Science has escaped from the laboratory. It lives on our television screens and newspaper pages. Much of this modern, capital ‘S’ Science, is conducted using very big and very complex scientific instruments; the Large Hadron Collider and the European Extremely Large Telescope announce their importance in their names. These instruments spew out vast streams of data. When the Large Hadron Collider fires up, the flow of data pouring from its sensors is so overwhelming that 95% of it is discarded immediately. One response to all this modern science – and the data it produces – is to widen participation. There are many scientific jobs that are too complex for even our cleverest computers, so many in fact that we do not have nearly enough scientists to do them. And so people have been brought in. Or more accurately, brought back in. People are increasingly not just consuming modern science; they are also producing it.
Katherine Harrington over at the Royal Society has just put up a fantastic post on The Repository (the Royal Society’s History of Science Blog). Given the subject matter – large scale observation projects – and the citizen science bells that rings for us, she’s kindly let us re-post her work in its entirety here. For the original post, in-situ, head this way.
As one of two new cataloguers joining the Library team (and occasionally to be spied vanishing into the stores to fetch readers’ requests), it has been a great pleasure starting work on a series of archive volumes rather cryptically titled ‘New Letter Books’. These 74 volumes record outgoing correspondence from the President, Officers and Assistant Secretaries, covering the period 1885-1931, and offer a detailed insight into the Society’s day-to-day operations whilst based at Burlington House.
The correspondents involved vary tremendously and include Fellows, government officials, solicitors, bankers, publishers, printers, artists, engravers, engineers, plumbers and coalmen, to name but a few. The topics under discussion can be mind-boggling, from complaints regarding the unofficial use of the title FRS (by what appears to be a wig salesman no less) (NLB/4/1148), and neighbours at the Albany discarding items from their windows and blocking the Society’s gutters (NLB/1/472), to appeals to the Committee on Education bemoaning the neglect of elementary science in primary schools (NLB/4/187).
Today was my first day in harness on the CONSCICOM project. There’s a buzz around the project’s new offices at the Gibson Building. My arrival has been organised with such proficiency that by lunchtime it’s down to business. And what an exciting set of ideas on which to be working. The project’s citizen science themes speak to a broad church of science. I’m keen to begin exploring this theme in my own area of interest, botany, a discipline historically co-inhabited by amateurs and professionals. I’m also excited to be looking beyond botany. It’s been fascinating to hear more about team-member Sally Frampton’s work on these themes in the history of medicine. The project’s simultaneous concern with publishing and modes of exchange between the many groups who consider themselves to belong to a scientific community promises to be an equally fascinating way of studying the creation of scientific communities. It’s going to be an exciting few years and I can’t wait to start putting some historical flesh on these ideas.