I research and teach about science in the public sphere from several different vantage points: studying the relations between politics and the scientific enterprise as they play out in research settings and cultural arenas, particularly in relation to the social sciences of anthropology, psychology, and sociology; exploring how natural history has served as an “intellectual commons” for contestations by both the public and professionals about the nature of scientific authority; and by taking science in popular culture seriously, in order to better understand how scientific knowledge circulates “in the vernacular.”
My work spans the 19th- and 20th-century United States, and focuses in particular on the antebellum period (with comparative attention to Great Britain), the early decades of the 20th century, and the cold war era of the 1950s, '60s & '70s. I also do history in the present -- that is, I'm experimenting with digital history to rethink the nature of scholarship and teaching about history of science in the 21st century.
With this emphasis on science, the public, popular culture, and communication (especially mass media, museums, science fiction, and childhood experience), my work necessarily reaches out across disciplines, drawing on U.S. History, American Studies, sociology, literature, philosophy, media studies, communication studies, visual culture, the history of childhood, the history of education, and gender studies, as well as the history of science and the history of technology.
education, research fellowships, and affiliations
I hold degrees in Psychology from UCLA (B.A., with Honors), in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University (M.A.), and in History / Science Studies from UC San Diego (M.A.; Ph.D.). I was awarded an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Program for Intersections of the Biological and the Social at the University of Oklahoma (1994-1995), and was selected as a Fellow at Harvard's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History (2001-2002) for the year-long inquiry into the topic “Exceptional by Nature? American Science and Medicine, 1600-1900.” At OU, I am the recipient of an Associates' Presidential Professorship as one of the 2000-2004 class of Presidential Professors, and I am also a core faculty member in the Women's and Gender Studies Program and an affiliate in the Film & Video Studies Program.
at the heart: thinking like an ocean*
What I learned in school about science, from 7th Street Elementary through my doctoral studies, provided answers about everything from the mechanics of the cell to the meaning of the scientific revolution. But those answers were always placed in tension with questions about nature I picked up through a different set of lessons: trying to think like an ocean.
Trying to think like an ocean is tangled up with my experiences in the working-class town in which I grew up -- San Pedro, California, which is where Los Angeles Harbor is located -- along with my curiosity about the ocean's otherworldly aspects, and the fascination I had with its constantly changing nature. My relatives and our friends and neighbors were mostly immigrants from places like Croatia and Italy, and the ocean was an integral part of their livelihoods, whether they worked at the StarKist Cannery like my grandmother, or loaded and unloaded cargo ships on the docks like both my father and his father, or were fishermen like so many others.
The "natural world" that was not so far from my front yard was also a world of labor and webs of technological demands, as the containerization and mechanization of the port changed the world of work as our town had known it, and as ecological shifts transformed the previously dominant local fishing industry into a ghost fleet.
For us kids the ocean was also our playground, and my own introduction to nature and science was formed by fooling around in tidepools, seeing what was new at the then tiny local marine museum at Cabrillo Beach (overseen not by scientists, but by head lifeguard John Olguin who had a knack for teaching about the migrating gray whales that were our local wildlife and revealing the mysteries of the grunion that came ashore on moonlit spring nights). I learned about the tenacity and toughness of living creatures embedded in the miniature waterworlds lodged in the nooks and crannies of the rocks as the tides shifted, and of nature's indifference to human shorelife through the vast scale of the Pacific wilderness spread out before me that was a planet unto itself -- and yet was an immensity that was rendered vulnerable by human actions, such as the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill disaster. The "natural world" that was not so far from my front yard was an intensely personal site for exploration that brought home the significance of border zones and transitional spaces like the coastline, where everyday encounters between the human and the non-human were consequential.
The 1960s were a time of scientific self-assurance that presumed that the secret of life, the power of the atom, the destruction of viral disease, and the conquest of space were as nothing compared to what lay before us in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. And yet while claims and demonstrations of scientific prowess continued apace, it made for an unsettling contrast with the nature I knew best: science could claim very little in the way of knowledge about the nearly three-quarters of the "the blue planet" that was oceanic (and decades later, the fact remains that "more than 95% of the underwater world remains unexplored today"). How "far" modern science had come, I noticed, depended on what was left out of the story of mastery as well as what was included. (And, still today, commentators find the contrast with space exploration telling.)
The fact of science's cognitive abyss about the sea showed up regularly on my family's television screen, for it was a deficit that Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau kept emphasizing as he and the Calypso bobbed up and down in search of the most basic facts of marine life that remained stubbornly elusive. Cousteau was but one of many popular culture sources that was part of the ecology of knowledge that made up thinking like an ocean for me, whether it was contemplating the impossibility of coelacanths or the Loch Ness Monster or the giant squid, or visiting "Bubbles the Whale" down the road at Marineland of the Pacific, or inspecting murals on museum walls depicting how life may have begun in the primordial ocean.
At the heart of matters, for me, is an evaluation that scientific approaches are more or less valuable depending on how well they seem to sustain insights into nature -- and, for me, my understanding of nature is based on growing up and paying attention to the ocean world in which my smaller world was embedded, and the relations that existed between both of these worlds and many others.
What then might science itself look like when people are trying to think like an ocean? I have been trying to figure this out in my historical explorations for a long time now, and it is why reading the work of the philosopher William James (1842-1910) led me to graduate school to study the history of science: because James's theories of a pluralistic universe and his insistence on the need for a radical empiricism in approaching the study of nature seemed to hold the greatest promise for illuminating a capacious view of the search for natural knowledge that can incorporate the dynamics I've touched on above. (That's James to the right, in a photograph from the Thayer Expedition to Brazil in 1865-1866, led by naturalist Louis Agassiz. You can see James's expedition notebook online.) James once argued that, "the ultimates of nature -- her simple elements, if there be such -- may indeed combine in definite proportions and follow classic laws of architecture; but in her proximates, in her phenomena as we immediately experience them, nature is everywhere Gothic, not classic. She forms a real jungle, where are all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other and untidy." Such a formulation may make for an unusual approach to nature itself, and to studying the historical search for scientific knowledge . . . but not so strange, perhaps, if you've struggled with thinking like an ocean.
*with apologies to Aldo Leopold, "Thinking Like a Mountain," from A Sand County Almanac (1949)