From Amateurs to Citizens: Periodicals, Images and Internet platforms in the 19th and 21st Centuries

From Amateurs to Citizens: Periodicals, Images and Internet platforms in the 19th and 21st Centuries

This guest blog post by Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Dr Gowan Dawson, Dr Sally Frampton and Dr Geoff Belknap is part of  the AHRC Science in Culture Theme ’s contributions to Universities Week 2014.

Between 9-15 June 2014, universities across the UK are inviting everyone to be inspired, get involved and discover the work that they are doing to improve the way we live our lives.

Universities Week logoAs part of this week of activities, we’ll post a series of guest blog posts to showcase AHRC funded projects that address everyday questions. Read on to find out more:

Images populate our lives. The pictures that flick past our eyes on television, movies, the internet, billboards, buses, cabs, trains, magazines and newspapers are so much a part of our daily experience that they have become mundane, ordinary and in most cases ignored.

For individuals in nineteenth-century Britain, this was no less true – they were bombarded with spectacular drawings, engravings and photographs which lined city streets, and importantly for us here on the Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries Project, were experienced most readily, and influentially, through the newspapers and magazines that were read avidly and widely.

In one example in the newly established science periodical Nature in 1871, a professional photographer and amateur astronomer named Alfred Brothers was able to debate other amateurs and institutionally established scientists over the atmosphere of the Sun when observed during a solar eclipse. He did this with a photograph

Brother's Photograph


What is interesting is this image is not what we think of a photograph, but is rather an engraving from a photograph. What this reminds us is that images take on different meanings and values when printed in periodicals – that Victorian readers didn’t read images in the same ways that we do.

It also tells us that you didn’t need to be linked to a university or lab in order to ‘do’ science in the 19th century.

The same has become true again in the 21st century. Take for example this image, produced by the team on the Zooniverse project at the University of Oxford. [A full size version of this image is available here]

Snapshot_Serengeti_Zebra_Poster small

At a glance, we see a pixelated image of a Zebra on the Serengeti. Many will stop there, and move on to something else – possibly (hopefully) even to the text you are reading right now. Others might stop to investigate a little closer. Using the zoom function – a tool not entirely alien to a Victorian newspaper reader with a magnifying glass in hand – we can see that this zebra is not singular but  plural.  Lots and lots of zebras, parts of zebras, and the landscapes that surround them, make up this photographic montage. By looking a bit closer, and investigating a bit further, we find that an image which we instinctually understand as either attractive or interesting or possibly ugly and unimportant is actually an image chock full of significant science produced and made relevant by people like yourself.

The individual zebras in this montage are part of a large digital platform on where ‘Citizen Scientists’ number, mark and identify a massive visual dataset of wildlife on the Serengeti, providing information which is then used to identify animal populations and their movements.

It may not seem like it, but when thinking about Victorian periodicals, the same kind of questions raised by this image can help historians understand how a wide range of individuals across the social spectrum were able to participate, write and visualise science. While a 21st–century citizen scientist will interact with a digital tool, a Victorian amateur scientist utilized periodicals to contribute and comment on a variety of visual and textual scientific subjects.

Working with a team of historians and scientists across the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, and the Natural History Museum, Royal College of Surgeons and Royal Society over the next three and a half years the AHRC funded project, Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries is investigating the creation and communication of science, whether through images, periodicals, or large-scale internet platforms, by an informed and engaged public.

Interested in finding out more about the AHRC Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries Large grant? Find out more about the project on our website here. You can also listen to a podcast about the project here.


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