Scientific discovery under Nazi Rule – The curious case of Walther Kossel and Gottfried Möllenstedt

Physicist Dr Alex Hubert, a Kent graduate, writes a personal account of the troubling history that lies behind his field of expertise.

An image of convergent beam electron diffraction.

CBED image from original paper.

A weary PhD student approaching the end of writing my thesis, I needed to look up the original paper [1] of the convergent beam electron diffraction (or CBED)  technique [2]. Before I had the chance to read the usually mundane details within any such scientific publication, something immediately caught my eye. The number of citations. Only 136. I quickly looked up a recent review paper [3] (published in 1991) listing all of the citations where CBED had been used. Over 950. The number of citations for the original paper seemed very low for such an extensively used technique.

I looked at the authors, year and location. Two German sounding names, published in a German journal in 1939, from Danzig (now Gdansk) Poland. Alarm bells start to ring inside my head. Looking for any sort of distraction from my thesis, I decide to do some digging. I stumble across the German Wikipedia page [4] for Walther Kossel. A translated sentence stands out, “In November 1933 [Walther Kossel] signed the professors’ confession at the German universities and colleges to Adolf Hitler[5,6]

The alarm bells were now deafening. As a young physicist I couldn’t help but wonder: was the technique my research is based on invented by Nazis? This question needed answering, I was now gripped by the engrossing hand of history. My thesis writing had to wait for a detour into the lives of Walther Kossel and Gottfried Möllenstedt.

A picture of the German physicist, Walther Kossel.

Walther Kossel

Kossel was born in 1888 as the son of Albrecht Kossel [7] (a physician who won the Nobel prize in 1910 [8]) and Louise Holtzmann (daughter of Indologist Adolf Holtzmann [9]) in Berlin. Given his academic roots it was perhaps not surprising to learn he obtained his PhD in physics from the University of Heidelberg in 1911. It is here where we discover the first hint of Nazi influence – which may have lead to his signature on the Professors confession to Hitler. His thesis advisor Philipp Lenard [10], while a Nobel prize winning physicist, was famously known for his anti-Semitic views. Though, they seemed to have publicly surfaced [11] after Kossel left Heidelberg. Whether Kossel was influenced by Lenard is unknown. One is simply left to wonder if their conversations ever strayed from their work.

Kossel assisted many of Germany’s top physicists in the 1910’s and 20’s, including a close working relationship with Arnold Sommerfeld [12]. He made many contributions to atomic physics [13] during this period, before he took up a professorship at the University of Danzig in 1932.

He did so during extremely turbulent times in the free city. While Nazi occupation of Poland did not occur until 1939, Nazi influence in Poland was prevalent well before that year and especially in Danzig. Hitler saw the annexation of Danzig from Germany in 1920 as only temporary. He continually called for Danzig to be reunited with Germany [14] throughout the 1930’s. By 1936 Nazi party members held the majority in the city’s Senate [15,16]. This influence spread to the university too. Slowly but surely, academics of Jewish origin (or those known for their anti-Nazi views) were either dismissed or forced to retire. This included Albert Carsten [17], the architect behind the very first buildings of the university [18,19]. By 1936, only 38 full professors were left in the entire establishment – which included Kossel.

German-Polish tensions began to rise. A National Socialist society (Nazi society) was formed to replace all other societies (of which all students were obliged to join). The physicist Bormann [20], at this point an assistant to Kossel, was dismissed from the university for his refusal to join. Incidents between the two populations were increasing in severity. It seems a demonstration by one side would be met with a more severe response by the other. These escalations reached their peak in February 1939 where, according to the History of Gdansk university page [21], Nazi fighting squads forced Polish students out of the university. Most never returned. Very few academics seem to have spoken out during the slow takeover of the university by Nazi ideology. The ones who did, like Professors Sommer [22,23] and Krischen [24,25] were subsequently expelled.

A picture of the Germna physicist, Gottfried Möllenstedt.

Gottfried Möllenstedt

It was under this backdrop of increasingly Nazi rule, where a young Möllenstedt was asked by Kossel to build a microscope able to produce the first CBED patterns for his PhD (he describes how he did so in a special article published in 1989 [26]). The paper showcasing the first CBED patterns was published in Annalen der Physik in July 1939, a mere 2 months before the occupation of Poland by Hitler (Danzig was one of the first locations to be attacked [27]) and the start of WWII.

With the city of Danzig now under Nazi rule, it wasn’t long until the university fully reflected Nazi policies (e.g. For entrance into the university students had to provide certificates of Aryan origin). By 1941 it seems there were no Polish students remaining at the university.

The work of Kossel and Möllenstedt continued irrespective of the war, based on the continued published works on CBED (e.g. [28]). It does not seem either contributed to the German war effort. Kossel appears to have been offered positions in Berlin and Strasburg, but he turned both down. From the limited evidence available it looks as if they were trying to stay out of the war. The war however, was about to come to them.

At the beginning of 1945 the Soviet troops were closing in on Danzig. Due to delays by Nazi officials in organising evacuation, the red army cut off escape to Germany by land. The only possible way out for the remaining citizens, including Möllenstedt and Kossel, was by sea. Fear was rife among the remaining German citizens due to stories of rape and pillaging by Soviet soldiers on other towns and cities. Danzig university was at this point more a hospital than a place of study. Courses were cancelled, research halted. The most important  equipment, books and papers were loaded on to the escape ship SS Deutschland [29]. Staff and their families either went with the equipment on the SS Deutschland or via the Wilhelm Gustloff [30]. Both ships were heading to Kiel in Germany. Sadly, those who went via the Gustloff became part of the worst maritime disaster in history [31].

Built only to accommodate 1900 people, upwards of 10,000 people desperately packed onto the ship. The temperature outside was viscously cold, minus 18 degrees, so cold the life boats had frozen to the deck. Two of the ships accompanying the Gustloff had technical troubles and returned to Danzig, leaving only one torpedo boat. When a Soviet submarine encountered the Gustloff on the eve of January 30th, it was a sitting duck. Over 9000 people died.

A picture of the ship SS Deutschland and two tugboats with smoke and steam emerging from their funnels.

SS Deutschland

Fortunately for Kossel and Möllenstedt, they decided to take the SS Deustchland. It was Möllenstedt who seemed to shoulder the responsibility over his and Kossel’s families, leaving most of their possessions behind. They became part of the east-Prussia evacuation [32] (or operation Hannibal) where over a period of 15 weeks, approximately 1.2 million German citizens and soldiers were evacuated to Germany or German occupied Denmark. Three times as many as Dunkirk. The SS Deutschland alone ferried over 70,000 people before it was bombed and sunken.

After their escape from Danzig into Germany, the two physicists eventually continued their research. Kossel remained in Germany for the rest of his life. Möllenstedt stayed in Germany for a while before moving to Japan.

