Scientific Objects and Emotion

The Curious Case of the Missing Sentiment

One of the reasons we have – and keep – stuff is because of the emotions that stuff provokes in us. There are whole books devoted to the emotions provoked by objects from knitted toys, to home decor, to family photographs, to just about anything you can think of…except for when it comes to scientific objects. So what gives?

Scary Tech Boxes

Scientific objects exist – mostly – as tools to measure and interpret the world around us. If you’ve ever heard the quote that a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems, a scientific instrument is a machine for turning our sense of the world around us into a different sense of the world around us.

As you might imagine, a machine for mucking about with our sense of the world around us has a small set of very niche uses, so when it stops being good for measurement and interpretation, it loses most of its status. Instead of being a machine for mucking about with our senses of the world, it’s a machine that turns confusion into more confusion. Since scientific labs are focused on building and using objects to produce knowledge, a knowledge-producing object that doesn’t produce knowledge is…confusing.

A science lab isn’t an archive or museum; it doesn’t have a place to put objects that don’t – in some way – help the lab make more knowledge. So what happens to our poor, outdated scientific object? It might get taken home, it might get auctioned off, or, if it’s very lucky, a museum might be able to take it. Realistically, it’s probably going in the bin. Unless someone working at the lab really loved that thing, or unless a museum loves it enough to give it a new home, it’s trash.

That small set of very niche uses makes it difficult for people to understand that object. It’s unfamiliar, it’s only used in specific contexts that most people won’t have experience with, and it’s not obvious what the objects are for. The object in the featured image is part of a flight spare for a telemetry unit – in plainer language, it’s a kind of instrument that transmits data from space to Earth (this is telemetry), and this is a special kind of instrument that stays on Earth to help understand the behaviour of its “twin” in space (this is a flight spare).

I know this because the Science Museum’s collection database told me what it was, because I’ve talked to people who worked on this exact object, and because I spend my workdays looking at, talking about, and thinking about this object. Without that, it would probably look like some kind of Scary Tech Box that involves complicated science and that people don’t want to touch. It would be near-illegible.

In material culture studies, there’s a serious problem of treating scientific objects as Scary Tech Boxes – they’re scientific, so – the logic goes – they’re complicated and can’t be interpreted like nonscientific objects. And so they can’t be interpreted at all; they sit there gathering dust or in landfill. This leads us nicely on to wondering whether we can interpret science as just another facet of human life, or whether we have to do something different…

Things are Sort of Fuzzy

The back and tail of a white cat on a brown wooden floor.
Things are sort of fuzzy, like this cat’s fur. Photo by Dids on

Part of the reason that scientific instruments become uninterpretable Scary Tech Boxes is that science itself becomes an uninterpretable Scary Tech Box. If you think of the way some non-scientists treat science – as a thing that comes out of some isolated lab, as something that just needs to be followed rather than a constantly-changing set of knowledge and practice – it seems very separate from society. Science is supposed to be objective, idealistic, free of passion and partisanship.

In my line of work, I draw on history, sociology and anthropology to look at what scientists and engineers really do in the lab. The key thing uniting these three approaches is that I treat scientists and engineers as people – people who are shaped by, and in turn shape, the communities they live and work in. Nobody leaves behind their personhood when they go to work in the lab; nobody quite leaves science behind when they step out of that lab, either. “Science” and “society” aren’t separate; hell, they aren’t even neatly defined categories. They’re sort of fuzzy.

Science and society being fuzzily defined can be frustrating – but fuzziness is an opportunity to learn new things and see exactly how science and society intertwine themselves around each other.

Emotions in Science

Because scientists and engineers don’t leave behind their cultures and social norms when they go to work, they’re not perfectly objective or working in a vacuum. If anything, scientists and engineers are deeply emotional about their work. While doing oral history interviews, scientists and engineers recalled a range of emotions. Happiness, pride, nostalgia, frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness were just a few of the emotions that scientists and engineers talked about explicitly or implied – and, since scientists can be quite reticent to talk about this stuff on the record, there’s probably more that I can’t get just from interviews.

