Thursday, November 23, 2017 –

1:00pm to 2:00pm
Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6GG
Seminar Room

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (Faculty of English Language and Literature) will look at discussions of stress and overwork in both education and professional life in the Victorian era, based on her research.  Although we are clearly living in a radically altered world, there are nonetheless startling similarities in the ways the problems of overwork have been framed and debated, then and now.

Dr Marie Tidball (Faculty of Law, Centre for Criminology and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow) will talk about the ‘dynamic’ nature of disability and the impact that stresses of modern life have on its trajectories, employment and what people sometimes refer to as ‘disability time’. That is, the changed experience of time due to pain, anxiety and stress caused by an impairment or the impact an impairment has on the length of time it takes to do ‘activities of daily living’ which in turn affects the availability of time as a resource which has value, such as getting dressed takes longer for prosthetic limb wearer, the increased extent of email, and related issues for people’s energy levels and productivity. This has an interesting impact on the number of hours disabled people may have available or may be able to work and thus a factor affecting the disability pay gap.

The two talks will raise lots of ideas for discussion, including the impact of modern technologies in each period on the nature of work.


Registration is free and all welcome. Booking essential. Click here to register for your free ticket.

Please email if you have any accessibility needs.

Lunch from 12.30pm. Talk from 1pm.

This event is part of UK Disability History Month 22 Nov-22 Dec.


Wisdom of the Crowd: Marcus du Sautoy at the Royal Society

Join us for our final project event!

The Wisdom of the Crowd – Marcus Du Sautoy at the Royal Society on November 29th at 6 PM

Where: At The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG

Details: Join Professor Marcus du Sautoy OBE FRS for a night of interactive experiments exploring the power of crowds in answering certain numerical questions.

From guessing the weight of a cow or the number of sweets in a jar, there is evidence that the average of a crowd’s guesses can deliver surprisingly accurate results.

Professor du Sautoy will carry out a number of live interactive quizzes and experiments to test these ideas and look at how these principals can be harnessed for citizen science projects.

This event will be hosted in partnership with the University of Oxford as part of the AHRC’s Constructing Scientific Communities project. Visit to discover more.

Attending this event

This event will involve interactive elements – you will need a smartphone in order to participate
Free to attend
No registration required
Seats allocated on a first-come, first-served basis
Doors open at 6.00pm

Travel and accessibility information

For all enquiries, please contact

Mind-Boggling Medical History Needs You!


Credit: Sunnymedia Ltd.

Invitation to a drop-in session for ‘Mind-Boggling Medical History’

Wednesday 25 October, 11am – 1pm

Museum of the History of Science

“Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious individual will revive them”… Current medical theory? A disproved practice? Or entirely made-up??

Explore the weirder side of medical history and current practices in health and medicine in this educational game designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

We are currently working on a pilot set of statements to use for the game, as well as a digitised version of the resource. We’d love to get your thoughts on it and for you tell us how we might improve the game.

We’re looking for people who can spare a bit of time on the 25th October to try the game out and complete a short questionnaire about it. You can drop in anytime between 11am and 1pm.

If you’d like to come along please email:

Refreshments provided!

Mind-Boggling Medical History (MBMH) is a card game developed by Dr Sarah Chaney at the Royal College of Nursing and Dr Sally Frampton at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).





Citizen meteorology, Victorian style: the meteorological balloon ascents of 1852

One of the principal aims of Constructing Scientific Communities is to discover nineteenth-century models for twenty-first century citizen science projects, in which large numbers of people from various walks of life gather and analyse data under the direction of research scientists. A hitherto little-known example of nineteenth-century citizen science dates from 1852, when some private individuals, in addition to a handful of astronomers working in observatories, were invited to make regular observations of the weather during a series of four daredevil balloon ascents between August and November 1852.

The first serious scientific balloon flights in Britain, they were organised by the ‘Kew Committee’, a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which then ran Kew Observatory near London. Formerly the private astronomical observatory of King George III, Kew Observatory had been taken over by the BAAS in 1842 and it quickly became a powerhouse of innovative meteorological experiments, observations and instruments. It would soon become world famous as a centre for geomagnetic research, solar astronomy and instrument testing, as well as meteorology.

