Scientific objects! What are they good for?

Why am I writing this?

As I come to the end of my PhD, I’ve been struggling to incorporate material culture. I can talk about the objects I research – the objects I love – for hours, but when I try to put my thoughts into writing, I’m left staring at a blank screen.

I’m going to try to articulate why studying scientific objects matters. I’m going to talk about why we study objects in the first place, how this started out, and how we study scientific objects today.

What is material culture?

What I do in my PhD is something called material culture studies. This sounds fancy. Some people like to think of material culture studies as fancy. I definitely do not think of material culture as fancy!

To me, material culture is about studying the things people make in the hope that the way these things were made can tell us about our society. For example, if you’re reading this, you’re probably doing so on a phone, computer or tablet. Your device is probably lightweight, meant to fit in your hand or be carried around in a bag. It’s made out of metal and plastic and it’s probably got a rectangular screen – maybe with rounded corners. It might have a keyboard attached to it where you can input different characters and write things, or it might have a touchscreen where you’re expected to interact with different points on the screen. There are openings, known as ports, for charging the device or for connecting different objects like earphones.

On the outside, there are probably stickers or decals telling you about who made the device. Some people also like to add lightweight plastic cases that protect their device – usually made by a different company – and people often choose the case for its aesthetic value. Some people will even add extra stickers to their devices to express their interests and passions.

On the inside, these devices are rammed full of mass-produced printed circuit boards with machine-soldered connections. Different components on these printed circuit boards, such as the processors, come from different places in the world, and the printed circuit boards usually have marks on them that indicate where they were made. The devices also have lithium-ion batteries for charging and recharging, and wifi adapters for connecting to wireless internet. During the normal working life of a device, you would be unlikely to open it up – their casings are usually designed such that it is difficult to open them up. If you did, you would find that the printed circuit boards are lightweight but rough to the touch.

What this tells us is that we live in a society where people carry around highly complex, highly technical devices with components that are machined and assembled in places all around the globe. The devices are fragile and need to be protected, and the objects used for protecting the devices also have a different purpose – to express the likes and passions of the people who have bought those objects. We use these devices to communicate with each other across the world.

This is one example of how we can think about the material culture of technology. I chose computers, tablets and phones because most of us have them and yet they’re complex objects that require a lot of technical knowledge to figure out!

It’s worth noting that part of the reason I can explain what these objects are used for, and what they mean, is that I use my phone and computer all the time. Someone 200 years from now might have a harder time if their only exposure to these devices was seeing a banged-up phone with a cracked screen, its battery long dead, in a museum’s collection somewhere. Objects always “live” in some kind of wider social context, a context that can be hard to articulate.

The origins of material culture studies

Material culture has its origins in semiotics (the study of meaning) and in studying objects currently used by people (let’s be honest, mostly pots). Scientific objects operate in a different context – highly technical, often considered “apart” from society, mostly not artistically decorated like pots or whatever.

Humans have been making objects for thousands of years. By contrast, the study of what these objects tell us is very much younger!

To start with, we’ll jump back in time to the nineteenth century and the beginnings of semiotics – the study of meaning. People like Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Peirce wanted to understand how and why things – well, primarily words – acquire meaning. Anthropologists extended this to understanding how different things have different meanings in different cultures.

Continental theorists then turned semiotics inwards towards Western societies. In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes analysed some of the signs and symbols that you might see in 1950s France. Similarly, Jean Baudrillard analysed the objects that you might have seen in a bourgeois French home in the early 1960s, and analysed what they all meant.

One of the foundational texts in how to analyse objects is Jules Prown’s Mind in Matter. This introduces the concept of material culture and what to do with it. Despite how removed academia can be from the material and the concrete (and I say this as an academic), this paper is decidedly practical, encouraging the reader to touch and pick up objects, really feeling them as things in the physical world.

In general, the theory behind material culture studies has a good amount of continental theory in it. That means – if you so wish – there’s a lot of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari for those who care to read them. (For those who don’t care to read them: the great thing is that material culture exists in the real, physical, tangible world and so you can build a strong empirical foundation from that.)