So how can we look at scientific objects and work out their relationships with emotions in science? I’m planning on taking a couple of case studies here from my own research. One is the telemetry unit you can see in the featured image; the other is actually two sets of instruments, in a story which involves exploding rockets.

It can be difficult to get other people to care about the “lives” of given objects. There are good reasons for that – nobody is obligated to care about something they don’t know about and will never come across. Still, I’m going to try and make you care because these objects are bound up with the life stories of real people. These people laughed, cried, raged and celebrated over scientific instruments, and I want to find out how we can tell that from looking at the objects themselves.

Case study 1: Ariel VI telemetry unit flight spare

The first thing I’m going to look at in this post is the flight spare of the telemetry unit on Ariel VI, a UK-US satellite. The telemetry unit on board the satellite itself, which launched in June 1979 and burned up on re-entry in 1990, would have transmitted data from space to Earth for the whole working life of the satellite. The flight spare would have stayed on Earth in a dedicated clean room and used to monitor the performance of the telemetry unit in space.

Ariel VI stopped working in February 1982, and the flight spare became an instrument without much use. We don’t know what happened to the telemetry unit flight spare before the Science Museum acquired it in 1986. Since then, it’s been sitting in storage at Blythe House, staying stubbornly silent because there’s not been a lot of historical research on Ariel VI. My supervisor even said to me that he was very happy I’d found out some information about it, because there’s been precious little about it.

On the surface, it’s pretty difficult to find out anything about that flight spare just from looking at it – so I had to draw on my oral history interviews with different scientists and engineers who worked on that mission.

One of the reasons people are so quiet about Ariel VI is that it didn’t do very well as a satellite – it ran into difficulties. One of them was that Ariel was a spinning satellite, but it wasn’t properly balanced and kept “wobbling”, which made it more difficult to take data. The other was external – and helping to fix it is a key part of this object’s story.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR used a very long-range radar system called Duga (“The Arc”) as part of its missile defence system. The two Duga radar systems, one near Chernobyl, one in eastern Siberia, had transmitters so powerful that they could interfere with broadcasts, commercial aviation transmissions, amateur radio, and yes, satellites. If it went over Russia, Duga was going to interfere with it.

The Duga systems were noisy, too. Over shortwave radio, they made a sharp, repetitive tapping sound and were collectively nicknamed “Woodpecker”.

This is what Duga sounded like. Duga-3 isn’t a station; there was a Duga prototype in Ukraine, while Duga-1 and Duga-2 were the full-scale versions that messed with other people’s equipment. The voices you can hear in the video aren’t part of the Duga system at all; they’re part of a transmission from station WWV near Fort Collins, Colorado. Station WWV helps the US maintain accurate time.

Anyway, this overpowered, noisy system interfered with Ariel VI every time the satellite passed over Russia. Which was…a lot. And that meant that the people working on Ariel VI would have to manually reset it…a lot. From Australia.

One person, who initially started his PhD with Ariel VI, recalled that he had to change his PhD project because of the issues that Duga caused. As mentioned, it’s difficult to work out what emotions people are expressing – and this can be because they’re not necessarily expressing emotions here at all.

Another person, though, got some of his big breaks working on Ariel VI. He recalled the pride he felt in being trusted with building a module to see if the commands being transmitted were the correct ones, and he talked about how much he enjoyed working on an automatic ground station to counteract the effects of the Duga systems. While he was quite understated about his experiences, it was clear from context that he really valued his experiences working with Ariel VI.

Case study 2: Cluster PEACE

The Cluster PEACE instrument - a golden rounded sensor head - on a blue-green background.
The Cluster PEACE instrument, before the explosion. Photo taken in a clean room. Credit: Martin de la Nougerede.

The second thing I’m going to look at is an instrument called Cluster PEACE (Plasma Electron And Current Experiment). Cluster PEACE is what’s called a “top-hat electrostatic electron analyser”, because it measures how fast electrons are going and is shaped a little bit like a top hat.