Reporting to the Kew Committee was the Scottish physicist John Welsh, superintendent of Kew Observatory from 1852 to 1859. Welsh personally went up on all four balloon flights and was in charge of the scientific observations. On the first two flights, he was accompanied by Richard Nicklin, an assistant observer at Kew. All the ascents were made in the large Nassau balloon that was owned and operated by Charles Green, the leading British balloon pilot, or ‘aeronaut’ of the time. Each flight was launched from Vauxhall Gardens, a well-known London pleasure resort for the well-to-do.

The principal scientific goal of these balloon flights was to measure the temperature and humidity of the air at different altitudes. As late as 1852, the properties of the upper atmosphere and the circulation of weather systems around the globe were poorly understood. Nor was there as yet any national weather service or system of professional weather stations as we have today. In order to obtain reliable comparisons with weather data on the ground, it was necessary to employ a large network of volunteer observers underneath where the balloon would be flying. The unpredictable winds at altitude meant that the path of the balloon could not be predicted in advance. For example, the first flight, launched on 17 August, ended near Swavesey in Cambridgeshire, yet on the last ascent (10 November), the balloon nearly landed in the English Channel, eventually coming to rest near Folkestone.

The volunteer observers were therefore scattered across a large area, to ensure that at least a few of them would be in the vicinity of the balloon’s flight path. The majority of the observers were in a wide range of locations across southern and eastern England, including Aylesbury, Bedfordshire, Norwich, the Isle of Wight, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the London area. Results were also used from observers even further afield, in places such as Edinburgh and Belfast, likely so that a picture of the weather across the whole of Britain on the days of the ascents could be built up.


Example of a printed circular with instructions to volunteers taking weather observations on the ground during the balloon ascent of 17 August 1852. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library, MS.RGO.6.402.457.

Prior to each flight, the Kew Committee sent out a circular, asking the observers to take readings of the barometer, hygrometer, and dry and wet thermometers every hour while the balloon was in the air. The circulars also requested the volunteers to note the types of cloud in the vicinity of the balloon (if the balloon was visible from their observing station), and to send in their regular weather observations for the days before and after each ascent. Ever committed to scientific precision, the Kew Committee even asked volunteers to send in the corrections they made to their instruments and their station’s height above the sea. The example illustrated here is the circular sent to the Astronomer Royal, George Airy, three days before the 17 August flight.

It is not known how the volunteers came to take part in this project, but it is likely that members of the Kew Committee wrote to a large number of people whom they knew to be active meteorological observers and invited them to contribute. Of the thirty-four observers who participated, six might today be described as ‘professional astronomers’. These included George Airy at Greenwich Observatory and Manuel Johnson of the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford. Yet almost none of the rest did science for a living: they were mostly private gentlemen, a fair number of them clergymen with scientific interests.

At least some of the data produced by the observers were used in analysing the results of the ascents. Welsh’s paper describes how in order to compare the temperature of the air at different altitudes, it was necessary to measure the temperature on the ground along the track of the balloon. This was achieved by selecting and averaging the results from observers closest to the course of the balloon on each flight. The ground observers’ results were essential in demonstrating the drop in temperature with altitude. On 17 August, the balloon reached a maximum height of 19,000 feet, where a temperature of 10° Fahrenheit (-12°C) was recorded, while the mean temperature on the ground was 71° Fahrenheit (21°C).

It could be argued that the ground observations were mostly made by privileged individuals with time and money to do science. But the principle of using volunteer observers in support of a large scientific project was exactly the same in 1852 as that used in today’s citizen science projects such as those managed by Zooniverse.


James Glaisher (1809-1903). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the ground observers was James Glaisher, head of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department at Greenwich. Welsh’s ascents in 1852 inspired Glaisher to carry out a series of even more daring meteorological balloon flights in the 1860s, which brought him national fame. Unfortunately, Welsh himself died in 1859, aged just thirty-four, which might be one reason why his pioneering work in 1852 – plus that of his airborne companions and the volunteer observers on the ground – is not so well remembered today. Yet the balloon experiments of 1852 paved the way for later studies of the upper atmosphere, in addition to acting as an inspiring exemplar of a research project in which private citizens provided much of the large body of supporting data required.

Dr Lee Macdonald is a historian of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, specialising in the history of astronomy and the physical sciences. In addition to working part-time for the Constructing Scientific Communities project, Lee works as Research Facilitator at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Michaelmas Term 2017

Our programme for Michaelmas Term 2017 is now announced with three seminars at St Anne’s College.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking is required.

