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PhD Conference Review. September - January.

28 February 2014

By Oliver Marsh.

BSA STS Conference – ‘Working together? STS, collaboration and (multi)disciplinarity’

(University  of Sheffield, 2nd December)

The challenging title for this conference provoked a bit of a curate’s egg of an event.  Talks ranged from those theorizing multi/interdisciplinarity, to those describing broad changes in disciplinary landscapes, to practical tactics for approaching multi/interdisciplinarity, to specific examples of disciplinary meetings and collaborations.  Despite this diversity, there were two overarching themes.  Firstly, a complicated role for STS in multi/interdisciplinary work.  As suggested in the opening session by Robin Williams (Edinburgh), “STS is a mongrel discipline.  Diversity is the strength of our work”, and this idea that STS has a great deal of latent potential in multi/interdisciplinary academic situations came up repeatedly over the conference (though without ever achieving much real clarity).  Particularly interesting were the responses of speakers from outside STS who argued that STS work provided useful concepts for discussions within their disciplines and vice-versa, for example ‘studies of expertise’ in legal studies or management work on collaboration for studying laboratories.  But there were also discussions of collaboration within STS, such as the role of history of science in studies of contemporary science, and arguments over attitudes towards collaborations between STS and natural sciences.  

The second recurring theme was the role of personal experience.  Multiple speakers referred to how their personal disciplinary history informed their particular approaches; many of the case studies illustrated the importance of long-term personal involvement in multi/interdisciplinary projects for drawing out subtle and unexpected problems; and the opening and closing sessions were full of examples drawn from lifetime experiences of collaborative committee work (most notably from Susan Molyneux-Hodgson and Fred Steward).  Taken independently, many of these discussions were informative.  However they added up to a somewhat confusing whole, as multiple personal experiences and speculative approaches piled on top of each other.  Overall the event reinforced the point that multi/interdisciplinary projects can and are producing a great deal of exciting work; but when questions took a more general and incisive approach to the concept of multi/interdisciplinarity, the result was often unsatisfying.  
In attendance were Raquel Velho, presenting a paper entitled ‘Turning “multi” into “inter”: collaborations between STS and engineering in transport accessibility’ on the results of her MSc research (a collaborative project with UCL engineering); and Oliver Marsh, presenting a paper on ‘Optimal Screen Resolution: The Internet and Interdisciplinary Scaling’, a literature review of social science approaches to the internet.

Staging Science Colloquium

(University of Westminster, 6th-7th December)

This was an event of two very distinct parts.  The first was an evening roundtable featuring Jim Al-Khalili (Physicist, Science Communicator and Broadcaster), Tim Boon (Head of Research, Science Museum), Imran Khan (Chief Executive, British Science Association), Katrina Nilsson (Head of Contemporary Science, Science Museum), and Jonathan Renouf (Executive Producer, BBC Science Unit).  This collection produced some interesting, and informatively anecdotal, discussions about the challenges thrown up by different media in science communication.  The combination of museum curators and broadcasting specialists on the same panel provided some useful comparisons and insights on this familiar question, in particular how to produce an emotional engagement with an audience in these different settings.  All participants also agreed that the past few years have seen a rise in a clear demographic who attend science museums and watch science programmes, and that the history of science is a useful tool for their trades (usually to provide engaging characters for narratives).  However on the question of future developments the panel was somewhat underwhelming.  In particular, the TV specialists seemed to be resting on recent laurels, intending to increase the size of their demographic rather than open room for diverse voices, perhaps some more critical of modern science, into their work. 

The second part was a more traditional one-day conference.  Talks were overwhelmingly based in history of science (the one exception being the theatre scholar Kirsten Shepherd-Barr on science in devised theatre), and ‘staging’ was taken to mean anything from performing to locating.  Though there were interesting points of information – on how John Henry Pepper’s 19th-Century projection displays relied on careful co-design of both room and equipment, for instance (Jeremy Brooker) – the nebulous buzzword ‘staging’ meant that the talks co-existed awkwardly, and some attempts at historiographically tying subject matter to the event theme seemed slightly contrived.  This became a problem towards the end of the event when Bernard Lightman (York, Canada), Martin Willis (Westminster), and a panel of all the speakers attempted the difficult task of unifying the talks.  The acceptance that both the terms ‘staging’ and ‘science’ are diverse, evolutionary, and hard to pin down meant that conclusions didn’t extend far beyond suggestions that science and performance feed into one another in a multitude of multidirectional relationships.  However the event was rounded off with an excellent bonus – the first re-creation since the 19th century of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, in the space of its very first performance.  The atmosphere and attention to detail (down to the period costumes of the ushers), the well-executed re-creation itself, and the fascinating post-show wander round the set and discussion with the participants were greatly appreciated.