Cluster PEACE is an interesting instrument because, in total, there are at least eight of it. Four were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to be launched on four identical spacecraft (the Cluster satellites). In 1996, after almost a year-long delay, these four identical spacecraft were stacked onto the very first Ariane 5 rocket to ever launch.

Less than a minute into the first Ariane 5 flight, the rocket veered sideways and self-destructed in a massive explosion. A thorough investigation determined that the explosion was down to a software error.

After the very visible, very public failure of the first Cluster mission, the Cluster scientific community spent about a year persuading various scientific bodies that they should rebuild the four Cluster spacecraft. In 2000, these were then launched two at a time, using a Soyuz rocket with a Fregat upper stage to carry two spacecraft. The four new Cluster PEACE instruments have been in space ever since, supported by flight spares on the ground.

Just from these three paragraphs, we can already see that people are going to have incredibly complex emotions about these instruments – and that’s exactly what happened.

When I was interviewing people about Cluster I PEACE (the instruments on the exploding rocket) and Cluster II PEACE (the instruments up in space), they spoke about the two sets of instruments quite differently, although both provoked strong sets of emotions. That’s how I ended up dividing them.

The people who talked about Cluster I PEACE spoke most often of disappointment, sometimes in quite a detached way – just sticking to the facts – and sometimes recounting other people’s very public displays of emotion. There was also some surprise there – some people were taken aback by how strongly they felt about Cluster, even though it was “just a job”. And some people spoke of suffering personally and professionally from the failure through reputational damage.

An interesting thing is that people tended to distance themselves from any kind of negative emotion such as disappointment or sadness; it would be implicit in their testimony rather than explicit. I speculate that this is partly down to professional norms about showing emotion in the scientific workplace, and that this is partly down to all of the people who spoke about Cluster being men who were raised and are living in a culture where expressing emotions is seen as unmanly.

What I found really interesting is that Cluster I PEACE isn’t just associated with disappointment – it’s also associated with pride. After Cluster II launched and flew with eventual success – more on that later – you start to see things like people commemmorating the first Cluster launch by displaying the recovered wreckages of their instrument. There’s even an ESA (European Space Agency) award with parts of Cluster debris inside it.

And if you want to hear some of the people who worked on Cluster PEACE talk about the failure, they did so on a podcast for UCL.

Cluster II has a different story altogether. The period in between Cluster I and Cluster II is fraught, with major players dying and the very real possibility that space plasma physics in Europe would be held back. Roger Bonnet, who once served as ESA’s Director of Science, played a key role in arguing for the funding, development and launch of Cluster II. Several people also stopped work on Cluster after the explosion. (This makes a lot of sense: if people are devoting 10-20 years to a project, and that project then fails, the past 10-20 years of their jobs have essentially gone up in smoke and they’ll want to do something with a better chance of success.)

When people discussed their emotions relating to Cluster II, they discussed the ways they felt while doing things – making and testing the rebuilt PEACE. Part of this is that emotions around Cluster II are, in general, very complex; Cluster II nearly failed when two of the satellites were initially in the wrong orbit until an upper stage burn. Although it’s been working for twenty years, Cluster II scientists had to fight to keep the mission running and avoid the four satellites burning up in the atmosphere. If they can’t get continued funding, the satellites – and the teams working on them – may not be so lucky next time.

Additionally, while Ariel VI was only in orbit for a few years, Cluster II has been in orbit for decades. Before that, people started Cluster I in the 1980s, and before that most of the people who first developed the Cluster concept had worked on the GEOS satellites. Work on those started in the late 1960s. All in all, a scientific community based on a set of related instruments has existed for more than fifty years. That’s a lot of time for emotions to grow, develop and change – and that might account for some of the complex and contradictory feelings that people expressed.


Scientific objects are so much more than scary tech boxes. They’re made by people, and the way that people think about them is evident in the way that they treat those objects.

Objects have lots and lots and lots of emotions associated with them. They’re not always easy to read. Sometimes they contradict each other. But they’re there.

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