MTSeminar picture

Tuesday 24 October 2017 (Week 3)
Dr Helen Cowie, University of York
From the Andes to the Outback: Acclimatising Alpacas in the British Empire
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Abstract: This paper examines attempts to naturalise the alpaca in the British Empire. In the nineteenth century Britain made concerted efforts to appropriate useful plants and animals and acclimatise them within its own colonies. The alpaca was a prime target for acclimatisers on account of its silken wool, which was manufactured into a range of luxury textiles. Its export was, however, banned by law in Peru and Bolivia, so the animals had to be smuggled out of the Andean states and shipped illegally to Britain and Australia. The paper studies the circuits of exchange that facilitated the transfer of alpacas from one continent to another and considers how British subjects in places as diverse as Bradford, Liverpool, Sydney and Arequipa promoted and benefited from the naturalisation scheme. It situates alpaca acclimatisation within a wider discourse of agricultural ‘improvement’, bio-piracy and imperial adventure.

Tuesday 7 November 2017 (Week 5)
Professor Martin Willis, Cardiff University
The Good Places of Sleep: Nineteenth-Century Utopian Fictions and Sleep Research
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Abstract: We seem obsessed by the quality of our sleep in the early twenty-first century, yet the high point of sleep research was the second half of the nineteenth century, and particularly the period from 1880-1900, when modern sleep studies began. For the Victorians, sleep was an active state, (linked often to other cognitive pathologies and dissonances such as catalepsy and epilepsy) which enabled or disabled certain functions of mind and body. How one slept was therefore of considerable interest to the general public as well as to physiologists, physicians and neurologists. Concurrent with this avid attention to the epistemologies of sleep, utopian fictions employed sleep as a foundation for asking questions of ideal lives and worlds. Often, other worlds were entered through the medium of sleep. This seminar will consider the connections between sleep and utopia and ask whether sleep is itself a good place.
Tuesday 21 November (Week 7)
Professor Kirsten E Shepherd-Barr, University of Oxford
Infectious Ideas: Mechanisms of Transmission in the 19th Century
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Abstract: This paper explores the semantic instability of the term “contagion” in the nineteenth century as refracted through theatre and performance, with key examples as case studies. I’ll look at 19th-century theatrical engagements with evolution, biology, and other related sciences, to show theatre’s preoccupation with mechanisms of transmission broadly conceived—from imaginative versions of heredity (including telegony in Ibsen and Strindberg, for instance) to breastfeeding on stage in Herne and Brieux to the “contagious” theatricality at the heart of Charlotte Mew’s short story “A White Night.” These and other examples can help us think about how and when the line began to blur between a strictly medical definition of contagion and a fuzzier “social disease” usage, onto which theatre cottoned very early on. I will then trace the powerful legacy of these theatrical engagements with contagion, looking first at how Artaud radically extends earlier metaphoric uses of contagion into his immersive, experiential “plague” and finally exploring the present day in which virtual contagion games allow the user to “perform” plagues and pandemics. A unifying thread running through all of these examples is how contagion relates to definitions of culture (e.g. Greenblatt, Foucault) founded, paradoxically, on containment and control. Finally, I will explore briefly how all of this relates to the wider issue of how to forge productive disciplinary cross-contaminations in a professional environment that increasingly regulates, directs, and manages trans- or interdisciplinarity.

Contagion Cabaret

Wednesday 27 September, 7.45pm The Chipping Norton Theatre

A unique collaboration between The Theatre Chipping Norton and Oxford University

Girl In Gas Masks Holds a Red Ballon


Killer germs, superbugs, pestilent plagues and global pandemics have fascinated writers, musicians and thinkers for centuries. As disease spreads through a culture, likewise myths and ideas travel virally through film, literature, theatre and social media.

Dreamt up in the plague-ridden imagination of the Theatre’s Artistic Director John Terry, join a cast of familiar faces including Marcus D’Amico (Frankie and Johnny) and Anna Tolputt (Around the World in 80 Days), alongside scientists and literary researchers from Oxford University for an evening of infectious extracts from plays and music, past and present. Be sure to bring your antiseptic wipes!

For more information and to book tickets see


Recap: Connecting with the Crowd Conference (Natural History Museum, London)

We had a great time discussing citizen science and the historical and contemporary applications of crowdsourcing at the Connecting with the Crowd Conference at the Natural History Museum on 16 June 2017.

