Third session 2nd July 2008

0:09:07 Think the main theme of my professional life has been working out the consequences of the idea that communicating knowledge is also making it; common  idea that the scholar is working out new knowledge, truths, and that somewhere else this will be communicated; my experience that that is the wrong picture and that almost all my good ideas have happened while communicating, deliberating, etc.; working with students, teams planning museum exhibitions, broadcasters, has provided me with places where there are opportunities to find out more; have spent the last twenty-five years doing television programmes on the history of science; began when working in London with Channel 4; Bob Young had persuaded Central Television, as it then was, to run a programme on science; it was called 'Crucible' and Bob Young brought in colleagues to each make a programme; Donna Haraway made an extraordinary programme on primatology, on how people studied apes; I was asked to make a programme about Newton, called 'Portraits of Newton'; it was fun, I learnt how to talk to camera and what you could and could not do in an hour, about shooting ratios; editing was still done with Steenbeck and scissors; privileged to work with Lawrence Moore as director who allowed me to sit with the editors; the film was an attempt to summarize what I think about the way in which the reputation of a great scientist is made in culture, and changes, and the way in which iconography helps you understand history; that carried on through the 1980's and 1990's and I got involved in a number of television projects which were rewarding intellectually; the most important of them was 'The Day the World Took Off' under the aegis of Gerry Martin

7:20:03 Gerry Martin stands for the argument that I am trying to make, that trying to communicate is the same as making knowledge; I got to know him through museum work; my Department in Cambridge has one of the best collections of scientific instruments and books in the world, the Whipple Museum; museum endowed by Robert Whipple, manager of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, who in retirement made an astonishing collection of objects and books; he left the collection to the University in 1944, and the Department grew up around the museum in the 1950's; here and in Oxford, scholarship in history of science grew up round the collection; the greatest curator of the Whipple was Jim Bennett, an historian of astronomy and a brilliant teacher; he organized exhibitions and publications and through him met Gerry Martin, a wealthy, entirely self-effacing catalyst of innumerable initiatives, projects and programmes; I have never met anyone who could provoke ever more intense, energetic, committed work, without once being offensive or dictatorial; it was a kind of Aristotelian pattern where Gerry provided ever slightly receding goals to which one moved rather than pushing you in any direction; working on the exhibitions he helped sponsor in the mid-1990's was an eye-opener for me; it radically changed the questions that I wanted to ask - an exhibition on science in Britain and Germany a hundred years ago; it directed my questions to science and imperialism, Victorian technology and material culture, standardization of measurements, the significance of the trained eye, the importance of industrial feedback loops; think this revolutionized the historiography of nineteenth-century science and technology; simultaneously he was working with and sponsoring a loosely structured team of scholars around the theme of innovation and discovery, the problem of genius; at our meeting he would often bring us back to basics with a bag full of neolithic tools to late nineteenth-century treasures; the principle lesson I learnt from him on material culture is that no object is so powerful that it means the same everywhere, or so weak that how you describe it defines what it is for; it also meant the forging of a real intellectual community with doctoral and post-doctoral students, working on the physical sciences in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, who have gone on to great success; when Shapin and I went to the Netherlands to receive the Erasmus Prize I was very keen that this group of people be there too; Jim Bennett also came but my principle regret was that Gerry wasn't there; think he would have found it hilarious

16:34:03 Linked to that are two themes that I think the work depended on; one is  broadcasting, which I find both extremely entertaining and very frustrating; working on 'The Day the World Took Off' with David Dugan as producer/director, another media genius; Alan and Gerry's scheme of focus, moving backwards in time  and outwards in space; historians don't begin with abstract social theory from which they derive a particular consequence; they make the instances that they have mastered and analysed, count backwards genealogically as telling lessons for much more global questions; theory is absolutely about voyaging elsewhere to alien places and learning and systematizing particular bits, then putting them back together; the work that we did for 'The Day...' and a handful of other programmes that I have been involved in and am proud of is exactly like that; the pressure there is always on the telling, and weaving it into a set of images and sounds that hint at and imply a much more global narrative; later involved in a series on light for the BBC from 2001-2003; I wanted to be involved in a project where I could tell stories in a way that I wanted to tell them which pleased me; fortunately I was contacted by a team from the BBC who wanted to make a largish programme on optics; in conversation with the various producers involved, particularly Paul Sen, that there was a possible scheme to do something on light rather than optics, which would broaden and deepen the scope of what we might want to talk about; the other important thing there was to rethink the nature of chronological narrative in thinking about the development of the sciences; what we did was to choose overlapping chronology for each programme; most proud of the programme on electric light; coincided with Olafur Eliasson's weather project at Tate Modern which made the entire argument of this series in one installation; in sum, it is possible to make very complicated ideas into material objects, then to extract from them new, better, refined ideas, models and theories, which had not been obvious to me before; it has culminated in my being offered the chance to become a trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry, again an eye-opening experience, and an area that I shall be working on for the next few years