It seems the story of CBED, of science under Nazi rule, of Kossel and Möllenstedt, is at best a lesson of inaction. It is near impossible to paint a picture where either of them would be unaware of the chaos ensuing around them. Of the near constant demonstrations against Jewish and Polish citizens during the 1930’s [33]. Of the removal of thousands of Jewish people from the community to the concentration camp in Stutloff, a mere 22 miles away (and subsequently the last to be liberated by the Allies). The once full university common room, lying empty. Even if somehow these events were to pass both’s attention the loss of their research assistant Bormann dare not.

I have only found hints of either Kossel or Möllenstedt’s political alignments. Which has left me full of questions that will most likely never be answered. Did Kossel sign the declaration to Hitler out of fear of losing his job, or for Nazi sympathies? What would have happened if Kossel and Möllenstedt spoke out? Would CBED have been invented by someone else? Did they ever share their ideologies with each other?

Kossel remained hidden from view. I have scarcely found anything relating to his character. This has not been the same for Möllenstedt. From my time reading about his life, he seemed like a likeable, compassionate and larger than life individual [34]. His labs seemed like an exciting place to be as a young scientist.

Therefore, it is one of the last hints Möllenstedt gave to the world which made me the most disappointed about his story. In the article he published in 1989: “My early work on convergent‐beam electron diffraction” [26], he mentions the war only once. He writes: “A detailed examination of the dynamical theory at high voltages, however, had to be postponed for later years or even decades because the events of the second world war set an end to the projects at Danzig”. Intended or not, this sentence gave me the impression he saw the war as getting in the way of his work. No mention of lost colleagues, of the chaos that gripped the city. Yet he did have space to mention his athletic career. At best it looks as if cognitive dissonance had taken a firm hold on Möllenstedt’s mind. Not only did he not have the bravery to speak out then, he didn’t 50 years later.

Alex Hubert


About the author:

I graduated from the University of Kent with an MPhys in 2014. I then decided to take on the challenge of a physics PhD at Warwick, which I successfully completed in September 2019. Currently, I am writing a series articles on mental health and wellbeing within the academic community and in general.

W: E:


[1] Kossel, W. and Möllenstedt, G., 1939. Elektroneninterferenzen im konvergenten Bündel. Annalen der Physik, 428(2), pp.113-140.

[2] Elsevier, 2019. Convergent Beam Electron Diffraction. Elsevier, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[3] Sung, C. and Williams, D.B., 1991. Principles and applications of convergent beam electron diffraction: A bibliography (1938‐1990). Journal of electron microscopy technique, 17(1), pp.95-118.

[4] Wikipedia, 2019. Walther Kossel (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[5]    Wikipedia, 2019. Confession of German professors to Adolf Hitler (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[6] Internet Archive, 2009. Commitment of professors at the universities and colleges to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist state (translated). Internet Archive, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[7] Wikipedia, 2019. Albrecht Kossel (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[8] Nobel Media, 2019. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1910. Nobel Media, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[9] Wikipedia, 2019. Adolf Holtzmann (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[10] Wikipedia, 2019. Philipp Lenard (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[11], 2019. Philipp Lenard., viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[12] Wikipedia, 2019. Arnold Sommerfeld. Wikipedia, viewed 31 Oct 2019, <>

[13], 2019. Walther Kossel., viewed 31 Oct 2019, <>

[14] Michael Fry, 2014. #tbt: Danzig and the Beginnings of World War II. National Geographic, viewed 31 Oct. 2019, <>

[15] Wikipedia, 2019. Free City of Danzig. Wikipedia, viewed 31 October 2019, <>

[16] Levine, H.S., 1973. Hitler’s free city: a history of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-39. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

[17] Wikipedia, 2019. Albert Carsten (translated). Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[18] Waldemar A., 1998. The Silent Message of Architectural Decoration. Albert Carsten and the early 20th century buildings of the Gdansk university of technology, Poland.  6th Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[19] Faculty of architecture, 2017. History of the Faculty. Gdansk university of technology, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[20] Wikipedia, 2018. Gerhard Borrmann. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[21] Januszajtis, A. 2012. The history of the Technical University of Gdańsk up to 1945. Gdansk university of technology, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[22] Wikipedia, 2019. Julius Sommer. Wikipedia, viewed 16 November, <>

[23] Gdansk University of Technology, 2017. Professor Julius Sommer (mathematics). Gdansk University of Technology, viewed 16 November 2019, <>

[24] Wikipedia, 2019. Fritz Krischen. Wikipedia, viewed 16 November, <>

[25] Gdansk University of Technology, 2017. Professor Fritz Krischen (history of construction and art history). Gdansk University of Technology, viewed 16 November 2019, <>

[26] Möllenstedt, G., 1989. My early work on convergent‐beam electron diffraction. physica status solidi (a), 116(1), pp.13-22.

[27] Wikipedia, 2019. Battle of Westerplatte. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[28] Kossel, W., Ackermann, I. and Möllenstedt, G., 1943. Symmetrically excited electron interferences. Journal of Physics, 120 (7-10), pp.553-560.

[29] Wikipedia, 2019. SS Deutschland. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[30] Wikipedia, 2019. MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[31] Begley, S., 2016. The forgotten maritime tragedy that was 6 times deadlier than the Titanic. Time magazine, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[32] Wikipedia, 2019. Evacuation of east Prussia. Wikipedia, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[33] Shindler, C., 2019. Danzig: The city where hell began and ended. The JC, viewed 5 November 2019, <>

[34] Tonomura, A., 1998. Prof Dr Gottfried MÖLLENSTEDT (1913–1997). Microscopy, 47(5), pp.363-364.

How I came to study Science Communication and do research on Extinction Rebellion

Student Anna Fry introduces her MA Science Communication dissertation on Extinction Rebellion

Having struggled through the first year of a Biology degree I was hit with the realisation that, while I had a love of science, the lengthy lab sessions were simply not my thing. Fast forward a few years and one History degree, I found myself looking at MA courses, not really sure of the direction I wanted to take but aware I wasn’t quite ready to stop being a student just yet. I was discussing my dilemma with a friend over a drink in Spoons, scrolling through the courses available at Kent, when – eureka! – I was hit by the headline ‘Do you love science but know that a career at the lab bench is not for you?’ It was with a ‘yes’ to this question that my career as a Science Communication student began. Now, just over a year later, I have completed my course and submitted my final piece – a dissertation looking at the communication methods of the infamous group Extinction Rebellion (XR).

I knew I wanted the focus of my dissertation to be on environmental issues as it is incredibly important to educate the entire population on the current state of our earth’s climate and the steps that each and every person can, and should, be taking in order to head toward a not-so-bleak future. What drew me to XR I cannot be too sure, but I believe it had a lot to do with their ability to constantly put themselves in the news, get shared on my Facebook newsfeed, and create controversial disruptions in the city. Needless to say, once I had settled on XR as my case study their presence began to increase in my life. This did not only occur through my own research inquiries, but I also began to notice their recognisable symbol on posters and flyers dotted around the city and in people’s windows.

