Science is not a popularity contest

Greetings, all - your friendly "museums as seen on BBC news" reporter here... Also breaking the nice tidy sum of 1,111 posts on The Attic. This is #1,112.

Anyhoodles, back to the news. The Science Museum in London has published its Top Ten most significant objects list:

  • Steam engine
  • V2 rocket engine
  • Electric telegraph
  • Stephenson's Rocket
  • X-ray machine
  • Model T Ford
  • Penicillin
  • Pilot ACE Computer
  • DNA double helix
  • Apollo 10 capsule

Except, of course, that's a bit misleading, because the double helix isn't really an object, and I'd be surprised and disturbed if they had a live Penicillin culture in their stores. So what are we voting for, then? Objects, or the ideas they represent?

As museologists, I think we should all be concerned. Not only is the Science Museum trivializing scientific achievement by conflating artefacts and ideas, and asking the public to vote on their significance, but I am dead-set against the idea of a reality-TV-show-style vote in favour of, or against museum objects. Granted, nothing is in danger of getting voted out, but sometimes museums contain things in their stores, the significance of which isn't immediately recognised. Plus (and this might inspire some disagreement), I think the Museum has a responsibility to interpret these things, not just let us, the undereducated public, once again rely on our mass-media-fed cliched perceptions. Engendering debate, as the quote below seems to suggest, is the point of this list - but how can you argue without knowing the facts?

The museum's chief curator, Tim Boon, wants the top 10 to spark debate about the value of inventions and discoveries.
"What did we miss, is there an alternative top ten? Some of the objects may divide opinion. Would we be better off if some of the icons, which have had negative consequences, had not been invented?"

Who came up with this list, anyway? Nowhere do I see a justification for why these items, and not others, made it to the list. Finally, a list like this, at least for me, shows in stark relief why museums merely give the illusion of global intellectual representativeness, and actually are strange, esoteric collections of mere stuff. Surely, a Copernican model of the solar system is more representative of human intellect, aptitude, and achievement in science and technology than the arbitrary choice of the Apollo 10 capsule? What about the first paper published on germ theory, or going further back, Antony von Leeuwenhoek's descriptions of baccilae, versus penicillin? Shouldn't we be debating the concept of such a thing as scientific heritage "icons", instead of promoting it further?

I think the thing that bothers me about this popularity contest is that it is run by a museum. It's frankly irresponsible. This isn't like the contest for icons of British design run by The Culture Show a few years ago - that was done by a media outlet, but at least it had "experts" weighing in on the choices, and explaining them! Here, we are once again faced with the monolithic authority of the museum, except with a pretense toward democracy and debate, but without any real way of meaningfully doing so. The objects won't change; their meanings won't be debated; and nothing new will be discovered. The public doesn't even get to weigh in on a new acquisition, or something of real lasting value to any international scientific legacy. Most gallingly of all, this flies in the face of the spirit of scientific inquiry. What on earth does the curator mean, "would we have been better off had some things not been invented?" Yes, Oppenheimer repented of the use of atomic weapons, but that doesn't mean he repented of the process that made it be.

So, what's the point of this list? What can the museum or the public gain? No, really - I want to know!


Amy said…
I'll be interested to see where this campaign goes. Could it end up as a television series? That would certainly allow for a bit more contextualisation and justification. But I entirely get your point. Who says this is more important than that? Often, surely the original discovery that went on to enable the invention of the 'star' object was more significant. Reminds me of Latour's 'black boxes' debate.

Okay, have just checked the Science Museum website and there is a lot more info on each object, along with comments from 'experts'and champions online:

In fact they do seem to have a sample of Fleming's penicillium mould culture in their collection:
J said…
Ah, thanks for this, Amy. Context is always appreciated!

"Often, surely the original discovery that went on to enable the invention of the 'star' object was more significant."
Yes, that's what the science Nobel Prizes are usually for. They are usually given to people after the impact of their original discovery is made evident. (Of course, sometimes this doesn't happen after the people have died, so many deserving individuals never get it, but the point is, they don't reward the "star" object or theory, they go back to the source that made it possible.)
Anonymous said…
Amy said, "Often, surely the original discovery that went on to enable the invention of the 'star' object was more significant." The objects read like a top engineering objects list, but "New Scientist" labeled them scientific objects, when the BBC piece did not.


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