Science (and Science History) for the Public

This past weekend, scholars met in Chicago for the annual meeting of the History of Science Society. A big highlight – for me at least – was that my book The Visioneers won the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize which “promotes public understanding of the history of science.”

I was especially pleased to see that my book’s award came on the heels of last year’s winner, David Kaiser’s romping How the Hippies Saved Physics. Given that a few of the same characters appear in both books, is it possible that HSS now stands for Hippie Studies Society. :) So, who were Watson and Helen Miles Davis?

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This question takes us to some interesting places in the history of how journalists, working with scientists, communicated new research discoveries to the general public. All of this activity unfolded against a backdrop of tremendous change, not just in science, but media technologies as well as public taste and expectations.

Watson Davis and Helen Miles were both born in 1896. As a young man, Watson trained to be an engineer but also had an interest in bringing news about science to a wider audience.

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Watson Davis, seated, 1920s photo (source: Smithsonian Institution)

In 1921, he was appointed Managing Editor of a new organization called Science Service. Now known as the Society for Science and the Public, Science Service was started that same year by journalist Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William Emerson Ritter.1  Its mission was to informed the public of the latest achievements in science. As Scripps said, their organization should “tell the millions outside the laboratories and the lecture halls what was going on inside.”2 At the same time, the service had to be perceived not as a cheerleader for science but rather an objective and reliable source of information for the public and newspaper editors. These activities were largely funded by Scripps who donated  $30,000 per year from 1921 until his death in 1926. His will put $500,000 in a trust for Science Service which provided an endowment for three more decades.

Davis himself became director of Science Services in 1933, a position he held until 1966. He was married to Helen Miles (1896-1957) who herself was involved with science communication; she edited the journal Chemistry which the American Chemical Society published.

The history of Science Service’s and Davis’s professional life gives a fascinating window into all sorts of important events throughout the mid-20th century, some connected with science, some not. These are all the more fascinating given the huge changes that took place within the scientific establishment and mass media industries during this time.

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William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Darrow, during the Scopes trial (Source).

For example, Science Service provided extensive coverage of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Watson Davis went to Dayton to cover the proceedings. His photographs, as well as the official reports broadcast by Science Service, gave Americans a different sense of the controversy stirred by the “trial of the century” than they might otherwise have received from other news services. Two decades later, Science Service was one of the organs – along with the New York Times which had an inside scoop – that communicated the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the American public.

Although initially intended as a news service, Science Service produced an extensive and sophisticated set of products that spanned several different forms of media. Besides These included radio programs, motion pictures, phonograph records, and science demonstration kits that would be distributed through the mail.

Under Watson Davis’s directorship, Science Services also organized science fairs. The first Science Talent Search (originally sponsored by Westinghouse and now sponsored by Intel since 1998), was held in 1942. The first two winners were Paul Teschan who went on do research in nephrology and Marina Prajmovsky who had a career as an ophthalmologist.

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Watson Davis (center) with winners of ’42 science fair, Teschan and Prajmovsky

During the Davis’s career, science as well as the technologies of mass communication transformed. Science Service learned how to occupy a middle ground; it had to maintain enough public appeal (and, sometimes, sensationalism) to newspaper editors and radio hosts while not alienating the scientists and engineers who valued accuracy. During Davis’s tenure, the entire scientific enterprise in the U.S. transformed. Big Science, secrecy, and massive government-funded laboratories became the norm while science and scientists became newsworthy. New fields like cosmology, nuclear physics, and molecular biology became prominent while older ways of doing and funding research faded. When Davis started his career, newsprint was king and radio was just starting; both were becoming rapidly commercialized. By the time of his death in 1967, televised news dominated.

Science Service occupied a curious position in the science/reporting/public ecosystem of the mid-20th century. It was a not-for-profit independent news organization yet its goal was to promote understanding of science in a way that would not offend scientists yet would also appeal to publishers who bought its products. As Marcel LaFollette writes, Watson Davis’s appointment as Science Service’s director in 1933 was a “compromise that placed public interest and marketplace appeal first” but also responded to public demand for more stories about technological innovation while still, of course, attending to scientists’ concerns about accuracy.

It’s interesting to juxtapose the output of Science Service with other later ventures aimed to connect science and scientists with a broader audience. In the late 1970s, for example, there was a veritable boom in popular science. Dozens of new science and technology magazines, newspaper sections, and TV shows about science and technology appeared. One of the more curious critters to emerge was Omni magazine.

