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Biomedicine in museums

Science communication and personal presence

By September 18, 2008No Comments

Our good colleague Jim Bennett at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford has made an interesting observation about trends in science communication in the Times Literary Supplement (‘No strings’, March 28, pp.28-29).

Reflecting on a number of newly published books on cosmology, Jim points out that the role of the individual science writer seems to have been enhanced. Science communicators nowadays (compared to when Jim was a student, or what?) have a stronger personal presence in their writing, as though they “have decided that their readers need to see them as human beings”. It’s no longer sufficient to rely on writing technique and style, he notices — “personal reference, opinion and anecdote are now the favoured tools”.

Jim doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about this trend, although he seems to realise that it’s here to stay: “If history is autobiography, it seems that popular cosmology is going the same way”.

Despite his somewhat dismissive attitude to this personal stuff, Jim is right. Science writing is indeed becoming more author-centred (and in my humble view this is definitely to the better). What’s surprising is rather that — compared to other genres of writing — the arrival of the conspicuous first-person narrator and his/her whereabouts in science writing is such a late phenomenon (I’m not sure that it such a new thing, but let’s leave that for another post).

In other words, science communication has been one of the last bastions of impersonal writing. In journalism, in contrast, the self-reflexive and visible author has been around for decades. And in academia it all began in the 1970s and 1908s with anthropologists who wrote about the relation between themselves and their subjects. Today, the media abound with scholars who excel in self-presentation — just look how celebrity historian Simon Schama managed to fill the screen in his BBC series A History of Britain (2001), reducing the past to a mere background and extension of his own ego. Speak about history as autobiography!

However, the presence of the author in science communication isn’t restricted to the professional popularizers. ‘Real’ scientists too have become much more relaxed when it comes to flashing their egos in newspaper and magazine interviews. Many science magazines (like my favourite The Scientist) carry personal interviews with scientists. Websites and (especially) blogs are media that are tailor-made for scientists who are eager to present their science with a personal touch (see here for an earlier post on scientific self-presentation practice on the web). The genre of scientific autobiography too is having a revival with the publication of celebrity scientists’ memoirs, like James D. Watson’s (see here), Craig Venter’s (see here) and so forth.

The only kind of science communicators who seem to resist the self-presentational trend is apparently science museum curators. I still haven’t seen Jim expressing his ego through the Museum of the History of Science. Or perhaps I’m just blind — as Camilla pointed out earlier this year, cultural history exhibition curators employ rather subtle ways for sneaking themselves into their shows.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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