolution hijacked to relay a rather marginal approach to climate change science. It was also interesting to find this Washington Post story, from 2007, suggesting the Smithsonian had previously toned down an exhibition on climate change, fearing anger from Bush administration.

Whilst on the topic, I think it's also worth flagging up this report in Nature on the rise in philanthropically-funded climate change work. They refer to a range of activities, including supporting academic research. Whether you prefer your climate science and climate science communication funded by charities or by the tax payer (and so, we might hope, also accountable to the tax payers) is an important question, one that probably reflects your own personal politics. Like many members of the British science community, I'm thankful for the existence of the Wellcome Trust but I'm also very thankful that the Wellcome Trust happens to be quite so awesome (for "awesome" read "run largely by people who happen to agree with me").

The Nature news piece and Smithsonian controversy might seem very American concerns, but as the bulk of state-sponsored science communication in the UK goes into pre-election purdah, they are matters for us Brits to mull over too. As Christine Ottery has just blogged in terms of investigative science journalism "Heigh-ho: here's to the future, here's to new funding models". If we don't want people like Shell or Koch or the government bankrolling such work, who do we want to pay for it? Who will we trust, why, and how are we going to make this work?

Thanks to Scott Keir for the tip-off on this story.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Shell, Signs, Sponsorship and the Science Museum

This post is my attempt to say something about last week's "Science Museum goes climate sceptic, sponsored by SHELL!" fuss. I also hope to provide a bit of a catchup for those who didn't notice the story/ have forgotten it already. My argument is largely that the Science Museum isn't a scientific institution, it is a public one. We should expect it to take a broader view. I also think that if they are taking Shell's money, they should reflect Shell's views on climate change: as transparent as possible, warts and all. Don't let Shell hide behind the museum's claims to "editorial control". I want the gory details. Moreover, such views should placed next to similar statements from scientists and environmental campaigners. These views, and more, are all ones a national museum of science should be active in collecting and exhibiting.

But first, the catchup. Early last week, the Science Museum issued a press release announcing details of a new gallery about climate change, scheduled to open next November. Cue outrage. There was always going to be a fuss. People love to bitch about the Science Museum, it presses buttons of personal nostalgia, national prestige, controversies of public spending and anxieties about the future all at once. We also, increasingly, seem to love to bitch about climate change. What fulled much of last week's particular fuss focused on two points, and their possible interaction. Firstly, the museum signaled a desire to debate the controversy rather than preach at their visitors:
"Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not".
A point which many seemed to take as a nod to "deniers" of human-caused climate change. Secondly, Shell would be sponsoring the gallery. Although it is also worth noting that Siemens, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Defra are also chipping in, Shell is the primary sponsor, and the idea of an oil company bankrolling a national exhibition about climate change does boarder on the self-satirising (and that's without getting into Garfield Weston's links to Primark). Reuters, The Daily Mail and The Times all covered it, but Ben Goldacre sums it up with the simple comment: "Science Museum exhibition "neutral" on climate change: sponsored by Shell, not stylish".

It's worth noting a bit of history to these issues. BP sponsored the museum's Energy gallery, and Shell provided funds for the recent rebuilding of Launch Pad (details of FOI request relating to this). It's probably also worth noting that Nintendo are secondary sponsors for Launch Pad, a point some might find more controversial in a child-orientated gallery. Dig back even further, and there's the issue of the old BNFL sponsored nuclear gallery, with its ever-so-easy-to-miss bomb section (neat bit of '80s sociology of science on this). Sponsorship aside, it's also worth remembering the museum's somewhat bungled attempt at public engagement over climate change with their Prove It! exhibition (critique from Guardian art critic).

Yesterday the museum (finally) released some clarification, stressing their content will be evidence led and the museum retains editorial control despite sponsors, but that they worry that too-narrowly a conceived gallery will alienate audiences. The new gallery, they underline, will fulfill what they see as a:
"need for a public space where people who agree, who are unsure, and who disagree that humans are affecting the climate system are able to explore the science and make up their own minds"
Personally, I'd say "fair enough" on this point (see final paragraphs of this post). Goldacre's point still stands though: Shell sponsorship is "not stylish". Moreover, I'd argue that in the largely visual medium of a museum, the style issue is crucial. After-all, the Science Museum are well known for their obsession with design.

I was a gallery hand at the museum when the BP-branded Energy gallery opened. We were briefed to explain to visitors that the museum had maintained control throughout the exhibition design. As the gallery-hand briefing went, editorial control was part of the contract, the museum wouldn't have done it otherwise. Moreover, BP wouldn't have wanted to connect themselves with the museum if they were seen as easily bought. No one's brand would benefit from anything other than complete editorial control. For what it is worth, I believe this. However, I also saw the ways in which visitors would react when they found out about BP's involvement. You cannot deny the semiotics of the simple "sponsorship by" sign. Maybe the museum does maintain editorial control. But the visitor turning up on a rainy bank holiday doesn't know this. They shouldn't necessarily be expected to either. They see the logo, this quite reasonably sets off their bullshit detector, which in turn affects their experience of the gallery.

Energy Futures

Panel in Energy Gallery, Science Museum

I have two points where I feel I can defend the Science Museum on, although not without some critique of them and the situation they find themselves working within. Firstly, an aspect in the press release we really should be making more of: the gallery is going to cost £4m. Where do we expect this money to come from? Now, we could argue that's an unnecessary overspend. I might have some sympathy with that point of view (see note above on obsession with design), but even done reasonably cheaply, if it's going to look respectable, it's going to cost. Another useful snippet of information gleaned from Science Museum training: when national museums still charged admission in the 1990s, the government subsidised each £9 ticket by roughly a further £20. This point is worth remembering if museums start charging again: we're still subsidising them, heavily, but we'll probably subsidising a smaller and richer set of visitors. Museums are expensive.