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Omni wasn’t a direct competitor to “establishment” publications like Scientific American or shows like NOVA but existed in a class of its own. Instead it was more of a “para-scientific” publication that reported on recent developments in science and technology but for a non-elite audience. Besides presenting popular science discoveries, Omni crossed borders into areas – the paranormal, fringe science, and fantasy – that more mainstream magazines like Scientific American wouldn’t touch. Like the Science Service, Omni was part of a longer trend of science communication efforts shaped in varying degrees by entertainment values.

Watson Davis and Science Service mastered the art of productive compromise – giving the public an engaging presentation while still maintaining respect for accuracy. As Davis wrote in 1960, “science is news, good news…that can compete…with crime, politics, human comedy and pathos.” At the same time, it could be “written popularly so as to be accurate in fact and implication and yet be good reading.”3 I’m proud to see Visioneers recognized with the Davis Prize.

  1. The creation of Science Service and its activities are documented wonderfully by historian Marcel LaFollette in a series of books. []
  2. Quote from article. []
  3. Watson Davis, “The Rise of Science Understanding,” in Smithsonian Archives []

Golden Fleece 2.0?

Note: Recently, several stories – here and here, for example – have reported the political attacks on the National Science Foundation and its peer review system. The assault seems especially to target research in the social sciences that the agency sponsors. I asked Melinda Baldwin - who is working on a history of peer review (and whose fascinating new book on the history of the journal Nature will appear next year) – to contribute a guest post. Lindy’s thoughtful and timely contribution is below…


Senator William Proxmire made a career out of taking principled and stubborn stances. Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat who held office from 1957–1988, was an early critic of the Vietnam War, an early advocate of campaign finance reform, and a jogging fan who authored You Can Do It!: Senator Proxmire’s Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan.

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Proxmire, 1981.

Proxmire is best remembered, however, for his Golden Fleece Awards, a monthly badge of dishonor he bestowed upon the federal project that he deemed the month’s worst use of taxpayer money.

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1978 political cartoon; Proxmire, wearing his “Golden Fleece” is milking the taxpayers for his home state. (Source)

While Proxmire’s “prize” eventually graced almost every federal agency, one of his favorite targets was the National Science Foundation—an organization that, Proxmire believed, frequently funded frivolous projects that were of no benefit to the American people.

Fast forward four decades — Proxmire seems to have found a successor in Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the current chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Last summer Smith made headlines when he requested peer review reports from five National Science Foundation grants that he felt were questionable.

Smith has also followed in Proxmire’s footsteps by publicly mocking individual grants. And last month, ScienceInsider reported that Smith has successfully obtained access to the referee reports on fifty NSF grants as part of an investigation into the NSF’s inner workings. Smith told ScienceInsider the review will continue “until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest.”

Many scientists and policymakers have worried that Smith’s investigations will damage the NSF’s peer review process. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) called Smith’s actions a “campaign against NSF’s merit-review system,” and the NSF has protested that reviewers submitted their reports under a promise of confidentiality.

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Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX), 2014.

With Smith’s investigation still ongoing, it is worth considering the history of peer review at the NSF—and examining how the clash between the NSF and Proxmire played out nearly forty years ago.

It was not until after the Second World War that external refereeing came to be seen as an essential feature of a respectable scientific journal or grant-giving organization.1 After the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 established the NSF, the new Foundation’s leadership quickly decided that they should consult outside experts for opinions on proposals. Some proposals were sent out for “ad hoc” mail review; copies of the proposal would be mailed to scientists, who would then submit their comments by return mail. Others were evaluated by panels of experts assembled in Washington to read proposals and prepare reports on-site. The choice of the reviewers, as well as the choice of panel review versus mail review, was left up to NSF employees.

In 1975, the NSF’s peer review process became the center of a major public controversy when Proxmire bestowed the first two Golden Fleece Awards on NSF projects. The first “prize” went to a sociological study at the University of Wisconsin about interpersonal attraction. Proxmire declared that the NSF should “leave some things in life a mystery” and “get out of the love racket.” A second award went to psychologist Ronald Hutchinson’s study of why humans, rats, and monkeys clench their jaws in moments of stress. Proxmire called the study “nonsense” and complained, “The good doctor has made a fortune from his monkeys and in the process made a monkey out of the American taxpayer.” Proxmire’s lively and cutting press releases won widespread media attention—and led Hutchinson to sue him for libel.2

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Proxmire (center), 1976.