XR turned out to be a wonderful case study providing a wealth of online resources both produced by the movement’s members and by others discussing their tactics. Because XR is a relatively new group, having only started towards the end of 2018, there is little written on their approach by academics, and even less examining the particular science-communication question of whether their methods can be considered a success. Nevertheless, their main approach, civil disobedience, has been used by many in the past and as already noted there are plenty of people willing to share their opinions on the group, both good and bad. All in all, while it is too early to state whether XR can be considered a ‘success’, it is undeniable that they have a remarkable talent of being heard, what matters next is how much we choose to listen. Please follow the link to the dissertation to find out more.

A Case Study on Extinction Rebellion’s Methods of Climate Change Communication (pdf)

Decolonizing the teaching of HSTM

The need to decolonize history of science, technology and medicine has become ever more obvious and pressing over the past generation.  When I was studying in the 1990s, there was a strong wave of scholarship critiquing the hegemony (colonial, racial, masculinist) inherent in the making of much science.  Londa Schiebinger and early Donna Haraway come to mind.  Important and corrective though these were at the time, one cannot help but feel that they nonetheless emerged from within the hegemony.  Since then, postcolonial studies has developed as something more vibrant and complex, distinctively different from those earlier critiques.  It has developed notably in the fields of literature and critical theory (we have for example, an active postcolonial centre here at the University of Kent.  Where is it, then, in HSTM?

As editor of the British Journal for the History of Science I made up my mind to devote space to essays on the topic of decolonization from various perspectives (museums, archives, research, public history, teaching) – watch for these in the coming months.

But I realised I had left it rather late when I received, within a single week, not one but two emails from schools (one teacher and one sixth-former) asking whether I could please recommend sources on Islamic science.  The appetite to consider science as a transnational, transcultural phenomenon has arguably outstripped the research that HSTM academics are producing, or, at least, that we are making public.

I put a call out on Twitter for syllabi that approach HSTM from decolonized/global perspectives, and received a lot of well-meaning likes and retweets; but no-one within the circles that the tweet reached had had the confidence to create such a syllabus.  The exception was Dr Debjani Bhattacharyya at Drexel University; someone also pointed me to syllabi and ideas here:

Lowering the bar, I asked for recommended texts.  This is what I got – I have turned them into formal citations and alphabetized them, but have not selected edited or systematized them in any way.

  • Bala, Arun. The dialogue of civilizations in the birth of modern science. Springer, 2006.
  • BJHS Special Issue: Transnational History of Science Volume 45 – Issue 3 – September 2012
  • BJHS Themes issue on India and China (2016) – open access
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference-New Edition. Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Chatterjee, Animesh. “‘New wine in new bottles’: class politics and the ‘uneven electrification’of colonial India.” History of Retailing and Consumption1 (2018): 94-108.
  • Dawson, Gowan and Lightman, Bernie, eds., Victorian Science and Literature, Volume 6: Science, race and imperialism. Pickering & Chatto, 2012
  • Geniusz, Wendy Djinn, and Wendy Makoons Geniusz. Our knowledge is not primitive: Decolonizing botanical Anishinaabe teachings. Syracuse University Press, 2009.
  • Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Mitchell, Timothy, ed. Questions of modernity. U of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Mukharji, Projit Bihari. “Vishalyakarani as Eupatorium ayapana: Retro-botanizing, Embedded Traditions, and Multiple Historicities of Plants in Colonial Bengal, 1890–1940.” The Journal of Asian Studies1 (2014): 65-87.
  • Mukharji, Projit Bihari. Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Rubenstein, Michael, and Robert John Russell. Public Works. University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.
  • Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books, 2013. (esp. Ch. 8);
  • TallBear, Kim. Native American DNA: Tribal belonging and the false promise of genetic science. (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Other publications at
  • Wickramasinghe, Nira. Metallic modern: everyday machines in colonial Sri Lanka. Berghahn Books, 2014. …. It is very similar to David Arnold’s “Everyday Technology”, but provides a whole new perspective on #histstm in Sri Lanka

Tom Ritchie discusses Shapin, Meccano, and the Hartree Differential Analyser

You have to use what you’ve got; if you don’t have the stuff, you can’t do the thing.


Inspired by this quip from Ben Russell (Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum, Kensington), my latest Ph.D. chapter considers the ways in which the stories of the Hartree Differential Analyser have been changed in the Science Museum since it was collected in 1949. This chapter aims to provide an alternative way of understanding how objects change in museums by placing a larger emphasis on the voice of the object than on other internal and external factors (museum politics and cultural change, respectively). Borrowing from material culture literature, which tells us to approach objects as things that can ‘speak’ to an audience, the chapter approaches the Hartree Differential Analyser as a ‘material polyglot’ object – something that speaks a number of different languages to simultaneous audiences – focusing on the physical and instrumental languages of the analyser as indicators of change. The physical language of the Hartree Differential Analyser relates to its physical Meccano form and its changing composition from a three-integrator machine to a single-integrator model after the Second World War. By contrast, the instrumental language of the analyser is more closely linked to its function — initially as a mechanical solution to the process of computation and later to its roles as a representation of differential analysis of Meccano models and analogue computers. The purpose of these assorted micro-histories of the languages of the object has been to highlight the Hartree Differential Analyser as an example both of Ben’s original quip and of the idea that, with these types of (very) close readings, objects reveal new stories and languages.

In the first two sections of my chapter, I tell the story of the Hartree Differential Analyser from its initial collection by the Science Museum in 1949 through to the establishment of the Mathematics and Computing gallery in 1974. By parsing the correspondence and documentation of the object, I demonstrate how the languages of the object were negotiated and changed by museum staff to make the analyser tell the stories that the staff needed at different points in time. The process of the museum changing the languages that the object speaks – even when the languages the museum chooses are incongruent to the actual object itself – can be best understood as a form of ventriloquism. In the same way that a ventriloquist puts a voice in the mouth of his dummy, this chapter demonstrates how the museum has put a number of voices in the mouth of the Hartree Differential Analyser.

In the process of writing this chapter, I read a number of sources on material culture, museums, artefacts, and objects; however, from all of these books and journals, one article in particular stuck out to me: ‘Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology’, written by Steven Shapin. Concerned primarily with how knowledge is constructed – rather than how an object changes – Shapin’s article discusses how Boyle and other members of the Royal Society utilised three different technologies – material, literary and social – to constitute matters of fact with regards to the science of the Air Pump. Shapin’s approach to telling the story of the Air Pump is similar to the story of the Hartree Differential Analyser I have tried to tell, by breaking the object into different constituent parts and telling the story of each. Borrowing from ‘Pump and Circumstance’, the rest of this blog post will approach the Hartree Differential Analyser in the same way as Shapin does the Air Pump (as a material, literary and, social technology). However, in contrast to Shapin’s article, which separates the three technologies and places an emphasis on the literary technology of the Air Pump, approaching the Hartree Differential Analyser in the same way will highlight how all three of these technologies are intrinsically linked to each other due to the medium of Meccano used to make the machine.

