The word ‘performance’ can be helpful in understanding the actions of scientists in the past as they created, debated, filtered and narrated science. ‘Performance’ captures the skill involved in the activities of scientists and of their allies. In generating and disseminating conventional ‘outputs’ (including scientific images, publications and theories), men and women of science have drawn upon a surprising variety of ‘inputs’ from those with auxiliary skills—from artists to authors. In the collaborative work of science, ‘performance’ has sometimes taken place centre stage, for all to see, record and remember, and sometimes back-stage, behind the scenes, for a select few to consider, contemplate—and even chuckle. The June 2016 issue of Notes and Records offers examples of what we might call centre-stage and back-stage scientific performance, even as it contributes to key debates about the relationship between science and visual culture, religion, publishing and literature.1
The first paper, by Christina Riggs, brings together the performance of medical skill with the skills of trained illustrators. When August Bozzi Granville staged the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy in the 1820s, he ensured that he was supported by an artist and an engraver who constructed images associated with Granville's written account and fit for the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions. Riggs examines the way in which the study of the ancient mummies was brought under the purview of science through the forms of representation, verbal and visual, familiar to anatomists. The commissioned drawings, the author argues, were an integral part of a collective, rather than individualist, anatomical argumentation, which among other things incorporated mummies into typologies of race through illustrations indicating a characteristic ‘facial angle’. The illustrations, writes Riggs, lent prestige to the ‘performance and dissemination of scientific expertise’.
The second paper re-examines one of the very best known staged encounters at a scientific conference and one that has a ‘legend’ associated with it that is central to the ‘conflict’ model of the interaction of science and religion. James C. Ungureanu has unearthed and here examines letters by John William Draper and his family commenting on their experiences at the Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860. Draper, the ‘Yankee at Oxford’, gave a long (some said dull) lecture before a vast audience on the intellectual development of Europe, after which the topical subject of Darwinian evolution was, as expected, hotly debated. Draper later wrote the much-cited and controversial History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874): yet his recollections of the discussion after his Oxford lecture, including the notorious and allegedly pithy exchange between Thomas Henry Huxley and the practised public speaker Bishop Samuel Wilberforce on Darwin's theory, have remained unknown. As Ungureanu notes, historians have long realised that accounts of the very public performance by Huxley, Wilberforce and other debaters vary considerably. No transcript survives. But Draper's unearthed comments add weight to historians’ view that Huxley's self-proclaimed witty victory for science against religion was neither so decisive nor so audible as Huxley many times insisted and his disciples still do insist to the present day. Huxley's performance has improved with the retelling. Yet some of the best stories in the history of science cannot, sadly, survive close historical scrutiny.
The third and fourth papers in this issue concentrate on the back-stage, or ‘behind the scenes’, performances essential to scientific work. Roberto Lalli's paper examines the refereeing processes of a rising scientific journal of the 1930s, Physical Review. To understand past science we need to know why some papers, and not others, came to be published; and this paper, as well as illuminating that question, may be read with profit (and perhaps amusement) by anyone engaged in the literary business of science—as author, editor, referee or publisher. Lalli's protagonist is Howard P. Robertson, the main referee for Physical Review on matters of his own specialty: general relativity. The survival of so many of Robertson's letters and reports allows Lalli to raise, and often answer, a whole series of questions about the bureaucratic back-rooms of physics publishing. Why did refereeing change, and why did editors push to standardize what referees did? What kind of persona should a referee, whether anonymous or known, and with or without a strong agenda for his own subjects, adopt? With (anonymous) referees recruited to do the ‘dirty work’ of rejection on a poor paper, did editors come out squeaky clean? What functions were publishers fulfilling for authors—as filters, facilitators or critics? Lalli's paper, like other recent articles in the history of scientific publishing, comes at a time when contemporary science publishers question the value of referees’ anonymity and instead seek to ensure that the work of the referee is rewarded within systems of scientific credit. It seems that, increasingly, the ‘anonymous referees’ hitherto so generously thanked, without loss of credit, by published authors will come to be named, known and rewarded, in the sciences if not in the humanities, in systems of ‘open’ review.
Neeraja Sankaran and Ton van Helvoort describe the subject of their paper as ‘an episode in the behind-the-scenes workings of medical science’. The stimulus, as it were, for their paper is Christopher Andrewes's ‘Christmas fairy-story for oncologists’, a playful thing sent in 1935 to Peyton Rous, a fellow-traveller in cancer research who, like Andrewes but unlike their detractors the oncologists, saw a place for viruses in causing certain kinds of tumour, at least in chickens and rabbits. A curious literary conceit, not intended for public consumption, this fairy-story by ‘C.H.A[ndrewes].’ was loosely modelled on others by ‘H.C.A[ndersen].’ One of the many striking features of this paper is the range of modes of interaction and expression of the protagonists in this tale—performing, to continue the theme, through published papers, informal letters, public addresses, blasts and counterblasts and—at the centre of this account—through the composition, sharing and discussion of a fairy-story. One way of reading this paper is as an example of the place, and function, of metaphor and even fictional narrative in sustaining a scientific idea, a group of scientific friends, and their associated programme of research—here, a heterodox programme asserting the potential role of viruses in causing cancer. In the well-established field of literature and science, a common perception is that authors of imaginative fiction have adopted and extended scientific ideas, drawing out their implications in dystopic futures. Yet, in this paper, it is the scientists who are crafting private narratives, elaborating characters, and gently mocking, perhaps, both themselves and their antagonists.
↵1 For two differing approaches to performance and the ‘performative’ in science see Stephen Hilgartner, Science on stage: expert advice as public drama (Stanford University Press, 2000), and Andrew Pickering, The mangle of practice: time, agency, and science (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society.