If you missed the event, you can watch the keynotes on our YouTube channel. And the slides from the presentations are now available on Slideshare!

Read the conference report here.


Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants through Contemporary Drawing Practice

Blog post contributed by Sian Bowen, Leverhulme Fellow & Reader in Fine Art at the University of Northumbria,

With support from a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, I am currently developing a project, Sensing and Presencing Rare Plants through Contemporary Drawing Practice, which investigates how the materiality of drawing can make present the imperceptible nature of the vulnerabilities and resilience of rare plants. As an artist, this builds on my ongoing interest in the ways in which drawing might convey states of flux. Although I would strongly advocate that drawing can be made on any surface and in any medium, paper plays a crucial role in this project. The resulting artworks will form an exhibition which will be staged in the UK and India in 2019.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

Historically, drawing has been intrinsically connected to the collection and preservation of plants as a vehicle for scientific description and identification. With sophisticated digital visualisation technologies now occupying this central position, the project asserts that contemporary art practices, especially those concerned with themes of ephemerality – for example Anya Gallaccio’s installations of dying flowers; and Michael Landy’s print media exploration of the status of weeds – are renewing the inspirational basis of botanical illustrations and specimens.

Taking plants of Malabar as its principal concern, I aim to bring into focus – for the first time – three distinct but interconnected historical and contemporary ‘sites’ of knowledge: firstly, rare copies of the extraordinary 12-volume 17th century illustrated treatise on the flora of Malabar, and its 21st century English translation (which includes an additional commentary on the current status of the 750 plants indexed; secondly, historical herbaria in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Oxford housing fragile examples of specimens described in the aforementioned publications, and brought from India to Britain during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; and thirdly, sacred groves surrounding temples of the tropical forests and coastal plains of Malabar, the centuries-old protection of which has ensured the survival of some of the rarest plants discussed in Hortus Malabaricus. The ways and extent to which these three sites of knowledge can shed light on the ephemeral qualities of plants and how these might be conveyed through the contemporary practice of drawing, are central to this investigation.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

I therefore arrived at the workshop, The Material Culture of Citizen Science, after having spent two days closely examining plants specimens held in the historical Indian collections of Oxford Herbaria – housed in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford. The role that paper plays in these collections is intriguing. The fragile, preserved plant specimens are mounted on paper that is sometimes contemporary to the period of their collection. Fine paper strips hold the specimens in place. Onto the backing papers is a palimpsest of handwritten notes and labels. Names of plants have been carefully written down, crossed out and re-named at different points in time as different systems of classification evolved or new knowledge was gained. The 17th century notebooks of collector William Sherard not only reveal information repeatedly added and discounted, but also their very covers have been made from plant-drying papers – evident in certain lights from subtle imprints. During my visit it was also possible to see copies of a complete 12-volume set of Hortus Malabaricus, with its truly remarkable botanical engravings.


Specimens from the Druce Herbarium, Oxford Herbaria, University of Oxford.

The focus of the workshop on material culture and paper technologies, gave me a valuable opportunity to re-consider the relationships between drawing, plants, paper and materiality. Plants, historically, have been a “currency” of empires, their collection and distribution having had huge economic, social, cultural and political implications – whilst paper after all, is made from material of the plant world; cotton and flax seed heads picked from across America, bark stripped from branches of the kozo and mistumata trees in Japan, and pulp made from trunks of conifers felled in Scandinavia. The wonderful range of presentations across various disciplines really brought home the potential that paper has to propose concepts and mediate ideas. This was demonstrated for example by the handwritten instructions in notebooks for medicinal recipes, the information gathered on forms for the Prussian consensus and the engravings of shells by the Lister sisters. In such cases the paper was originally selected to perform a function – a carrier of information. However the material nature of these objects offers further possibilities for interpretation and adds layers of meaning.

The presentation on Dr Auzoux’s papier-mâché anatomical models demonstrated the potential that paper has to be transformed in extraordinary ways. Fascinated as I am by the palimpsest of the labelling of herbaria specimens, I am also intrigued how a flat sheet of paper can become something ‘other’. I want to understand more fully not only ways in which paper can been transformed but also in how it can be a transformative vehicle for ideas. The very fabric of paper is, as I’ve mentioned, taken from the plant world. It seems that the new art works could harness certain characteristics connected to plant life – such as its response to light in terms of bleaching and photosynthesis and its ability to produce fugitive dyes. I plan to place an emphasis on drawing as a physical and material phenomenon that can generate new knowledge, as opposed to drawing as information gathering through marks made on a substrate. These considerations will I believe, enrich my lines of enquiry which will focus on encounters with rare plants in darkened herbaria and light-filled sacred groves and the sensory differences between their live and preserved states.