But Proxmire’s criticisms also struck a deeper nerve. The American economy was mired in stagflation and still reeling from the recent oil crisis. Media attention placed Congress’s attention squarely on the NSF’s spending. Congressman Robert Bauman even proposed an amendment that would have required the NSF to obtain Congressional approval for each grant. The controversy culminated in six days of oversight hearings about the NSF’s peer review process in July 1975. Nearly everyone at the hearings agreed that peer review was the best method for deciding which grants should receive funding. Congressman John Conlan even argued that the NSF wasn’t relying enough on peer review and instead put too much responsibility in the hands of NSF staff.3

The outlier was Proxmire, who argued that the concept of peer review was fundamentally flawed. In a written statement, Proxmire declared, “I have received a number of letters pointing out that the peer review system serves to perpetuate the funding of established people, ideas and institutions.”

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Proxmire, a few years after the NSF hearings.

Proxmire seemed to hold out little hope that peer review could be anything other than “incestuous.” He argued that NSF reviewers would favor proposals whose research had been published in peer-reviewed journals, journals would look favorably on articles that had received peer-reviewed NSF grants, and that “we come full circle, when we realize that many of the top researchers in a scientific field have been recipients of NSF grants, reviewers of NSF grants and finally editors of their technical journals.”

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Cover of 1975 hearings.

Proxmire’s criticisms found little support at the oversight hearings, however. Subcommittee Chair James Symington (D-Missouri) declared that “witnesses overwhelmingly agree” that the concept of peer review was “fundamentally sound” and should be used at the NSF. Meanwhile, the NSF leadership responded to Conlan and Bauman’s criticisms by creating a new audit office that ensured the NSF was placing appropriate emphasis on both positive and negative peer review reports. The NSF also began providing verbatim copies of referee reports to proposers—a practice that continues to this day.

How does the 1975 controversy echo in the 2014 remix? Unlike Proxmire, Rep. Lamar Smith has insisted that he does not wish to alter the NSF’s peer review process. But Smith’s criticisms of individual grants and the demand for the NSF’s referee reports strongly suggest that Smith does not believe that reviewers are making good recommendations about which projects are in the national interest. In 1975, Congress and the NSF placed trust in peer review to ensure that NSF grants would support both excellent basic research and national interests. In 2014, Smith seems to believe that this trust was misplaced.

From a historian’s perspective, what remains fascinating is that attacks on NSF grants have come from both Democrats and Republicans. Beating up on the NSF is a bipartisan pastime. More seriously, Smith’s current crusade raises a real policy concern for the scientific community: if the House Committee concludes that the NSF merit review process is not yielding desirable outcomes, as seems likely, what sort of review might be a suitable replacement? Will Rep. Smith, like his predecessors, suggest that Congress should have veto power over individual NSF grants? The irony here is that, just as other countries like China are building research ecosystems based on the U.S. peer review model, some politicians in our country seem intent on undermining the one we already have.

  1. Most observers trace peer review’s history back to Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society and the man responsible for managing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. This story, however, is a bit too simplistic. Oldenburg did solicit opinions on papers that he was considering for publication, but far more casually than the term “peer review” implies. The first formalized refereeing procedures emerged at scientific societies in the 18th century. The use of external referees spread slowly and haphazardly over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and many organizations continued to place decision-making power in the hands of editors or directors well into the twentieth century. []
  2. Proxmire eventually had to make a public apology, and his opponents widely ridiculed him when it was revealed that his legal defense had cost over $100,000 of taxpayer money. []
  3. Conlan  and Bauman focused their ire on one NSF project in particular: a controversial social sciences curriculum called “Man, A Course of Study” (MACOS).” []

From Glass to Gigabytes

In Building D at the Harvard College Observatory, there is a record of the universe. This particular version – reasonably complete – is made of glass and it weighs about 300 tons. Less a collection than a coalescence, the Harvard plate stacks contain roughly 525,000 photographs in all. These images of the night sky were taken from observatories as far-flung as New Zealand, Peru, and South Africa.

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Storage of astronomical plates at the Harvard College Observatory. Image source.

This data collection represents the congealed labor of hundreds of astronomers working over several decades and represent millions of hours of travel and work. The oldest images are daguerreotypes dating to before the American Civil War; the most recent photographs were taken at the end of the Cold War.

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Halley’s comet taken on April 21, 1910 from Arequipa, Peru with the 8-inch Bache Doublet, Voigtlander. The exposure was 30 minutes. Source.

