The lure of facts and artefacts

Douglas Millard on the clocks, maps, gears and valves that sparked academics' love of science

May 29, 2008

I came to Sherry Turkle's book with a curator's instinct for what an "object" is - an artefact that has been collected and offered a permanent home within a museum's collection. For many museums the roles of such expensive-to-store objects can appear increasingly opaque. While many unquestioningly have great age and historical significance, does their physical presence provide any additional information that cannot be gleaned from authoritative texts or web entries? Why, in this increasingly virtual world, should museums continue to "do" objects?

From its roots in the Great Exhibition of 1851 through the buttons and levers of the 1930s Children's Gallery and on to today's high-octane Launchpad, the Science Museum has sought to educate about science and engineering in a hands-on, demonstrable way. Interactive exhibits offering unique scientific activities have long stood side by side with galleries filled with steam engines, stethoscopes, spacecraft and thousands of other scientific objects. But do these physical artefacts actually tell us anything more about their scientific and technological principles that a handy touch screen cannot?

The answer to this question, of course, is not easily determinable - that is, we are unable to predict with any certainty how an object will be perceived or "read" by someone else. While one person may walk straight past a row of electronic valves laid out in a basement showcase (and, believe me, science museums tend to have lots of these critters!), another visitor may linger, wonder and speculate on these pioneers of the electronic age. This is what Mara Vatz, one of Sherry Turkle's electrical engineering students, would undoubtedly do.

Vatz describes how the chance finding of an old Magnavox record player with its glowing innards of vacuum tubes led her to a far richer understanding of electronics. Aware that these primordial devices still had a use, she set out to learn more. This proved no easy task, for despite going "through every modern electrical engineering, circuit theory and electronics textbook" Vatz "didn't come across a single mention of a vacuum tube". She was left with the telling reflection that "it seemed that the market for consumer electronics had taken control of education".

Vatz did eventually find, or rather happen across, a 1937 textbook that provided her with the answers she was looking for. In so doing she learnt a simple truth - knowledge is a fragile thing and only as strong as "the attention and care we show it".

Turkle's stories, more than 50 of them, have been sourced from 25 years' worth of essays written by her Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduates in answer to the question: "Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?" To this collection she has added a clutch of senior MIT scientists' reflections.

The sheer variety of object types described is immense. Within the pages we read of things such as clocks, shirts (yes, shirts) and gear wheels, but also of more ephemeral entities such as bubbles and flowing sand. Some objects have little physical presence, like a flat map, while others loom large in our world yet generate little everyday awareness - like a bedroom wall. Many of the objects can be felt, held, played with, assembled, crawled into and so on. In a way, we're heading back towards Science Museum territory with its mix of hands-on and traditional gallery objects.

With this collection of essays Turkle explores one of many paths into science, "a path in which imagination is sparked by an object". As the US and much of the rest of the Western world struggle with science education, these tales of simple discovery serve to remind us that we are creatures that can deploy a formidable array of senses, skills and talents to explore our universe and that too many of today's educational prescriptions nullify this armoury.

Falling for Science: Objects in Mind

Edited by Sherry Turkle

The MIT Press, 232pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780262201728

Published 8 May 2008

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