Sian Bowen installing her her drawings at Wallington Hall, Northumberland.

Materials of Mass Participation: Aluminum and Paper in Early Twentieth Century U.S. Bird Banding

This post is contributed by Etienne Benson, Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania,

On August 31, 1922, Frederick C. Lincoln caught the 8:05am train from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and thence to Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he met Theodore A. Gey at his home and manufacturing plant. The two men then returned to Philadelphia, where they inspected a machine that was being built to Gey’s specifications at the Wiedemann Machine Company.

Even in its partially completed state, the machine seemed promising. When finished, Gey told Lincoln, it would be able to produce aluminum bands at a rate of 142 per minute, or 8,520 per hour. “With this machine fully installed,” Lincoln reported after returning to Washington, “Mr. Gey will no doubt be enabled to outbid all competitors for future orders and it is my belief that he will deliver material of a high quality.”

Lincoln’s report of his visit to Philadelphia sounds like that of a middle manager in some industrial enterprise, and indeed, in a way, that is what he was. As the director of the U.S. Biological Survey’s Bird Banding Office, he was responsible not only for recruiting volunteers and preparing reports on the nation’s migratory bird populations, but also for ensuring that the necessary research materials could be obtained at a reasonable price.

I had never thought much about this side of Lincoln’s job until I was invited to participate in a workshop at Oxford in May 2017 on the Material Culture of Citizen Science, which brought together members and affiliates of Constructing Scientific Communities and the working group on Working with Paper of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Once I did, though, it became clear that industrial materials and methods were essential to the success of bird banding during this period.

Before the advent of bird banding it was virtually impossible to study the migratory paths of individual birds, for two simple reasons: Humans are rarely capable of moving across the landscape as quickly as birds do, and they usually have trouble distinguishing one bird from another. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was recognized that these limitations could be overcome by recruiting large networks of observers, often volunteers, to attach numbered bands to the legs of birds and to report recovered bands. Since then many millions of birds have been banded, generating insights that have reshaped bird science and conservation.

Bird banding began in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, just a few years after the technique was first demonstrated on a large scale in Europe. Formal efforts to coordinate banding on a national scale began in 1909, but it was only after 1917, when Canada and the United States signed a treaty to conserve migratory birds, that the federal government became involved, establishing the Bird Banding Office with Lincoln as its head in 1920.

Over the following years Lincoln worked to create a national program of bird banding with the help of thousands of volunteer banders. As his trip to inspect Gey’s machine suggests, one of his challenges was finding a cheap and reliable source of aluminum bands. Gey already had a flourishing business producing a million-and-a-half bands for pigeon-keepers per year, and he promised Lincoln that he could do better than the Bird Banding Office’s current suppliers. While his pigeon bands were too thick and unwieldy for banding wild birds, he began working on a machine that could mass-produce lightweight, flexible, non-corroding, serially numbered aluminum bands that met the banding program’s needs.


Selection of bird bands used in the United States in the early twentieth century. Bands marked g, h, i, j, and k were in use by the Bird Banding Office in 1927 and were most likely manufactured at Theodore A. Gey’s Norristown plant. (Source: Frederick C. Lincoln, “Bird Banding in America,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute for 1927, Plate 1.)

The task proved to be more complicated than Gey had anticipated, and success ultimately hinged on close collaboration between manufacturer, machinist, and ornithologist. Just over two weeks after his initial visit, Lincoln was back on the train to Philadelphia, where Gey and a machinist were waiting for him with the completed machine. Upon arriving Lincoln saw immediately that the impressions made by the dies that marked the bands with “Biol. Surv.” and “Wash., D.C.,” respectively, were too shallow. After the faces of the dies were ground away from the raised letters, it took the remainder of the day to realign them on the machine.

Lincoln spent the night at Gey’s home in Norristown. When they returned to Philadelphia the next morning, they faced a new problem: The “No. 1” bands intended for use on the smallest birds were being stripped off the machine before they were properly formed. The necessary adjustments took several hours and involved re-machining a broken part. Once that was accomplished, the machine ran perfectly, but the batch of aluminum Gey had bought proved to be unevenly tempered, which made some of the bands too stiff to close properly. Gey arranged to take the aluminum to a friend in Bridgeport for annealing, and Lincoln returned to Washington hopeful that the machine would soon be in order.