Scientific objects and material culture today

OK. So far, we’ve gone through why this post exists, what material culture is, and how we study material culture. So how do material culture studies and scientific objects interact?

The answer is that this is an active field of study, pushed forward by historians of science, museum workers and independent scholars and enthusiasts. It’s still dwarfed by material culture studies of things that are not science, and, crucially, seems to have an odd separation from the people who made and have worked with the scientific instruments – more on this later.

The historian’s view

Much of the material culture of science that is studied today consists of studies of “scientific” objects from the 19th century and before – I put “scientific” in quotes here because what does and doesn’t count as a scientific object is shaped by our perceptions of what science is. For example, a globe of the Moon made by an American woman in the 19th century might be classified as an artistic endeavour made by an amateur rather than a scientific instrument or object, because of gendered assumptions about what scientific instruments are and who makes them, but a 17th-century telescope might be considered a scientific object even though, at the time it was made, the telescope would have been used for doing natural philosophy rather than doing science. (They’re different things – natural philosophy can be thought of as a science-y thing that came before science.) (Update from Paul Ranford: no they’re not. It’s not appropriate to separate them. They’re the same set of activities under a different name. Thanks for putting me right on this, Paul.)

Crucially, all of these “scientific” objects from the 19th century and before were made by people who are now dead. This means that a wealth of information and tacit knowledge about these objects has been lost. The people who work with these objects today are informed by historical practice and the practice of what it means to do history.

At the risk of sounding like I’m doing Whig history, that unproblematic history where everything builds up nicely towards ever greater technological and human progress, older instruments are (usually) more limited in their scope. The whole point of building scientific instruments for research is to build on what already exists and extend the data-gathering and data-interpreting capabilities of different scientific communities – so usually, the older scientific instruments in museums were built to take less data. I’m not going to say that they’re necessarily easier to interpret, because they might be made of different materials, use different mechanisms to capture data, or involve tacit knowledge on how to operate them that is now lost. I am going to say that instruments designed to take less data work differently from instruments designed to take and store more data, or instruments designed to network with other instruments to take, store, transmit and process data.

This also affects how historians think about the material culture of science. As a researcher, I see a lot of what we call object biographies – creating a “story” centred around just one object from its creation as a scientific instrument to its “afterlife” in storage, in a museum, or on a rubbish heap. I also see some of what we call assemblages – looking at how groups of objects in their environment interact with social and cultural norms, as well as with individuals, to produce a system larger than the sum of its parts. I wouldn’t say I am totally on Team Assemblage, because being on Team Assemblage involves knowing a lot more about what Deleuze and Guattari wrote than I actually do. I would say that I am totally on Team Interconnected Network of Objects.

The scientist’s view

We’ve seen how historians think about scientific objects. How do scientists think of objects?

It turns out they think about them very, very differently. Roughly speaking, scientists seem to think of scientific objects as ways for acting on the observable universe and spitting out data – machines that look at bits of the universe and turn observations into numbers. Apart from that, published scientific papers don’t necessarily have much discussion of how instrumentation works, or about physical qualities that an instrument might have – its smell, whether it feels hot or cold to the touch, its texture, anything like that. The focus is on what the instrument can do in terms of producing more science.

Interestingly, while this comes up in scientific papers – which are aimed at other scientists – it doesn’t come up nearly as much in internal communications between scientists. When leafing through internal memos about the designs of parts of scientific instruments, I found sketches, diagrams and detailed discussions of exactly what those instruments should be made of and what dimensions they should conform to. This showed that these particular scientists were well aware of their instrument as a physical, tangible object – but for whatever reason it wasn’t appropriate to discuss the instrument as a physical object in their scientific papers, only to discuss the scientific capabilities of the instrument. In oral history interviews, they do sometimes talk about the physical presence of these instruments, but not often – more about how they relate professionally (or sometimes emotionally) to scientific instruments and scientific objects.

