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Muddling by Example

Mark Browning

Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication. Timothy Lenoir, ed. 457 pp. Stanford University Press, 1998. $65.

There is nothing outside the text," claimed Jacques Derrida. A ramble through Inscribing Science would tend to confirm this assertion, although not as Derrida meant it. While covering a dizzying array of topics, including the development of early 19th-century telescopes, the aesthetics of typeface design during the Renaissance and the creation of the first Swiss national map, these 16 essays set out to answer the protests of Alan Sokal and others who assert that relativists and cultural critics, many of them in the thrall of postmodern theorists such as Derrida, have run roughshod over science. It would seem that in discussing the various mediating influences on the construction of scientific knowledge, editor Timothy Lenoir and his contributors found little in science history to exclude. The collection contains examples of the best and the worst of postmodern scientific theory, essays that cogently argue for the subjective nature of scientific knowledge alongside those demonstrating the muddle of nebulous theory and undisciplined wordplay that draws the condemnation of Sokal and his cadre.

The negative side of the anthology is slimmer than the positive. David Gugerli's entry on the creation of the Swiss national map begins hopefully, asserting that "maps are also representations saturated with national ideologies." Although he presents in detail the process by which Guillaume-Henri Dufour developed his map, Gugerli fails to show how it shaped national ideology. Gillian Beer's "Writing Darwin's Islands," which plays with the idea of islands and insulation in geographical, biological and psychological terms, evokes some interesting musings on Darwin's work but fails to arrive at anything substantive. One can picture traditional biologists bristling at the temerity of this literary scholar's discussing Darwin.

To its credit, Inscribing Science contains several excellent essays that counter the disappointments. Phillip Prodger discusses Darwin's use of photographs, demonstrating how Darwin manipulated the photos and their presentation to achieve his rhetorical purpose. In a similar vein, Alex Pang, writing about astrophotography, shows how a technology that promised to eliminate subjectivity in observation simply relocated that subjectivity from eyepiece to darkroom. In "The Leviathan of Parsonstown," Simon Shaffer, telling of the construction of a great reflecting telescope in Ireland in the 1840s, details the personal, political, theoretical and technical obstacles to objective astronomy through the first half of that century. Shaffer describes how William Herschel, the most respected telescope maker of the period, by means of his control of the instrument and his penchant for neologism, contorted the astronomical perceptions of his day. Other fine contributions include Hans-Jörg Rheinberger's description of experiment as an exploratory and unplannable experience and Lorraine Daston's fascinating "Language of Strange Facts," containing not only a catalogue of bizarre items from early scientific journals but an account of how scientists cited facts as outside of the realm of theory.

The greatest strength in this volume is the cleverness with which many of the authors couple interesting and obscure vignettes from science history with their particular theoretical claims. Ultimately, Inscribing Science, although somewhat uneven in clarity and focus, provides a diverse, informative and challenging approach to the question of scientific objectivity.—Mark Browning, English, Johnson County Community College, Kansas

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