Shapin begins by discussing the material technology of the Air Pump, highlighting how unlike observations of nature, Boyle’s matters of fact were machine-made. His notion of material technology is similar to my chapter’s discussion of the physical languages of the Hartree Differential Analyser, with both approaches highlighting the importance an object’s form has in our understanding of it. Similar to the Air Pump, the Hartree Differential Analyser was an ‘elaborate’ device that was temperamental (difficult to operate). However, unlike the Air Pump, the Hartree Differential Analyser was inexpensive; where the former is considered Big Science, the construction of the analyser from Meccano meant that it cost less than £20 in 1934 to construct the entire machine, compared to over £12,000 for other analysers. Nevertheless, the Hartree Differential Analyser – as a material technology – has permeated and remained a part of the public consciousness because of the cheapness and apparent simplicity of its Meccano pieces, and the contrast these pieces provide to the complex mathematics that the analyser is understood to calculate.

In his article, Shapin also discusses Boyle’s letters, which were published to proselytise the scientific public about the experimental methods of the Air Pump – a type of literary technology. The purpose of these letters was to translate the material technology of his experiments to interest his public: ‘to teach a young gentleman to ‘addict’ themselves to experimental pursuits and, thereby, to multiply both experimental philosophers and experimental facts.’ The Meccano Magazine was a contemporary literary technology equivalent to these letters: a monthly publication that contained ideas for models, competitions, marketing and advertisements, and – similar to Boyle’s letters – stories of exceptional Meccano usage, designed to hook young minds. The Hartree Differential Analyser featured in the June 1934 edition of the magazine in an article titled ‘A Wonderful Meccano Mechanism’. Similar to Boyle’s letters, the magazine served the literary-technological function of relating the experiment to those not present. The article discusses the differential analyser at length, relating descriptions of how the machine worked, what it did, and the results it produced for different types of differential equations. However, in contrast to Boyle’s letters, which relied on these types of descriptions of the Air Pump to relate it to the public at the time, the literary technology of the Meccano magazine had another layer of literary technology, relating to the community that existed in 1934 when the article about the Differential Analyser was published: those who were devoted to Meccano, the self-confessed ‘Meccano boys’. For this community, due to its pre-established trust in the Meccano pieces that were used to build the analyser, the validity of the machine was already implicit. This community perspective is also built in part upon the social technology that Shapin refers to: the conventions natural philosophers employed in dealing with one another and in considering knowledge claims.

The social technology of Boyle’s Air Pump was designed to be an objectifying resource that made the production of knowledge visible. Boyle did this by presenting the Air Pump as part of a collective enterprise with the Royal Society: in effect, ‘it is not I who says this; it is all of us.’ In a similar way, Meccano also represented a collective enterprise of like-minded parents and youngsters, who believed in what Meccano represented: a toy that could teach boys to be engineers. Built up over the previous thirty-three years since the creation of Meccano by Frank Hornby, advertisements and the Meccano Magazine framed Meccano as more than just a toy, but also as a way to achieve self-improvement. By describing it in these almost moralistic terms, Meccano was objectified as something that all boys should pursue. This social technology of Meccano, and therefore the Hartree Differential Analyser, is not surprising considering the links Meccano shares with Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help book from the previous century (although more on this another time!), which encouraged self-improvement as the path to enlightenment. Therefore, in place of Boyle’s dictum, ‘it is not I who says this; it is all of us’, the social technology of the differential analyser can be understood as ‘we all agree about this; because we trust what it is made from’.

Shapin finishes his article reflecting on Ludwig Fleck’s ideas that a group created by the technologies he discusses cultivates ‘a certain exclusiveness both formally and in content’. In turn this leads to a set of special terminologies to answer the question of ‘Who may speak?’ Where Shapin describes the terminology associated with the Air Pump as being removed from ordinary speech, preventing everyone from speaking unless they had a mastery of special linguistic competencies, he also discusses Boyle’s use of the three technologies as a means of involving the wider community in making factual experimental knowledge. Shapin describes how Boyle attempted this by incorporating aspects of ordinary speech and lay techniques of validating knowledge claims to make the language of early Restoration experimental science a public language. Reflecting on the technologies of the Hartree Differential Analyser and the Meccano Magazine, the language of differential analysis was similarly made into a public language, validated by its association with the Meccano brand. In this example of the Hartree Differential Analyser, Meccano acted as a Shibboleth for public understanding and engagement with the object. By describing in great detail how this complicated machine was made from exactly the same trusted pieces as its readers’ cranes, boats, and trucks, the Meccano Magazine – borrowing from Shapin’s and Boyle’s material, literary, and social technologies – made the differential analyser into a matter of fact.


Boas, M., Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry, Cambridge University Press, 1958.


Boyle, F., ‘A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, touching the Spring and Weight of Air’, in RBW, Vol. III, pp. 175-276, (1669).


Fleck, L., Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, trans. F. Bradley and T. J. Trenn, eds., Trenn and R.K. Merton (University of Chicago Press, 1979).


Shapin, S., Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 14 (4) (1984), pp. 481-520.


Sprat, T., History of the Royal Society (London, 1667).


About the Author

Tom Ritchie is a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD Student (Science Museum, Kensington / School of History, University of Kent) and Associate Lecturer (School of History, University of Kent)

You can tweet him @Tom_Ritchie1

Enlightened Princesses – CHOTS away day

By Noah Moxham and Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This year’s CHOTS Away Day took us to the Enlightened Princesses exhibition, now at Kensington Palace in London, following its original installation at the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven. The palace itself made an appropriate setting, since at least one of the titular princesses, Caroline of Ansbach, had lived in it and overseen the transformation of much of its Hyde Park surroundings into something like their present form. (I had only ever glimpsed it from a distance through the park and thought it attractively modest for a royal residence. That must be a misapprehension, since it’s currently the official London accommodation of four different branches of the extended Windsor family.)

An inadvertent tour of the perimeter (we weren’t sure which entrance we were supposed to gather outside) took us past the main gate, obscured by a layer, several feet deep, of twentieth-anniversary memorial tributes to Diana, whose residence it had also been – the first of many opportunities for reflection on the scope of royal myth- and image-making. Our entrance to the eighteenth-century exhibition also took us past a display of Diana’s outfits, and even those of us who consider ourselves immune to sentiment about princesses would have had to admit that we remembered most of them, including several calculated to make you grateful that the 1980s have been over for a long time.

We were lucky to have with us Ben Marsh from the School of History at Kent, a consultant on the exhibition, and one of whose research discoveries was prominently featured in the final room of the show (of which more below), and even luckier to have Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, as a guide, one of the drivers of the exhibition and the editor of its accompanying book. Joanna conjured the world into which Caroline of Ansbach, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha and Charlotte of Mecklenburgh were recruited (the word is brutal but not misplaced), to shore up Britain’s fragile monarchy and to guarantee the Protestant succession.

Joanna Marschner of Historical Royal Palaces (centre) leads the tour. Photograph by Ben Marsh.

