Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print |
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Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print

Reviewed by Erika Janik

Algebra textbooks are something I’ve tried hard to avoid since high school. Deciphering pages of what seemed incomprehensible sequences of numbers—not to mention the x’s and y’s that seemed so friendly when known as “letters” and so forbidding as “variables”— consumed my after school hours. But historian and UW–Madison special collections librarian Robin E. Rider says the book itself may have been at fault for my confusion.

“Good typography highlights and reinforces ideas, indifferent typography (or worse) obscures ideas and stymies the reader,” Rider argues, in an essay exploring how the text and layout of algebra textbooks shapes the teaching and learning of mathematics.

That’s just one of the insights to be gained from Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print. An edited anthology of nine essays, the book grew out of a 2008 conference at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on “The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine.” While focused in some measure on the past, the conference used historical examples to illustrate the continuing importance of how scientific ideas are presented and circulated.

Broadly speaking, print culture refers to the production, distribution, and reception of ideas through the printed word, often books but not necessarily books alone. While it is something that people outside of academia rarely think about or even really understand, the practices and products of print culture are and have been “the crucial means of recording, distributing, and consuming knowledge for centuries,” according to anthology editors Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn.

“Books and journals, pamphlets and posters, newspapers, and magazines [all] have been essential to virtually every human endeavor.” For lovers of the printed word, it seems an argument with which it is impossible to disagree, and the essays that follow attempt to illustrate the centrality of the printed word to the creation and sharing of scientific knowledge.

However, it’s not easy going as the essays are geared toward a decidedly academic audience already familiar with the terms of the field. Print culture covers a broad range of methods and disciplines, and as such there is no agreed upon way of approaching the topic. That flexibility invites many voices to contribute perspectives but can also be confusing to the print culture neophyte.

Broken into three parts, the essays in Science in Print roughly correspond to the production, distribution, and reception of printed material. However, the titles of each section, including “Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in Print” and “Science Education and Health Activism in Print,” suggest topics rather than the means of communication (i.e. newspaper, online scientific journal), so the real focus may be lost on the lay reader.

There are definite riches to be found, though, in essays that range across a huge span of time and space, from mid-17th century engravings of the natural world to children’s books on human evolution and the cultural impact of Stewart Udall’s 1963 environmental book The Quiet Crisis. That these disparate subjects can even share the pages of the same book demonstrates the tremendous range of print culture and its impact on nearly everything humans do.

For example, in “Crossing Borders: The Smithsonian Institution and Diffusion of Scientific Information between the United States and Canada in the 19th Century,” Bertrum H. MacDonald, a professor of Information Management at Dalhousie University, explores the crucial role the Smithsonian played in the expansion and maturation of scientific research in North America. Through letters written by Smithsonian secretary Spencer Baird (among others) to scientists on both sides of the border, MacDonald traces the development of a mutually beneficial collaboration: Scientists saw the Smithsonian as a source of information on developments and discoveries in the field while the Smithsonian used these correspondence networks to build a world-class scientific specimen collection.

In “Writing Medicine: George M. Gould and Medical Print Culture in Progressive America,” Jennifer J. Connor, an associate professor in both the Faculty of Medicine and the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland, deals with an issue that remains highly contested to this day: the ownership of knowledge. Connor tells the story of medical editor, writer, and publisher George M. Gould who fought for the right of doctors to control the production and distribution of medical communication. Gould denounced corporate and other moneyed interests that he claimed restricted the free-flow of scientific ideas while profiting on the output of uncompensated physician authors. Connor demonstrates how Gould’s criticisms remain strikingly relevant to modern medical communication and a medical publishing system that has seemingly made few changes over the last century.

Connor’s essay is only one of several that touch on issues still pertinent to science today. Rima Apple’s “Basic Seven, Basic Four, Mary Mutton, and a Pyramid” examines the conflicting consumer messages around meat consumption in the 20th century. What’s a consumer to do when simultaneously presented with exhortations from the government to eat meat and scientific arguments against it? Federal dietary guidelines beginning in the late 19th century gave meat a primary place at American tables. These guidelines have scarcely diminished, even with more modern messages to “reduce consumption” or to “go lean with protein.” Protein still means meat—beef, pork, poultry—with beans, nuts, and seeds mentioned as afterthoughts even as science has shown the health and environmental benefits of these alternative protein sources. Apple convincingly shows the power of print to influence our meat-centric diets even in the face of contrary scientific evidence.

Science in Print is a fascinating glimpse into the expansive world of scientific communication. For those new to print culture, this could be a challenging introduction. Many contributors use jargon specific to their field and assume a baseline knowledge of history, scientific literature, and theory. But there are real gems and fascinating stories to be found here that will likely change the way you think about the printed word. It might even cause you to reconsider algebra.

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Erika Janik is a freelance writer and the executive producer/editor of Wisconsin Life at Wisconsin Public Radio.

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