These were the kinds of material challenges that faced bird banding in the United States as it was scaled up from a disparate collection of regional efforts to a nationwide program. Their prominence in the records of the Bird Banding Office at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where I found Lincoln’s reports of his collaboration with Gey, suggests that bird-banding did not become widespread in the early twentieth century solely for the reasons that historians and ornithologists have usually identified — that is, an increasing scientific interest in bird behavior and ecology, a growing amateur enthusiasm for bird-watching, and an expansion of state responsibility for managing wildlife populations. It was also because materials and methods of manufacturing had become available that rendered banding practicable on a grand scale.

Aluminum bands were not the only materials that mattered in this way. Just as important were the paper technologies that the Bird Banding Office developed to manage the data it received. Between the founding of the office in 1920 and the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, volunteer banders submitted, on average, more than 200,000 reports of newly banded birds per year and tens of thousands of additional reports of recovered bands, all of which were processed by a small staff of scientists and clerks in Washington. Having successfully mass-produced the tools required for tracking the movement of birds, Lincoln’s next challenge was to manage the overwhelming amount of data that resulted.

The solution again relied on the availability of industrial materials and machines. In the early years of the Bird Banding Office, reports of new bandings and recoveries were submitted on paper forms that were laboriously copied and filed by hand by the clerical staff in Washington. By the end of the 1920s, however, as the piles of unprocessed reports grew and the onset of the Great Depression dimmed the prospects of expanding the office’s staff, the Bird Banding Office shifted to recording data on punch cards that could be sorted and tabulated by machine. Automation did not permanently solve the problem of data overload, but it at least kept the Bird Banding Office from falling even farther behind.


An undated photograph of Frederick C. Lincoln at his desk in Washington, with aluminum bird bands and pliers to his right and a map of North American migratory pathways on the wall. (Source: U.S. National Archives, reproduced in John Tautin, “Frederick C. Lincoln and the Formation of the North American Bird Banding Program.”)

Without aluminum bands, punch cards, and machines for producing and processing them, bird banding would certainly have been possible, but it is unlikely it would have reached the scale it did. Thousands of volunteers were able to participate because they received, at no cost, bands that were lightweight, corrosion-resistant, serially numbered, and easy to handle in the field, and the Bird Banding Office was able to use the data they submitted in large part because it was coded on paper cards that could be sorted and counted by machine. In these ways, bird banding as a nationwide citizen-science program was made possible by industrial materials and methods of mass production. When those materials were in short supply, as they were during World War II, bird banding declined accordingly.

Looking through the lens of material culture, then, it becomes clear that materials mattered to the rise of bird banding in the United States and elsewhere. Aluminum, paper, and machines did not determine the form taken by early twentieth century bird banding any more than smartphones and internet connections determine the form taken by today’s citizen science projects. But we cannot understand the citizen sciences of yesterday or today — their conditions of possibility, their barriers to entry, or the hierarchies of expertise they undermine or reinforce — without paying close attention to the material cultures of which they were and are a part.


People Powered Science II

At the beginning of the project I posted some thoughts on people powered science and how history might hold some lessons for contemporary citizen science practice. Since then I’ve been working some more on the people part of people powered science. I’ve been looking through the Zooniverse’s forums (each of the more than 100 projects hosted on the platform has a space for communication) and talking to some scientists. One interesting feature has started to emerge.

A big part of science is imagination. In a fascinating and slightly bizarre interview – ‘Einstein loves children’ / ‘”Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits.'” – with George Viereck published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, Albert Einstein claimed imagination was the most important part of his work:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.

There are several examples of imagination pushing Zooniverse projects into new areas – Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Green Peas are two of the most celebrated. The Peas and the Voorwerp are both objects that were spotted by people with less specialist knowledge (i.e. they weren’t trained as scientists) but the imagination to see that something interesting was happening. You can read about the Voorwerp in a comic produced by the Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance. It opens with the lines, ‘Science is driven by that most basic of human impulses, curiosity’. In the case of the Peas, at first the non-scientists had to convince the scientists that the Peas were worth looking at (they turn out to be significant star-formation clusters). So one could take the Voorwerp and the Peas to be cases of Einstein’s imagination over knowledge thesis.