It was a strikingly limited brief for these determined and highly ambitious women, and pitched them into a dramatically different environment from their respective German homelands. The princesses had been used to a scene of rather grander and more diverse urban and courtly sociability and entertainment than that which they encountered upon arrival in Britain. The exhibition outlines the roles that these princesses carved out for themselves in British cultural, political, and intellectual life. Ultimately they functioned as patrons and tastemakers, and as vectors for Continental ideas, artists, and fashions.

The range of their activities was vast, and the exhibition is correspondingly eclectic in its themes and materials. A brilliant array of visual and material cultures are on display, including prints, landscape paintings and portraits, botanical illustrations, architectural drawings, musical scores, library catalogues, taxidermied birds, gardening manuals, medical and scientific instruments, political cartoons, clothes, textiles, sculpture and tableware. The enlightened princesses brought their interests into the domestic as well as the public sphere. The large broods of protestant princes and princesses they were imported to produce had Handel as a music master, learned architectural drawing, and were even taught to handle scientific instruments by fellows of the Royal Society. Domestic portraits of the elder children trundling their smaller siblings in a handcart or solemnly practicing their music became the basis of prints that spread the image of the royal family up and down the land. Influences also worked outward, from the royal household to the wider public sphere.

Some of the idealised portraits of the royal children can be seen behind.


Throughout, the exhibition registers shifts of scale, as the interests and activities of the princesses were projected onto different spheres. Botanists and collectors named new exotic plants for them, and sent them hand-coloured illustrations of their works as gifts; but they were also involved with new scientific establishments such as Kew Gardens, a research and social space that gained some of its fashionable lustre from the proximity of the royal household at Richmond and became a site for architectural experimentation and imperial display as well as botanical research. Inoculating the Hanoverian children against smallpox was also an intervention in a raging national debate about the treatment and epidemiology of the most devastating disease of the period.

These eighteenth-century princesses contributed to public debate about matters which impinged directly upon their own experiences and the health and productivity of the royal household. And a private audience with the Pinckneys of South Carolina was in one sense a breathlessly recorded encounter between sovereign and subject and a chat about American silk colonial fashions, and in another a microcosm of the relations between Britain and its colonies, the attempted subordination of colonial production to domestic manufacture, and the role of slavery in eighteenth-century Empire. The encounter between Princess Augusta and Mrs Eliza Lucas Pinckney is documented in this exhibition by a fascinating letter, discovered by Ben Marsh in the archives of the South Carolina Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and by a hugely striking sculpture, Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina, created in response to the letter by the contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).

It’s worth noting that the shifts of scale the exhibition manages so well, the compression of the imperial to the domestic, and the expansion of the domestic to the national, was at least partly an effect of royal status and privilege; that not every act of scientific or artistic patronage or philanthropy was necessarily followed up to the fullest extent; that the courage shown in inoculating the royal children against smallpox has to be set against the squalid trial of the technique on condemned criminals and then orphaned children beforehand. Moreover a single room of the exhibition featuring acerbic visual satires of the princesses, by leading caricaturists such as James Gillray, reminds us that contemporaries were certainly not unanimous in praise for their royal patrons and cultural and scientific tastemakers.

As an overview of the enlightened princesses activity this exhibition made for compelling viewing, and was calculated to delight historians and archivists because of its focus on the non-obvious, on objects, instruments and paper as well as portraiture, and for the sense of widespread endeavours rather than simple pageantry and glorification.

Our thanks to Joanna for a fascinating tour and to Ben for helping to organise and taking the pictures!

I went to “Science” and all I got was this lousy t-shirt

Emus in space: visualising western and indigenous knowledge

2-image display for Yamajiart Exhibition 2007.


The Emu has great spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people for many male-kin initiation ceremonies. Their sacred role was (is) embedded deeply in place-based cultural attachments.1 Emus were a primary food source during the seasonal egg cycle, and remain frequent subjects in aboriginal art, reflecting their importance in the Dreaming cultures. Their consistent inclusion in stories across diverse linguistic groups is indicative of a long history.2 The rock engraving depicted in the lower section of the photo-montage lies in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Sydney, and was used as a ritual and cultural site up to the arrival of the British Fleet in 1788.3 The changing patterns of the Milky Way were clearly visible to many Aboriginal communities throughout the year. Known as Dangarra, the ‘sky-emu’, the outline shape of the dark spaces of clouds and dust (in the upper section of the photomontage), formed the body, with the head in the top right and the body and legs towards the bottom left. This interpretation contrasts with Western readings of the Milky Way, which focus on the bright stars of the constellation as opposed to the dark spaces.4 Indigenous communities draw in the soil of ancestral and ceremonial land and on the skin of participants. Dots, circles, hatching and specific shapes signify particular geological features, individuals and events. Stories were made visible only to permitted elders or initiates; others did not see them as the soils would be flattened over and skin cleaned afterwards. Ancestral kin groups utilise drawings and stories to share knowledge in close kin or male/female contexts. The acrylic painted Emu, depicted using the ‘dot’ style painting familiar in Aboriginal art is a visually pleasing but redacted representation of the Sky-emu, hiding substantial sacred meanings to modern audiences.5 The dot paintings have now become characteristic of commercial, aboriginal art. The sky-emu echoed the flightless emus on the ground, reflecting understandings of connectivity between bodies in the cosmos and on land; ‘everything under Creation is represented in the soil and the stars. Everything has two witnesses, one on earth and one in the sky.’6

The images above embody and communicate complex indigenous scientific understandings of astronomical, ecological and social relationships. As with scientific visualisations in general, they do not stand in isolation but need consideration within ‘discursive practices within which these representations are embedded’.7 Aboriginal astronomical and ecological knowledge relies heavily on the visual/metaphorical language permeating through the fabric of indigenous society.  They explain the world differently from modern societies. Representations of the cosmos are depicted in rock art, stone structures and oral storytelling, telling origin stories and tying landscape features to social and environmental relationships.8 This oral/visual communication provides 40,000-years of astronomical knowledge from origin stories of the ‘Dreaming’ to contemporary times. The Dreaming describes an ahistorical age of creation which still flows through disturbed and reduced Aboriginal communities.9

Western science seeks to understand how the world works through a ‘scientific method’, with its systematic, epistemological processes.10 This approach contrasts with traditional knowledge systems which western science perceive of as being contextual, contingent, and less credible.11  Communication systems are similarly divergent, with Western models of science focusing on peer review, written and visual tools.12 Aboriginal knowledge transmission tends towards cultural encodings in oral and visual traditions, passed to successive generations through daily social, cultural and ritual events.13  Visual productions and storytelling are used to create analogies that explain relationships between people and the natural world; they are fundamental to social and ceremonial activity.14 The images at, created for a  cross-cultural scientific programme exploring sharing of indigenous astronomical knowledge, represent and communicate indigenous science.