Silences of Science Network conference - ‘Silences in the History and Communication of Science’

(Imperial College, 17th December)

What sounded an intriguing but niche idea turned out to be a really excellent event.  The opening talks by Felicity Mellor (the convenor of the ‘Silences of Science’ network) and Brian Rappert made broad points about the concept of ‘silence’ in the social sciences, noting that to remain silent is a communicative act in its own right, with meaning closely dependent on its surrounding context.  These talks made little connection between ‘silences’ and ‘science’, and many of the examples and metaphors were a little hard to ground; however, this was quickly dispelled by the case-studies of the rest of the day.  It was clear that the speakers were re-interpreting their existing work through the lens of ‘silence’, but it also became clear that this can be a very interesting lens.  Work included the effects of unspoken tensions during scholarly collaborations (Nick Verouden, Delft University of Technology), non-answers and pauses in oral histories (Paul Merchant, British Library National Life Stories), the disappearance of funding details in press releases and reportage (Emma Weitkamp, University of the West of England), and many more besides.  By leaving the concept of ‘silence’ open-ended, the conference coherently included a great range of disciplines and approaches.  Crucially, the day ended with no round-up of all the papers into a grand unification of ‘silence’ with ‘science’; there were no attempts to solidify the concept of ‘silence’, or claim it as the new or vital concept to contemporary STS.  As such, and fittingly, the overall lessons of the day were left unspoken, and the diversity of the papers spoke for themselves – we had all taken onboard the important reminder that thinking about what is missing, as well as what is apparent, is important in a great many projects within STS.  Many of the talks were recorded and are available online, there are potential plans to release a collected manuscript based on the papers of the day, and a further conference on ‘The Role of Silence in Scientific Practice’ will be occurring in Spring.  All are highly recommended.  Present was Oliver Marsh, presenting a paper entitled ‘Lurking Nine to Five: “non-participants” in online science communication’.

British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference

(University of Leeds, 8th-10th January)

With no overarching theme, and with 66 papers from across history, philosophy, and sociology of science (the BSHS had kindly allowed interlopers to this event), this was always going to be a broad mix.  The 19 session topics ranged from ‘Biology’ and ‘Agriculture’, through ‘Historiography and the Scientist’ and ‘Appropriating and Applying Knowledge’, to ‘Philosophy of Science’ (I and II) and ‘Medieval and Early-Modern Science’.  Thanks to the extremely large UCL-affiliated contingent (see below) we were able to collectively attend a great many of them.  Generally the sessions which offered case-studies on a clear and concrete topic were more successful.  Particularly popular was the session on Natural History, with an excellent paper on drawing walruses (Natalie Lawrence), and a fascinating paper on Sanskrit mathematics in the Medieval and Early-Modern Science session (Alessandra Petrocchi).  Those sessions with broader historiographical titles still tended towards very specific papers, which meant the sessions as a whole fell a little short of their promise – though there were still some excellent papers, such as Stuart Butler’s paper on ‘The ‘White Heat’ of Tory Science’ in the Science, Technology, and the State session.  The standard of presentation varied greatly, though the pre-conference rehearsal session of the UCL group clearly paid off in all-round strong deliveries.  The conference offered a great deal aside from the papers themselves: frequent and lengthy breaks between sessions, and a rather alcoholic conference dinner, fuelled some highly enjoyable networking, plus there were lunchtime talks offering advice on jobseeking, public engagement, and publication.  In sum, an enjoyably exhausting event.

UCL affiliates present were:
Hugh Mackenzie, presenting on ‘Platonic Numbers as Naturally Enabling an Optimal Encounter of Mind with Matter’
Toby Friend, presenting on ‘Is ‘Oxygen’ Referentially Stable?’
Elizabeth Dobson Jones, presenting on ‘The Tasmanian Tiger and the Development of Ancient DNA Research’
Oliver Marsh, presenting on ‘Life Cycle of a Star: Media Myths of Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman’
Sara Peres, presenting on ‘The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Embodying Conservation as a Global Concern and Enacting the ‘International Seed Treaty’ in the Arctic Permafrost’
Erman Sozodogru, presenting on ‘Pluralism in Life Sciences: Building the RNA World’
Yin Chung Au, presenting on ‘The interplay between biomedical research and drawings: apoptosis 1970s–2005’
Jim Grozier, presenting on ‘Falsificationism, Science and Uncertainty’
Agnes Arnold-Foster, presenting on ‘Managing Ignorance: Breast Cancer and its Cures in Britain in the Nineteenth Century’
Nicholas Binney, presenting on ‘Macrohistory for Medicine’s Sake’
Alison Boyle, presenting on ‘The Material and the Microworld: Museum Interpretations of Modern Physics’
Natasha Cutts, presenting on ‘With What Kind of Body Shall They Come?: The Resurrection Body in Early Christianity’
Alice Haigh, presenting on ‘Mind, Body and Business. Elevating the Masses by Means of the Bethnal Green Museum’
Ruth Wainman, presenting on ‘Learning to Become a Scientist: The Shaping of the Scientist in Family Life and Education in Wartime and Early Post-War Britain’
And Mat Paskins, Huiping Chu, Jessica Price, Animesh Chatterjee,

Page last modified on 27 feb 14 12:02 by Jo E Pearson

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