On opening some black boxes

What is the history of science?  A clichéd answer might invoke a parade of big names: Galileo, Darwin, Einstein. 

But this is a really rubbish history if we are trying to get people to understand and engage with science in the present day.  Will solar power save us from global warming?  Do neutrinos move faster than light?  Is cannabis dangerous?   Do pharmaceutical companies invent diseases to sell their drugs?  Giant figures (who in any case are created retrospectively) won’t help us answer these questions.  To do answer these kinds of questions we need to know how science actually works.  Or, we should more accurately say: we need to know how scientists actually work.  There is no such thing as science, only scientists. 

Preparing for the first Chain Reaction! workshop it struck me that there are big parallels between this and the history of art.  My strong hunch is that the succession Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso is no more a meaningful story of our artists than Galileo, Darwin, Einstein is the story that explains the work of Kent’s Bioscientists.  These hero figures are at best the tip of an iceberg.

What is a practising artist’s story?  A lot of it is the story of the development of the media that they use: the history of pigments, metal alloys.  In their own personal histories, it’s a story of a very physical, hands-on process of learning how to use these media and how they respond – just as scientists learn to use pipettes, gels and PCRs.

So, having spotted some similar challenges in clichéd vs. real histories of science and art, I wanted to give the Chain Reaction! artists a couple of ideas from historians of science that I thought might help them think through their experiences in the lab.

One of these ideas is that of the ‘black box’.  Popularised by the sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, a black box is any piece of technology where everyone agrees that the input reliably leads to output, and no-one questions this process even when things go wrong.  For example, imagine if I’ve received a letter from my boss saying that my contract will not be renewed; I won’t wonder whether perhaps his printer has inserted the word ‘not’ into that sentence.  I assume (alas) that the printer reliably outputs whatever was sent to it.  One can productively broaden the notion of the black box beyond literal technologies.  We could think, for example, of the journal Nature as a kind of black box; we assume that any paper published in it has been put through a reliable system of checking by qualified peer reviewers.  Only in extreme circumstances do black boxes get reopened.  Historians of science, on the other hand, like to open black boxes all the time, to discover how they were put together.  They like to see how and why a piece of technology has come to be trusted, or how and why certain human processes come to be relied upon. 

Chain Reaction! aims to open at least three black boxes. 

First, of course, the PCR machine itself.  OK it’s beige or cream, not black, but it’s a classic black box.  No one doubts that what goes in comes out – except in extreme cases like in court, where DNA evidence may be challenged on the grounds that the scientists sneezed into the test tube.  (Mind you, I was talking to a Seattle based scientist who uses PCR all the time, and she seemed to have a distinctly cautious attitude to PCR outputs…)

Secondly, the laboratory is also a box: a room full of people who know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave.  They move around and do things and out of the room comes scientific knowledge.  But for the general public, its workings are as mysterious as the inside of a computer.  What goes into the box, and how does it work, to output things like the ancestry of humankind, or the identity of a father? 

Finally, the human mind is also a bit of a black box: we learn stuff, experience things, and out come ideas and conclusions.  But what goes on inside?  Does it work the same for artists and scientists?  These days we tend to assume that scientists’ minds are tidier and more rational places than artists’, but that’s a historically local assumption.  At other times, creativity and romanticism have been highly rated in scientists. 

Let’s see what happens when we open some black boxes.