Since the emergence of environmental and climate change as pressing global concerns, there has been a burgeoning interest in the potential of indigenous knowledge systems to offer routes to how to live within our planetary boundaries.15 These systems of understandings have become a focus of wider ‘science’, beyond their established anthropological domain.  Visual narratives of long-term socio-ecological connections provide an alternative worldview that speaks to how the world works from a particular cultural perspective, which might be of use in facing these modern challenges.16

Indigenous narratives are not made-up stories in the western sense but form part of the rich re-enactments the Dreaming orderings of the social and natural worlds and the wider ancestral cosmos. They offer predictions about change, such as meteorological patterns, tidal flows, and seasonal variations based on transitions of the moon, planets and star systems.17 This knowledge is not ‘traditional’ in the sense of being static but transcends individual, community and multi-generational lifetimes. Indigenous knowledge fluctuates not because of inherent unreliability but because it recognises changing environmental states which require ongoing adaptation.18

The aim of both western and indigenous science is to make sense of the world. Both approaches can explain seasonal variations and landscape features, dictated by different scientific ‘subcultures’.19 Western sciences use atmospheric and radar technology to map storm systems or indicate weather events, and has a short history of experience to draw on. Aboriginal cultures assess the twinkling (scintillation) of the stars to determine levels of turbulence and moisture in the atmosphere, with demarcations applied to determine specific weather events and seasonal changes.20 Dreaming pictures and stories provide narratives of how to read and live in the ensuing conditions.

The images above exemplify this; the shape and the angle of the Emu within the dark sky of the Milky Way change throughout the year, and dark spaces appear around the ‘body’ of the emu as it moves. These visual changes identify the start of the gathering season for emu eggs – a major source of seasonal protein. Ecological studies indicate that many animals adapt their breeding season in line with astronomical movements, which vary slightly year on year. Fuller et al.21 and Leaman et al.22 both note that emu egg-laying coincides with rising of the sky-emu and match slight variations between years. The metaphysical stories of the Dreaming depicted here predict the physical availability of valuable sources of protein based on thousands of years of observation and place-specific knowledge. Both the western and indigenous approaches fulfil essential functions for managing people’s engagement with their environment:

When you first see the emu … you just see the neck and the head…and as the months go by it shapes into the emu, and then … it’s sort of lying and when it does that that’s when the emu’s laying eggs and everyone hunts for them … special time.23

Aboriginal Dreaming stories have been ratified by examining alignments between oral descriptions and identifiable geological or biological events, such as sea level changes, and meteor strikes. The communicative efficiency of this ‘long view’ transmission culture appears substantial.24,25,26 Sophisticated understandings of lunar/tidal processes and the earth as a finite object rather than a flat infinity predates ‘western’ science by thousands of years.27 This capacity for communicating observations and experience enabled indigenous communities to survive in challenging environments for 40,000years.

Science is frequently characterised as objective, and art as subjective, but Daston and Galison28 note that ‘images are inextricable from the daily practices of science, knowledge representation, and dissemination’29 such that the distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, science and art are blurred.30 The cultural history of Aboriginal art shows that this is relevant to indigenous science too. The observational and visual processes of Aboriginal astronomers, facilitating understanding of indigenous knowledge as science, correlate strongly with Western scientific visualisation activities.

Liz Gladin

Student on Science Communication Masters Programme


  1. Norris, Ray P. and Duane W. Hamacher (2009) The Astronomy of Aboriginal Australia. Valls-Gabaud D., & A. Boksenberg, eds. The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture Proceedings IAU Symposium.
  2. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  3. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation. Astronomical Society of Australia.
  4. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  5. Myers, Fred (2009) ‘Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings’, In Morphy, Howard, Morgan Perkins eds. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Yorro YorroMowaljarlai (1993), Ngarinyin tribal Elder from Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings (pp 414).
  7. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  8. Bhathal, Ragbir (2006) Astronomy in Aboriginal culture Astronomy and Geophysics 47: 5.21-5.30
  9. Bhathal, Ragbir & Terry Mason (2011) Aboriginal astronomical sites, landscapes and paintings Astronomy and Geophysics 52 (4): 4.12-4.16.
  10. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication. Waveland Press Chicago: pp344,
  11. Ellen, R. F., Peter Parkes, Alan Bicker (2000) Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives. Psychology Press
  12. Littlejohn, Stephen W., Karen A. Foss (2010) Theories of Human Communication.
  13. Sonia, Meg Parsons, Knut Olawsky, Frances Kofod (2013) The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: Insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Global Environmental Change 23 (3): 623–632.
  14. Jason Byrne, Neil Sipe, Jago Dodson (2014) Australian Environmental Planning: Challenges and Future Prospects
  15. Green, D., G. Raygorodetsky (2010) Indigenous knowledge of a changing climate. Climatic Change 100 (2): 239-242.
  16. Walsh F. J., P. V. Dobson, and J. C. Douglas. 2013. Anpernirrentye: a framework for enhanced application of indigenous ecological knowledge in natural resource management. Ecology and Society 18(3): 18.
  17. Haynes, Raymond Roslynn D. Haynes, David Malin, Richard McGee (2010). Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy Cambridge UP.
  18. Harding, Sandra (20150 Do Micronesian Navigators Practice Science? In Harding, Sandra, Objectivity and Diversity, University of Chicago Press.
  19. Aikenhead Glen S. (1997) Toward a First Nations cross-cultural science and Technology Curriculum Science Education 81: 217-238.
  20. Williams, Carl. Aboriginal astronomy and the natural world [online]. Australasian Science 36 (8): 16-19.
  21. Fuller, R.S., Anderson, M.G., Norris, R.P., Trudgett, M. (2014) The Emu Sky Knowledge of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi Peoples. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17(2): 171-179.
  22. Leaman, Trevor M., Duane W. Hamacher, Mark T. Carter (2016) Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea, South Australia, Part 2: Animals in the Ooldean Sky. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 19 (1),
  23. Yubulyawan Dreaming Project Indigenous informant (2009) (accessed 12/08/16).

  1. Reid, N, Patrick Nunn, (2015) Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level The Conversation (accessed 12/08/16).
  2. Hamacher, Duane W., and Ray P. Norris. 2009. ‘Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: Eyewitness Accounts of Cosmic Impacts?’ Archaeoastronomy 22 (1): 62–95.
  3. Nunn Patrick D. (2014) Lashed by sharks, pelted by demons, drowned for apostasy: the value of myths that explain geohazards in the Asia-Pacific region. Asian Geographer 31 (1): 159-82.
  4. Norris Ray P. (2016) Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal Astronomy and Navigation.
  5. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.
  6. Burri Regula Valérie & Joseph Dumit (2008) ‘Social studies of scientific imaging and visualization’, Ch 13 in Ed Hackett et al., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press: p300.
  7. Daston Lorraine, Peter Galison (2010) MIT Cambridge MA.


Archiving from Below: Parenthood, Mortality and the Historian’s Dilemma

Example of children's work

‘I would like to go to lundn to see oll the peepl. I thinck it will be fantasck.’

I hesitate at gurning maw of the industrial paper compacter, suffering an existential crisis.

