August 25, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

‘See through science’

I was recently reminiscing about Venice, where I have been many times, soaking up the sunshine, the colours and little miracles in glass (about which more later).  So I started to think about science and glass, and the title of a famous 2005 booklet produced by James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis popped into my head: See through science. Their work focused on the relation between science and its publics, in particular on processes such as dialogue and participation that attempt to establish closer connections between the two. They wrote in particular about upstream engagement and about finding new ways of listening to and valuing more diverse forms of public knowledge and social intelligence. Scientists from all disciplines as well as policy makers are still struggling to fulfill the promises offered by upstream engagement and making science more transparent and accessible. Some of the problems and dilemmas associated with these processes will be studied in our project, Making Science Public. This blog post is not intended to contribute to this programme of research directly. As it’s the holiday season, it is of a more playful nature.

Glass and science

Wherever you look in (Western) science, whatever you do, there is glass: lenses, magnifying glasses, spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, test tubes, vials, retorts, beakers, slides, prisms, bottles, flasks, ampoules, specimen jars, stirring rods, glass cabinets, screens, mirrors, thermometers, barometers, hour glasses, glass optical fibres and much much more. In this you tube video Simon Schaffer, a historian of science, explains the importance of glass for (Western) science and civilisation. He points out that glass is transparent, inert, relatively easy to work, which means that it can be used not only to contain but also to embellish!

Telescopes, microscopes and, in my case in particular, spectacles or glasses allow us to see the very distant, the very small and even the galactic. But more than that, by using glass, humanity can not only see as it has never seen before but also think further than ever before, a process in which both professionals and publics can participate. As soon as glass and glass-blowing were invented, a path was set for craft, science and thinking to mutually enrich each other. Glass was a material to think with, from Greek and Roman philosophers to alchemists and beyond to artists and those enjoying the art.

Glass and publics

Science and glass have mutually shaped each other for millennia and so has the relation between science and its publics. For about two centuries vials and other glass paraphernalia have been used to make chemistry spectacular, popular and go with a bang. Mirrors and telescopes like the Hubble have brought the cosmos down to earth onto calendars, posters, computer screens and walls. Aquaria, small and giant, bring people closer to water-dwelling animals and their habitats and let scientists study their behaviour in detail. There are now even see-through shells for hermit crabs, so that scientists and publics can directly see how they move; a bit like an ambulatory terrarium or aquarium.

But as Simon Schaffer has pointed out, glass is not only employed to contain (and a myriad other things), but also to embellish. Glass is not only useful (for science and thinking and exhibiting science and thinking) but also beautiful, and these two aspects of glass can be used to increase public participation in science as well as establish new types of dialogue between science and publics. I only want to mention two examples. There are many more. (And there are of course also less heart-warming examples of the use of glass in science than the ones I’ll describe below, from Denis Diderot talking in 1769 of little pots containing soldiers, poets and kings, to ‘babies in bottles’; these uses of glass also establish certain relations between science and its publics…).

My first example of art meeting science through glass are the Blaschkas, a family of 19th-century German glass blowers with links to Venice. Leopold Blaschka produced glass eyes, but during a voyage to the United States immersed himself in the study of invertebrates. His son Rudolf went on to produce spectacular glass models of jellyfish, sea anemones, orchids and many more examples of fauna and flora. Some of his glass miracles were displayed at Nottingham Castle in 2003 (and the exhibition was called ‘The Glass Aquarium’). The exhibits were stunning. However, Leopold Blaschka did not just produce these glass creatures for fun, he worked with various natural history and botanical museums across the world, contributing in the process to research into both the plant species he modelled and the manufacturing process he used to do so.

A few years after seeing the Blaschka exhibition at Nottingham Castle, I went to Venice and met Vittorio Costantini whose work was fascinating and very different from the work of other glass-blowers in Venice and on Murano. Like Leopold Blaschka, he is fascinated by nature, studies insects with the zeal of an entomologist and his exhibitions are dotted all over the world — making nature public. His first exhibition was in 2003 in the Mostly Glass Gallery in New Jersey entitled ‘Nature in Glass’. His beetles in particular are just beautiful. They don’t look ‘embellished’. They look real. We have one of his (more affordable) dragonflies at home now and you can admire it on the featured photo.

My second example is the amazing work of Luke Jerram, especially his glass microbiology, which includes models of the swine flu virus, E. coli, the SARS corona virus, HIV and more! His exhibitions contribute to ‘see through science’ in a very special way. To quote Luke himself: “Made to contemplate the global impact of each disease, the artworks were created as alternative representations of viruses to the artificially coloured imagery we receive through the media. In fact, viruses have no colour as they are smaller than the wavelength of light. By extracting the colour from the imagery and creating jewel like beautiful sculptures in glass, a complex tension has arisen between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent. His transparent and colourless glassworks consider how the artificial colouring of scientific microbiological imagery, affects our understanding of these phenomena.”

For me this type of glass-science-craft-art-work adds completely novel dimensions to ‘making science public’, by not only making us see the world in different ways but also by making us think about it in different ways, fostering curiosity and the wish to know more.

This post is linked to an interest I have in images and visualisation.

Addition, 30 August: Glass particle accelerator found in blog by Lizzie Crouch on science, art and emotional engagement




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