You are here

Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures

Lorraine Daston
University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Peggy Aldrich Kidwell
, on

The twelve essays in this elegantly crafted volume explore, as editor Lorraine Daston puts it, “how the sciences choose to remember past findings and plan future research.” They look at ways in which scholars have preserved and ordered scientific knowledge from antiquity to the present. The papers originally were presented at summer conferences at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. The authors have examined, discussed, and reshaped one another’s papers, however, producing a more unified approach than is usual in conference proceedings.

The first three essays discuss ways in which scientists consulted results compiled by their predecessors. Examples include astronomical records, specimen fossils and information about the strata in which they were found, and medical case histories published by disparate physicians and drawn together in descriptions of specific diseases. The next three essays — and the second section of the book — concerns conscious attempts by scholars to compile records that would be of use to later figures. Thus one reads about Greco-Roman doxography, that is to say collection of opinions about topics in such fields as astronomy, mathematics, physics, and medicine. One ponders the fate of historians of the ancient world in the nineteenth and twentieth century, when historians sought to ground work in archival sources that usually were not abundant. Finally, one reads of two nineteenth century projects that sought to create an archive of information for the future — the philologists’ compilation of Latin inscriptions in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum and the astronomers’ photographic atlas of the stars in the Carte du Ciel.

The third section explores some of the hazards of publishing data for general use. Biologists exploring the structure of macromolecules in the 1970s and 1980s hesitated to deposit records in databases like the Protein Data bank or GenBank. Some cooperated only when journal editors refused to publish results unless the data had been submitted to a public repository. Those subject to investigation also worried about record sharing, as in the case of Native Americans who agreed to have DNA samples taken for one purpose and then found the data was in much more general studies. Litigation ensued and the samples were destroyed. Other challenges come from vast quantities of data, often coming from diverse sources; and from political decisions about those who should benefit from it. Agencies of the U.S. federal government charged with compiling and interpreting vast quantities data on climate offer but one example of such complexity.

The final section of the book discusses archiving practices in the twenty-first century. Chapters discuss those like Gordon Bell, who have compiled records of almost their every move; attempts to distinguish significant from insignificant terms in word clouds and indices; and techniques of data mining. An introduction and an epilogue bind the whole together.

The focus of this volume is the history of science, not the history of mathematics. Nonetheless, the book raises important historical questions about how scholars know what has been done in the past, incorporate it into their own work, share it with others, and plan to preserve it for the future. At the same time, it offers intriguing insights into the practice of scholarly communities over a wide swathe of western history and a model of individual papers transformed into a coherent and readable whole.

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell is Curator of Mathematics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Introduction: Third Nature, Lorraine Daston

I. Nature’s Own Canon: Archives of the Historical Sciences
1. Astronomy after the Deluge, Florence Hsia
2. The Earth as Archive: Contingency, Narrative, and the History of Life, David Sepkoski
3. Empiricism in the Library: Medicine’s Case Histories, J. Andrew Mendelsohn

II. Spanning the Centuries: Archives from Ancient to Modern
4. Archiving Scientific Ideas in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Liba Taub
5. Ancient History in the Age of Archival Research, Suzanne Marchand
6. The Immortal Archive: Nineteenth-Century Science Imagines the Future, Lorraine Daston

III. Problems and Politics: Controversies in the Global Archive
7. The “Data Deluge”: Turning Private Data into Public Archives, Bruno J. Strasser
8. Evolutionary Genetics and the Politics of the Human Archive, Cathy Gere
9. Montage and Metamorphosis: Climatological Data Archiving and the U.S. National Climate Program, Vladimir Janković

IV. The Future of Data: Archives of the New Millennium
10. Archives-of-Self: The Vicissitudes of Time and Self in a Technologically Determinist Future, Rebecca Lemov
11. An Archive of Words, Daniel Rosenberg
12. Querying the Archive: Data Mining from Apriori to PageRank, Matthew L. Jones

Epilogue: The Time of the Archive, Lorraine Daston