I’m at the council tip, clearing out my children’s school exercise books.  There’s too many of them and they are cluttering up the house.

I’m at the other end of the historian’s telescope; I’m making decisions about archiving—or not.  And it’s doing my head in.

So many hours of work, from three small hands (two left, one right), are archived in these A4, paper-bound volumes.  The maths is formulaic enough—lists of near-identical sums and times-tables—but there are also poems, stories, fragments of childish insight upon the world.  I am throwing away my children’s labours.  I am throwing away my children’s thoughts.

I am throwing away my children.

No, I correct myself: I am throwing away the fantasy that my children can be frozen in time, and the relinquishment of that fantasy is to the good.  A fond memory is a dangerous thing; it takes up house-room that is needed for present realities.  What kind of parent wants to preserve their child as an innocent five-year-old?  What kind of innocence would that be?

Besides, if I keep the books, when will I look at them?  When the children have left home?  When I am old?  Intolerable thought: it entails that I am facing death.  Will I want to look at them if one of the children has died?  Not merely intolerable: this thought is unthinkable.  If I keep the book, I think superstitiously, I plan for the event.

Then I catch the snag in this train of thought: I am presuming the books are mine.  Ah, but if I ask the children, they will certainly want to keep them.  They want to keep everything: bus tickets, a sticky animal card from a box of sweets, a bit of hubcap they found on the roadside.  So I must decide on behalf of their future selves.  If I keep the children’s books, will they want them?  Do I regret the fact that I have no examples of my own school work?  Not in the least.

But suppose one of the children becomes famous, perhaps a novelist?  Literature scholars will curse the fact that they have no insight into his earliest writing.

I reprimand myself for my vicariously hubristic fantasy.  Then I think, hell, someone has to become a famous writer, and there’s no reason why it might not be one of them.

Who aspires to be a historical character?  Surely only the self-entitled and the deluded.  If only the self-entitled retain their records, then they manoeuvre themselves into their own historical afterlife.  Perhaps their future history, proleptically enacted in the act of archiving, even makes their life ‘successful’.  The act of archiving shapes the present in deeply conservative ways, re-engraving the same lines of historiography over and over again.  The archive is destiny.

However, it is no hubris at all to assume that the children will be part of some collective historical story whose outlines I cannot yet discern.  Who am I to say what sources will speak to that story?  Perhaps I owe it to historians to keep my children’s material precisely because I believe they are ordinary, to dilute the archiving of the expected.

So far as the individual concerned goes, being destined for success—for a particular kind of success, as a writer, say—might be regarded as a blessing or a curse.  By throwing away I keep my children’s choices open even as I hide them from the historical lens of success.  I gain my children mental health, but I remain conservatively passive with regard to the shape of future history.

I console myself further with the professional thought that juvenilia reveals little: that psychologising of the infant subject is an unproductive research method.

And yet…

My current research concerns a set of historical ‘nobodies’, a group of young science fiction fans in inter-war Britain.  Their very non-importance to history is what makes them interesting to me—they offer a precious clue into what (some) ordinary people thought about science: how they interacted with it.  They have not left much by way of historical traces; even their census records from the period have been lost by fire.  Their youthful enthusiasm is ephemeral, caught in a moment of hope before the Second World War, and all the more historically precious for it.  I would be cock-a-hoop if I stumbled upon their school-books.

And now I am making life difficult for future historians in exactly the same way.

I am a thrower-away of my own potential archives.  I can’t bear the thought of people reading my letters, my drafts, my notes.  I can safely assume that I won’t be famous enough to cause a biographer to curse; but I am a part of stories that might be of future interest—gender stories, stories about higher education, stories about science and society.  Do I have the right to deny future historians their sources?  Do I have a right to disinter the sources of others?

I can’t help but notice that many of my historian colleagues talk about ‘The Archive’.  Is it mere chance that this strange singularity institutionalises the life of sources, removing them from their originators’ choices about saving or discarding?

Should a historian think more about her afterlife as a historical subject, and if so, how would this change her historiographical practice?


I didn’t have time to think about all this too much, at least, not whilst I was facing the compactor.  I had to hurry away; my eldest son was in the car, a doctor’s appointment due in ten minutes’ time.  He had a bacterial infection—no big deal: the antibiotics he was prescribed are currently clearing it up nicely.  A hundred years ago, he might have died from it.  I know that from history.

Dinosaurs in the Garden of England

Together with the Kent Animal Humanities Network, CHOTS looks forward to welcoming Dr Brian Noble of Dalhousie University, Canada.  Dr Noble will participate in a number of informal seminars as well as giving the annual H. G. Wells lecture for 2017:

“Good Mothers” and “King Tyrants” in the Mesozoic: An Anthropology of Dinosaur Science and Spectacle

Drawing on his recent book, Articulating Dinosaurs: A Political Anthropology, Anthropologist of Science Brian Noble discusses how dinosaurs have come to make a difference to us as humans, and us to them.  Noble combines his background in paleontology and museum exhibit design, with expertise in ethnographic research and critical literary, film, and cultural studies.  He brings to bear this inter-disciplinary in tracing how fossils and spectacles collide in the resurrecting of two particular dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex and Maiasaura peeblesorum – and with that, details how these supposedly bygone creatures express the hopes and fears of our past and present moments.

Date: Weds 1 March, 2017
Time: 5.15 – 6.45pm followed by reception
Place: Templeman lecture theatre, University of Kent (Library building)


We Have Never Been Silent

by Daniel Belteki

In my research on the history of the Airy Transit Circle, I am attempting to introduce the concept of assemblage to illuminate both the internal and external multiplicity of singularity objects in their material and non-material contexts (not to be confused with interpretive flexibility which highlights the multiplicity of the interpretations of a single object). (Law, 2002, pp.1-11) To put it differently, I am interested in how things (e.g. screws, bolts, wires etc.) and non-material entities (e.g. organisational structures, practices of the users of the instruments etc.) come together to form a coherent (but not stable) whole. Through this theoretical adventure, I am attempting not only to continue with the now signature research direction in history of science that aims at uncovering the hidden actors of events, but also to demonstrate what insights can a historical visualisation of actants as multiples as opposed to isolated “ones” can offer us. (Shapin, 1989; Latour, 2005, pp. 4-5) As it was highlighted above, the multiplicity of an actant refers to both its material multiplicity (i.e. being made up of various other material bits and pieces) and to its contextual multiplicity (i.e. being part of a social-cultural network(s) that is made up by other actants). This piece was also inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s poetical vision on open and closed chests, and how both the inside and outside of a chest can be considered to be infinite. (Bachelard, 1994, pp. 85-86)

What follows is a brief elucidation of my thoughts with the help of two artworks. Damien Ortega’s Cosmic Thing has already caught and imprisoned the attention of two major scholars in the field of History of Science, John Tresch and Bruno Latour, and I would like to expand upon their dialogue of the exhibit. Cosmic Thing is a Volkswagen Beetle (or ‘vocho’ as it is called in Mexico) disassembled by the artist (following the manuals of the car) and then suspended with nylon strings from the top of the exhibition gallery room in an exploded view, thus making the various different components which make up the car visible. It is worth quoting the close description of some of the parts offered by Tresch: “[o]n the well-worn seats we see coffee spilled in the dilated present of weekday traffic. Dents on the hanging bumpers inscribe the mass somnambulism of a crowded city. The tread of the tires bears the mark of pavement and dirt road, sudden stops and anxious errands, the grip of open possibility in outward flights. Through the glass we see landscapes approached and left behind, ocean and mountain, skyscraper and brick house; on the faded grey pain are traced the relentless action of sum, dust, rain, and air, alongside residue of bird shit and crushed mosquitoes.” (Tresch, 2007, p.90) The second piece of art is a is a musical composition titled 4’33’’ by John Cage (first premiered in 1952) which still tends to startle people’s imagination as the composition consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence”.