The instrument scientist’s view

I’ve put instrument scientists and research scientists in two separate categories here because they do different things. Specifically, instrument scientists research how to design, build, test and maintain instruments, including understanding instrument degradation and how this affects the ways in which data should be interpreted.

Although instrument scientists do important jobs, they don’t always get much recognition when talking about science – though hopefully this is changing.

I had the privilege to talk to some instrument scientists when conducting oral history interviews and it was an illuminating experience all round! I learned that they don’t necessarily spend that much time with the physical objects, but they do spend a lot of time on computers helping to design the objects and simulate what they do under different conditions. This is a different way of thinking about and interacting with scientific objects, thinking through their many different “lifetimes” so that the scientific object can have the best and longest “life” to produce the most data.

The (invisible) engineer’s view

Last – and very definitely not least – there are the engineers who work with the objects directly, designing and building them. These are the people who have the most interaction with scientific objects as physical objects.

In the history of science, there’s a concept of the invisible technician. Essentially, the people who work directly with the instruments become invisible and written out because of their comparative lack of prestige when compared with scientists. Technicians and engineers are still invisible to this day because they are not perceived as doing “real science”. Even the photographs of engineers and technicians taken with objects might make them seem more invisible – for example, if the engineer is not named, or if they are wearing a hazmat suit that obscures most of their features, or if their face is not even in view.

The ways in which engineers and technicians are made invisible aren’t just a historical curiosity. They also make it more difficult to talk to the people who spend a lot of time physically interacting with scientific objects.

As is really, really common in material culture studies, we have a situation where the scientific objects mean different things to different people and are interpreted in different ways. No one person or group can have an exclusive claim on objects, and especially on 20th-century scientific objects, because they’re so complex. This means that we have to do history differently with these kinds of objects. Historians are not exclusive experts with exclusive rights to interpret scientific objects; we’re a small part of a very large network.

Why should we care about 20th-century scientific objects?

This is all very well and good. Why should anyone care? “History” conjures up images of kings and queens long dead, musty tomes, and silent archives – not images of sitting down on a sunny day and doing Zoom interviews, or snapping on plastic gloves to have a friendly chat with curators and object handlers while stroking a 3D-printed model of a scientific instrument.

Here’s a secret about doing history: you don’t have to wait until people are dead to start doing history. With scientific objects, it’s especially important to start doing this history while people are alive. As alluded to in the previous sections, because scientific objects can be so complex, lots of different groups of people interpret them differently. Moreover, scientific objects usually require tacit knowledge to operate or even make sense of. When people die, that tacit knowledge dies with them. It’s vital to capture it as soon as possible.

Moreover, scientific objects in the 21st century are closest to scientific objects in the 20th century. Very often, scientific objects and instruments will be built on incremental advances from existing and proven technology, because this shows an evidence base for the technology working and is less risky than deciding to build completely new mechanisms from scratch. If we do not pay attention to 20th-century scientific objects, we will have a much harder time understanding the scientific objects of today – and in turn we will have a much harder time understanding the scientific objects of the future.

How do we interpret them?

One of the points I’ve been driving home in writing this essay is that interpreting scientific objects means trying to understand the attitudes that different people have towards them. This can come from the documentary record, oral histories, ethnographies, or just about anything else, but it has to come from there because the historian is not in a position to act as the sole interpreter of scientific objects.


The material culture of 20th-century scientific objects is…complicated, on a number of levels, and so the subject doesn’t get the attention it needs even though it’s important. The way out of this mess is to listen to all of the people with a stake in the object. That’s how we’ll learn more.

Further reading

Roland Barthes – Mythologies

Jean Baudrillard – The System of Objects

David DeVorkin – Hubble’s Legacy, Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, and Observed the Universe with It

Hilary Geoghegan and Alison Hess – Object-love at the Science Museum: cultural geographies of museum storerooms

Alice Gorman – Dr. Space Junk VS The Universe

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar – Laboratory Life

Jules David Prown – Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method

Steven Shapin – The Invisible Technician

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