Lunchtime seminar series – 10th March: Oliver Marsh (University College London)

CHSTMSeminar Oli Marsh

Life Cycle of A Star: Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Reputation in Transit

In science, as in celebrity culture, people can acquire knowledge of a subject without encountering it themselves. This paper extends that analogy by applying work on circulation of scientific knowledge to reputation and characterisation, understood as ‘biographical’ knowledge. By analogy with graphs, equations, and the other simplified units used to circulate scientific knowledge, I propose the concept of ‘myths’. Myths are simplified units of knowledge passed around about individuals, by which people build up a representation of that individual. I illustrate this using the case-studies of Richard Feynman and (to a lesser extent) Carl Sagan.  Both acquired distinctive reputations which tied their science to their personality. These reputations were built up through a great many communications, from personal contact with other scientists to mass media reportage.  Following James Secord’s ‘Knowledge in Transit’ approach I focus on the communicative contexts of these interactions – the different media, the relationship between interlocutors, and so on. From this, I illustrate that biographical and scientific knowledge are circulated through the same interactions. Both forms of knowledge are influenced by the communicative context of interactions, but also influence one another. This entails an extension to the Knowledge in Transit project – to consider not just circulating knowledge, but interactions between different forms of circulating knowledge.

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