Damián Ortega - Cosmic Things, 2002

Damián Ortega – Cosmic Things, 2002

As it was mentioned above, scholars in history and sociology of science have already provided their interpretations of Ortega’s artwork. John Tresch used it as an example to illustrate his concept of cosmogram. According to Tresch, the Beetle stands suspended just like an atom or a solar system where each components are being held together through their dynamic (or in the case of the artwork, their frozen) relations to each other. These relations transcend their material boundaries in order to encompass the historical, cultural, economic, social and political entanglements within which it participated. Thus, the object becomes an “external depiction of the elements of the cosmos and the connections among them” (ibid, p.92).

Damián Ortega - Domestic Cosmogon, 2013

Damián Ortega – Domestic Cosmogon, 2013
Another piece by Damián Ortega exploring the idea of cosmos, and the relations between domestic object.

As a response to the interpretation of the artwork offered by Tresch, Bruno Latour characterises Ortega’s work with as a “thin” or idealist description of the Volkswagen Beetle as a thing. Latour criticises extensively Ortega’s view for not offering a thicker representation of the thing due to not exhibiting the actants that were involved in the assembly and production of the different parts of the car. However, this is not the final conclusion that Latour draws from the example. Instead, the French scholar highlights what remains left out in both thick and thin descriptions of things: the process of assembling. (Latour, 2007, p. 140) Similarly to Tresch, Latour evokes the right direction set out by Heidegger in focusing on the assembling, gathering or “thinging” of the elements. By describing the “assembling” process, we are able to demonstrate how things work not when they are suspended in an exploded view or “drawn in the res extensa mode”, but when the parts hide one another. Furthermore, it relocates power to the very process of assembling that becomes completed/finished (and thus hidden) once the object is assembled. (Ibid, p. 141)

Many of the ideas put forward by both Latour and Tresch seem to resonate with Roland Barthes’ meditation on the Citroen DS. For Barthes, the car was a superlative object that “fell from heaven”. According to Barthes, it is this fall that highlights the absence of its origin, transforms the passionate conceiver of the object into an unknown artist, and brings about “a silence which belongs to the order of the marvellous.” (Barthes, 2013, p.169) In the light of Barthes’ mythology, Ortega’s cosmic thing seems to overcome the otherworldliness of the object. As Tresch writes, the exhibited VW Beetle is far from showing its imperfections. Coffee is spilled on the seats, dents are visible on the body of the car, and the even the birds have laid their judgements on the vehicle. Latour, however, still imagines the object as a perfect object presenting itself in the way in which Barthes describes the divine object. Tresch’s attention to detail shows that the object is in fact a worldly object, and its history is manifested through the imperfections of the exhibited model. In consequence, while Latour rightly calls attention to the lack of “social assemblers”, Ortega’s work illuminates history itself as one of the assemblers of the Vocho.

Returning to Latour’s point about shifting the focus of our analysis to the process of “gathering”, perhaps we should look not towards artworks that are “static”, but rather at works that are “dynamic”. One of the most dynamic of arts is music itself. When music is performed, we experience the Heideggerian process of gathering and libation at the same time. (Heidegger, 2012, pp. 10-15) A musical instrument not only “gathers” the sounds (similarly to the same way as a jug holds its content), but also allows for their making through a sonic libation of sound production. In comparison to static contemporary art pieces, like Ortega’s Cosmic Things, the outpouring of the music is not created by the viewer’s or the consumer’s interpretation (i.e. through what Tresch labelled as the interpretive flexibility of the VW Beetle), but through the object’s (or the musical instrument’s) inherent “thinging”. (Ibid.)

If anything, the fields of STS and History of Science like to focus on cases when conventionality breaks down. In the world of music, one of the musical pieces that engages in an in-depth manner with the conventions of the art is 4’33’’ by John Cage. The piece itself is always a performance for any type and number of instruments, but the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments. The composition is divided into three movements. If performed on the piano, the beginning and the end of the music is signalled by the materiality of music and the performance, i.e. with the opening and the closing of the keyboard cover at the beginning and end of each one of the movements. Through these actions and with the presence of the instruments, the work of art engages with the basic conventions of music by calling attention to its most elementary components that gather and hold the sounds and music together. However, by not allowing the musicians to play their instruments, the work denies the outpouring of the “jug of music”, thus restricting the musical instruments from the sonic libation. Yet, through this restriction, other participants who take part in the musical performance are revealed: the audience and the space (or the environment) of the performance. In fact, as it is usually agreed between interpreters of this piece, music (or sound) is always created during the performance, but the sources of the sounds are not the musical instruments themselves. Rather sounds and music are created by the environment (the quiet hum of the ventilation systems, the squeaking of the chairs, the creaking of the floor, a distant sounds of ambulance sirens breaking into the concert hall etc.) and by the people themselves (people murmuring to each other, scratching an itch, yawning at the dull performance of the musicians etc.). (Marter, 1999, p. 132)

So what if we attempt to interpret John Cage’s piece with the ears of Latour? It can be argued, that 4’33’’ achieves what Latour has identified as the shortcoming of the Ortega’s Cosmic Thing. First, it brings together the actants that are generally hidden in the assembling of a musical performance (the audience and the environment) Second, it goes one step further by not even challenging the sounds produced by the “context” with the sounds of the musical instruments. It is this radical liberation of the hidden assemblers of the sounds that staggers the attentive audience. And even within the audience’s and the environment’s attempted conformation to the most basic conventions of music, they cannot be silenced. In fact, we realise that it is impossible for us not to make a sound (whether we are part of the audience or part of the environment). As if, during this whole time, we have never been silent.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.

Two pages from John Cage’s score for 4’33.



  • Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994)
  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013)
  • Heidegger, Martin, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012)
  • Latour, Bruno, ‘Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 138-142
  • Law, John, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2002)
  • Marter, Joan (ed.), Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963 (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999)
  • Shapin, Steven, ‘The Invisible Technician’, American Scientist, 77:6 (1989), 554-563
  • Tresch, John, ‘Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms’, Isis, 98:1 (2007), 84-99