28:09:23 Related to this is the theme of the museum and public exhibition on which I have worked with Bruno Latour; Latour has become the best known exponent of something like science and technology studies in the last decade; my impression of him and his work is radically different from that of many of my colleagues; I first met him in Bath in 1980; my regular trips to Paris for research kept me in contact with him; he was the first person to take the book that I did with Steve Shapin seriously though his interpretation differs radically from ours; he was trained as a theologian, an anthropologist and a philosopher; he was based for a substantial part of his career at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation at the School of Mines; with colleague Michel Callon, he developed a project to analyse how the sciences are pursued; as an intellectual he is one of the major figures that the revolution in the understanding of the sciences has produced; personally he is charming, hospitable and generous; in the late eighties I published an article which was somewhat critical of one of his masterpieces, 'The Pasteurization of France'; Bruno responded by coming to Cambridge with the very best of his family's wine and sat with me for a couple of days talking through what I meant and what it meant for him; I thought that was an act of intellectual honesty and rigour that you don't often find; he is also committed to making sure the work we all do is public work, not wrapped up in jargon; in collaboration with Peter Weibel has done a couple of astonishing public exhibitions at the Centre for Culture and Media, Karlsruhe, encouraging colleagues and friends to participate; knowledge-producing, culture-producing activities, what he calls assemblages which I think are some of the most exciting projects I have ever worked on; although we never quite agree he has provided me with some of the most productive public and academic activities in which I have been engaged; he is also a model, as is Steve Shapin, for how to deal with trainees, students, especially in history of science where there is no background that is irrelevant, so perversely, no one is qualified to speak; the activity of training and collaborating with students is endlessly analytic and open-ended; similarly the way that students are always collaborators too; admire the simplicity of both their writings but have never been able to emulate; one thing I have learnt is that the creativity is always both distributed and located - reflections

41:46:01 Svante Lindqvist had the job of setting up and administering a museum of the Nobel Prize which opened just a few years ago; Svante is an impressive technology historian who wrote on the introduction of the steam engine into Sweden and an article on glass-blowing as the key technology of the modern world; the challenge was how do you show the Nobel Prize, what is there to show;  he had a clever idea which was to note that certain places have been peculiarly good at winning it, and Cambridge is certainly one of them; he commissioned a group of Swedish film makers to make fifteen minute films about these special places; the film on Cambridge followed a carrot from a fenland farm to high table at St John's College; around this was a series of interviews with Cambridge people about the networked quality of the city; I was interviewed in my home and said that Cambridge had been astonishingly rewarding for me because it is sufficiently withdrawn and hybrid to provide mixtures of resources when one needs them; it provides a certain kind of retreat but is very porous; my work on Newton which I am about to publish, which is called 'Newton on the Beach', indicates that he may seem to have been isolated and cloistered but if one looks at the data he was able to command from Cambridge it is very well linked with global information order; nevertheless, the capacity to withdraw has always been indispensable; the juxtaposition of unanticipated skills has been absolutely crucial for me, that relatively effortlessly one can assemble teams of people with heterogeneous interests and skills; that is the key to being creative; Gerry Martin's description of the ideal state, bounded but leaky; visitors passing through, technicians, the unknown collections, the strangely motivated student, the bizarre shelving system of the University Library, can be friendly without being collegial and the opposite; this is a fragile system; one danger is the confusing of defence of autonomy with defence of elitism, and the demand for outreach with that of abandonment in the sense of the intellectual work we are trying to do; were we not involved in multifarious activities it would be very hard to defend what is going on here, and if we were not productive it would be indefensible; balance is increasingly hard to strike

54:40:15 I got interested in W.H. Rivers, a physiologist, anthropologist, psycho-analyst etc.; learnt about him from Anita because Rivers was a member of the Cambridge Torres Strait expedition in 1898; his work was fascinating to me because of what one might call the extra-mural laboratory - how can the exterior world be changed so that one can learn about it; major conference that Anita co-organized on the relation between anthropology and psychology in the wake of his work; Anita took us to the Torres Strait in 1996 as part of her work on the subject and I have been privileged to visit it twice and to meet Torres Strait islanders both there and on their many visits to Cambridge; it raised many questions for someone with no anthropological training; a second strand was reading the work of George Stocking on Franz Boas; Boas had trained as a physicist and had moved to ethnography and anthropology and the traces of his scientific training marked his later work; wondered whether this was also true of Rivers given that he had been doing work in optical physics and physiology etc.; wondered whether it was possible to use his work to analyse laboratory science; gave a paper on the subject to Department of Social Anthropology seminar which Keith Hart published in a Prickly Pear pamphlet; Rivers is a ghost who still haunts this town, still fascinates and provokes thought

1:03:22:12 Think we are facing a real political and economic crisis within the academy around the notion of discipline; on the one hand, we are told, there were once rigid discipline structures but now we live in an epoch of fluidity, hybridity and multi-disciplinarity; however, the rigid system did not exist before the Industrial Revolution; constant struggle between amnesia and nostalgia; for most of my career it was assumed that the arrow of history pointed West; the Euro-centrism and Anglo-Americano-centrism of our discipline is the consequence of that great delusion; think the single most exciting thing that is happening to my discipline is completely and seriously to abandon that intellectual map so that one no longer assumes that arrow of history; on the contrary, one goes back to the eighteenth-century confident in the knowledge that the loss of economic and political leadership by the Qing was probably a blip; this would be to re-ask the Needham question but with a completely different premise; Needham assumed that the question was why only in Europe and not in China; inverting the question, should ask why this temporary and possibly aberrant change in the intellectual and technical map of the world; that I think would change our whole field because of fluid disciplinarity, almost all other fields as well; think the conversations one could have in the future would start cognitively in a different place; the premise of our work must change completely in the next generation, and it will