The ‘Science‘ section of the Disk Detectives project describes this type of discovery, again, in terms of curiosity:

computer programs can only detect what we tell them to measure. But you can do much more than that. With a large all-sky data set and your curiosity, the possibilities for unexpected discoveries are vast.

This is interesting because scientists often see themselves as curiosity and imagination-driven beasts, following Einstein’s characterization. Celebrating the Voorwerp and the Peas as curiosity and imagination driven discoveries could suggest they represent a purer form of scientific endeavor, one unsullied by the performance and publishing demands that some feel have warped academic careers and the research process.

This leads to two questions. If everybody on a project is working from the same imagination driven curiosity, why are some of them called scientists but others not? And if people report that what motivates them towards participating in the Zooniverse is a ‘a desire to contribute to scientific research‘, that is ‘real academic research‘, is this what they take the real to signify: a curiosity and imagination-driven practice?

The first question might seem less relevant but the naming of names certainly matters. The conceptual resources we use to characterize the world, shape our perceptions of it as much as representing our own values. Donna Harraway is famous for this type of thinking. As she puts it in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges… It matters what worlds world worlds.’ Unsurprisingly her call for use of ‘Chthulucene’, to replace the Anthropocene, Capitalocene and so on, of recent appearance, made the Great Old One (guest blogging at, ‘skeptical that she did not mean to summon me by speaking my name, extra-H or no’. The choice to call the people without PhDs something different, even to call them volunteers, as the practice is on the Zooniverse, and not scientists, suggests that knowledge and training, on some level, despite what Einstein says, do make a difference.


That brings us to the second question, what is real research? What characteristics does it have? As with all ‘How Science Works?’ type questions, things get complicated pretty quickly. Opinion will vary and change over time. While many scientists, and those who think about what a scientist is and does, might be mostly Einstein (see: Popper), they also think at the same time in Kuhnian terms about themselves as technician-like ‘problem solvers’. One can also be a little bit Lakatos, somewhat Feyerabend, French on the big picture and Ladyman on the details.

Citizen science, because it is a young science, still very much in a process of definition, brings these questions to the fore and makes them not just descriptive, but also normative. Historians and philosophers of science have been thinking about what science has been and does for some time, but for citizen science practitioners, as they design projects and form practices, these are also a series of questions about what their science ‘should’ be.

This is something sociologists and the broad church of social studies of science can help with, despite the sometimes acrimonious relations between science and science studies. Given recent events, (can I just say Trump!?) and the growing crisis in science communication, it would seem to be the right time to have this big conversation on science. I would argue that armed with the lessons of history and philosophy of science, and science studies, citizen science in its imminence might be a suitable vehicle for that conversation.

We could also look at this issue of imagination from another direction, by thinking about the first part of that Einstein quote, and what role art plays in science. I’m interested in the playful and creative things people do around citizen science and how this sort of activity functions as part of the research process. How seriously should we take Einstein about the importance of enough artistry? The early evidence from the Zooniverse suggests very.


‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.’ Thanks to

You can write your name in the stars, using images that were presented for classification in Galaxy Zoo, thanks to Steven Bamford. On another project, Science Gossip, one of the forum moderators, Jules, has made an alphabet of nineteenth-century initials. The images of people who volunteer make up the stunning visual identity of the Orchid Observers project (and the use of copyright on many of these images makes clear they are works of art). What do these artistic expressions mean in terms of real research? Are they epiphenomena to the core process? Or will they, like epigenetics, turn out to be a surrounding structure, in this case a creative architecture, that makes the whole enterprise tick? There’s some interesting historical precedent on this question.


Initials. Credit: Jules @ScienceGossip

Most people know two things about Alexander Fleming, that he discovered penicillin and that he was messy. Fleming didn’t wash his petri dishes and one day, looking down upon his mess, wham. Penicillin. This might not be the whole of the truth. Or more importantly, the interesting part. Fleming was an amateur artist and member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and, ‘painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria‘. The paintings are far from beautiful, but they raise a host of questions about the role that this side of Fleming played in his penicillin moment.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you there are good reasons for thinking deeply about imagination, curiosity and art in citizen science and how they relate to research.  Interestingly this is where the scientists I’ve spoken to get most excited. They really care about art and the art of citizen science especially. I’ll be reporting back with some of their thoughts on this shortly.