The photographic emulsion on each of these photographic plates give information about the brightness and location for about tens of thousands of different objects. Additional inspection of the plates provided more information and analysis. For example, consider the image below. This is a photo negative of the Large Magellanic Cloud. It was taken in January 1897 by an astronomer working at a Harvard-operated telescope in Arequipa, Peru. After the plate was developed, it circulated back to Cambridge for analysis. Each of the notations on the pate was made by one of the “women computers” that observatory director Edward C. Pickering employed. The markings on the plate signal a star or other object of interest, some of which would be explored further.

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This image of the Large Magellanic Cloud was taken in January 1897 by a Harvard astronomer working in Arequipa, Peru. Source.

Stars, planets, galaxies, along with the occasional comet or asteroid, were all captured on glass. Occasionally, non-astronomical oddities were recorded too.

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Praying mantis recorded on January 10, 1925 in image made at Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The sum total offers an analog record of the universe unmatched in terms of sky coverage and time span. The exposed plates – most are eight by ten inches in size – were shipped back to the HCO for preservation and storage. Only on rare occasions would one of the fragile plates circulate out again, perhaps traveling from HCO to another observatory. But, most of the time, the plates remained in Cambridge, archived in sturdy olive green cabinets. Astronomers wanting to use the collection had to travel to Cambridge. The collection’s librarian annotated the brown paper envelope each plate was kept in with additional details, creating “metadata” – where as plate was taken and by whom, which telescope was used, and perhaps who had found it of especial scientific value.

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Envelope notations for one of HCO’s 525,000+ plates; this indicates when the image was made (1949) and what region of the sky was observed.

Logbooks maintained by observers recorded other important metadata. Here’s an example:

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Logbook page from 1888. All of these journals are in the process of being digitized, thanks to the efforts of volunteer George Champine who passed away in 2013.

Just as assembling the Harvard plate collection was time consuming and laborious, so was working with the items in it. Once a desired plate was located, a researcher would pore over it for hours with an high-magnification eyepiece to extract useful information from the data the plate recorded. As data generated by modern astronomical instrumentation of the mid-1970s onward was increasingly “born digital” (and utilized as such), the analog photographic plates represented a wasting and unwieldy asset to many scientists.

For the Harvard plate collection, however, these issues of access, usefulness, and circulation are changing. Over the last decade, a group of professional and amateur astronomers have constructed and begun operating the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH) project.

Conceived by astronomer Jonathan Grindlay and executed by a team of staff members, students, and volunteers, the goal of DASCH is to distill and condense – via a custom-built scanning machine and automatic data-processing and calibration pipeline – the astronomical information contained in all of those glass plates into digital data.

To get to the heart of DASCH, one descends one of Building D’s tightly wound spiral staircases. Eventually, you get to a small climate-controlled room dominated by specially designed digital scanning machine.


The DASCH machine; it can scan two 8″x10″ plates at a time.

The entire apparatus rests on a one-ton granite table to minimize vibration errors. A custom camera above the scanner bed stitches overlapping frames made of the photographic plate – some collected just a few decades after Charles Babbage produced a prototype “difference engine” to help process astronomical data – into a composite digital image.

The DASCH project’s final product will be a database, an archive of astronomical information publicly accessible on-line, containing the brightness and position of all the stars on all the HCO plates. When running at full capacity, the machine can process two plates simultaneously in less than two minute, generating data equivalent to a DVD containing a typical Hollywood film. Eventually, the astronomical information contained in those 300 tons of glass will be refashioned into about 1500 gigabytes of processed, searchable, and available digital data.

When I visited DASCH this past summer, I was reminded of two things: First, DASCH encourages us to keep in mind that astrophysics – like geology, paleontology and so forth – is a historical as well as observational science. Digital data archives for astronomy, besides rejuvenating “old” data, offer a “Janus-faced perspective” for scientists to look into the past while creating new data for the future.

Second, DASCH highlights the fact that sharing and circulation of data are the central activities in science. Without these, in fact, there is no science. However, sharing and circulation of data demands an increasing fraction of researchers’ time, money, and expertise. There is what Paul Edwards and others call “science friction,” an obstacle to overcome in order for data to move and do useful work. DASCH’s conversion of analog data into a digital format is one example of how this data friction is made less sticky.

The importance of sharing data is a concern that transcends specific institutions, individual research questions, and national boundaries. For all astronomers, it is, in both senses of the phrase, a universal concern.