Secondly, I do, quite seriously, agree that the museum should be highly attuned to the dangers of alienating people. Mike Hulme made a good point when he talked to our students last year: we should take "climate agnostics" seriously. We can fight over whether or not we like the religious metaphor another time, what I want to emphasise here is the existence of those people who, for whatever reason, aren't sure about climate change and find Greenpeace, Shell, the deniers and the climate scientists as potentially annoying and distrustful as each other. I also want to stress the need to take their views seriously. Throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you. As Chris Rapley told the Times:
The climate science community, by and large, has concluded that humans have intervened in the system in a way that will lead to climate change. But that is their story. It’s not our story, so that can’t be our conclusion. If we take sides we will alienate some of the people who want to be part of the discussion.
The Science Museum, unlike the Natural History Museum next-door, isn't a scientific institution. A fair number of ex-scientists work there, but they exist to talk about science rather than do it. This is as much a benefit as it is a failing of the place. It is the "science" museum; it should reflect what the scientific community say. However, it exists in and serves a broader community, it exists and serves to bring the messages of the scientific community into that broader community, it has to be careful about taking sides.

This reflects a very basic tenet of professionalised/ academic science communication (which many of the museum staff will be well versed in): patronise publics and they'll only ignore you all the more. It's more democratic to listen to outside voices, but it's also basic PR: at the very least pretend you respect the people you want to convince, otherwise why on earth would you think they'll listen? Conversation is where cultural change will happen. To this end, bring the more extreme ends of the debate. Sample those views, collect and curate them, even use them as a way into to showing off how much stronger the scientific case is. The Science Museum should provide a site for the charting of where and how we disagree on science; where these ideas have all come from and how we might (individually and collectively) move them on.

The Science Museum should maintain its editorial control, but include Shell's views on climate change too. If Shell are going to have involvement in this gallery, I want to see what they think about climate change, warts and all. Include statements from the other sponsors too, and more: I want to see samples of Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and Christopher Booker for that matter. Also, importantly, a load of less famous people/ groups in between. Please note, I don't expect Greenpeace et al to have to pay for their involvement. I should also note, this includes Greenpeace having the balls to join in as much as the Science Museum inviting them. Maybe such debate on climate change cannot be done without the symbols and ideas of one point of view pissing another off. Maybe, as George Monbiot wrote recently, we rarely change our mind, especially about climate science. Still, I am keen to see the Science Museum try. I just hope Shell, Defra and Garfield Weston aren't the only controversial logos present on the gallery floor.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Pink Chemistry Sets

In case anyone thinks the pink construction set (with sparkles) is a new thing: a chemistry set for girls, 1958 (USA). Or rather, a kit for a wannabe "Lab Technician", because the girl would be just supporting the actual chemist, naturally. Apparently it included a pink microscope. Mother and daughter look terribly happy though, don't they?

1968 Chemistry set

Apologies for bad quality photograph, it's of a powerpoint slide. From an event on 20th century popular science I ran yesterday (full blogpost on this forthcoming). The paper was given by Maggie Jack, a History and Philosophy of Science MPhil student at the University of Cambridge, based on the dissertation she wrote as an undergrad at Harvard.

Early/ mid 20th century chemistry sets were marketed quite explicitly for boys and their fathers, as if chemical experimentation was an opportunity for male bonding and general expression of red-blooded manhood. Fear not the explosions, take power over nature, etc, etc. Insert your favourite feminist philosopher of science here. It really wasn't anything subtle: the box covers and advertising for chemistry sets seemed to want to signal BOY, and do so as unequivocally as possible. This isn't just an American trend, Salim Al-Gailani (another HPS Cambridge student) gave a similar paper about UK chemistry sets at the 2007 British Society for the History of Science. It'd be interesting to know if the same was true in non-English speaking countries too.

I'm sure 1950s girls played with the non-pink chemistry sets, however they happened to be presented. Just as girls read Harry Potter, even if his name is bigger than J(oanne)K Rowling. It probably goes without saying that when it comes down to their actual use, gender messages of kids media aren't nearly as simple. In fact, one of the key points Jack wanted to make about Chemistry sets was the way they provided materials for exploratory work; that they allowed play through unintended consequences of science (indeed, they celebrated this), rather than necessarily being a matter of leading kids through a set of pre-ordained educational outcomes. I'm a bit too cynical to necessarily agree with her entirely on this, but it was a worthwhile point. Plus, my expertise on the topic is rather skewed to late 20th/ early 21st century kits: maybe such toys were a lot more exploratory in the past (even if gender identities were not?).

Finally, before we dismiss the pink microscope/ lab technician kit as a funny old 1950s thing, here's an fword post about chemistry kits, written just last year, which brings out some of the gender issues involved in our recent fashion for retro kids' non-fiction (*cough* Dangerous Book for Boys *cough*).

EDIT (15:10): from tip-off via twitter, a pink telescope with a lower power than the boy's model (worth scrolling through the comments on that post).
EDIT (15:25, 2nd April): from various comments I'm getting about this, I just want to underline that I can see how a pink microscope might be seen as something quite empowering, a positive expression of feminine science (now as much as in 1958). Personally, I'm not convinced by this argument, but I don't think we should simply say pink stinks and that's the end of the debate. Gender issues are always complex, in toys and in science perhaps no less so.