Unreal Nature

September 25, 2010

Atlas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:26 am

This is the second of today’s three posts from the book Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007). In tracking the nature and history of objectivity through this text, the authors use scientific atlases as their evidence. This post explains why:

… Atlases are systematic compilations of working objects. They are the dictionaries of the sciences of the eye. For initiates and neophytes alike, the atlas trains the eye to pick out certain kinds of objects s exemplary (for example, this “typical” healthy liver rather than that one with cirrhosis) and to regard them in a certain way (for example, using the Flamsteed rather than the Ptolemaic celestial projection). To acquire this expert eye is to win one’s spurs in most empirical sciences. The atlases drill the eye of the beginner and refresh the eye of the old hand.

… To call atlas images “illustrations” at all is to belie their primacy, for it suggests that their function is merely ancillary, to illustrate a text or theory. Some early astronomical atlases do use the figures as genuine illustrations, to explicate rival cosmologies. But in most atlases from the eighteenth century on, pictures are the alpha and the omega of the genre.

… They teach how to see the essential and overlook the incidental, which objects are typical and which are anomalous, what the range and limits of variability in nature are. Without them, every student of nature would have to start from scratch to learn to see, select, and sort. … they made collective empiricism in the sciences possible, beyond the confines of a local school.

… The atlas is a profoundly social undertaking, but because the term “social” carries so many and such varied connotations, it would be more precise to say that the atlas is always — and fundamentally — an exemplary form of collective empiricism: the collaboration of investigators distributed over time and space in the study of natural phenomena too vast and various to be encompassed by a solitary thinker, no matter how brilliant, erudite, and diligent.

… Dog-eared and spine-cracked with constant use, atlases enroll practitioners¬†as well as phenomena. They simultaneously assume the existence of and call into being communities of observers who see the same things in the same ways. Without an atlas to unite them, atlas makers have long claimed, all observers are isolated observers.

… when epistemic anxiety [breaks] out, scientific atlases by their very nature register it early and emphatically. We, therefore use atlases as a touchstone to reveal the changing norms that govern the right way to see and depict the working objects of science.

-Julie

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