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Objectivity is an intricate overview of the Scientific Revolution seen through changing approaches to representation. Supported by beautiful images, including many color plates, the authors mark the ebb and flow of subjectively-influenced depiction and objectivity-enhancing illustration as scientific thought dances with changing theories of representation. As is said herein, the book reviews “how epistemology and ethos emerged and merged over time and in context, one epistemic virtue often in point-counterpoint opposition to the others.” Authors Daston and Galison tell their history of science and make a general argument about the changes in imagery with highly detailed examples and anecdotes and through the impact of individuals and individual works.

Curiosity-driven doodling grows to sterile realism to a supposed balance of “trained judgment” in the charted evolution of scientific thought and its visual expression. Almost as an aside, the authors imply a causal link with eugenics and the Nazis. when science broke away slightly from its embrace with objectivity. The book actually makes a captivating tale of the dramatic struggle between rigor and imagination, whimsical artist and purist scientist, sometimes in the same individual.

It is easy to consider such a work as profound, if merely due to the scope. However, I would argue that consideration of the verbal description of science (representation in words instead of image), its symbology, its methodology, or any of many other aspects are worth the same scrutiny. Objectivity takes one dimension of the vector of scientific progress and amplifies it beautifully, at the same time artificially stressing the importance of one seasoning in the recipe. Certainly the epistemology can hardly be considered without scientific images, but that imagery is as much outcome as it is catalyst. For the authors, rigorous objectivity arose in scientific thought as a by-product of its dispute with subjectivity almost solely decided through warring pictorial approaches.

The authors successfully tackle their capacious topic by elegantly partitioning it into succinct and well-defined categories such as “truth-to-nature” and “trained judgment”. They support their arguments with considered, zealous arguments and such rarely reproduced pictures as obscure atlas images. The chapters each correspond roughly to a century. The growth of depiction is plotted as beginning with an 18th Century, classical approach called "four-eyed" sight or “truth-to-nature” depiction. This is exemplified by drawings from the Hortus Cliffortianus. This work, still used by naturalists, combined the efforts of a botanist and an artist to create detailed renditions of a species. The pictures show idealized plants, not an instance of that species found in the field. A century later, the "blind sight” of “mechanical objectivity” formally removes all human involvement through such techniques as an unmodified microphotograph of a snowflake with zero alteration or clarification to block the revelations of pure reproduction.

For the 20th Century a more balanced approach of "trained judgment” brings back the human influence to transform data by educated manipulation. An example is the somewhat subjective smoothing of data to create solar magnetic field maps through discernment of instrument artifacts and then removing those artifacts. While it strikes me as somewhat of a stretch, the authors argue that in more recent decade we see a "haptic" representation where image and sight fuse as both record and tool. The classic example to support this classification is when “camera and the tweezers” merged for ibm to form its logo out of atoms. I think it can be argued that nano-manipulation is not on the same level as the broad, general types of imagery ascribed to the previous three periods.

It is interesting that an entire chapter is given over to the mathematization of scientific expression, largely through a granular examination of the work of Gottlob Frege. As a philosopher, he can be considered a father of analytic philosophy. His Begriffsschrift cut a path to rigorous treatment of the ideas of functions and variables, especially through strict notation. Of course this symbolic language is an abstraction removed from the imagery-inspired objectivity that is the main thrust of the book.

One excellent reason to read the book is to follow the authors’ reasoning bringing in from the Kantian side door Frege’s struggle to codify our intuition under the greater arc of pictorial progress. Here we find that the authors set their sights on defining an objectivity that truly arises not only in the empirical assessment and creation of images, but also one that applies to idealized concepts. While it is easy to be distracted by the hand-waving of the compelling images contained herein, it is when the authors grapple successfully with a greater objectivity that they truly triumph. As they say,

Those who did identify ‘structures’ as the core of objectivity understood a great variety of things under that rubric: logic, ordered sequences of sensations … mathematics, syntax, entities that remain invariant under transformation, any and all formal relationships. Our rationale for grouping them together, despite their many striking and significant divergences from one another, is two-fold: first, they diagnosed a common problem, namely, the specter of incommunicability in the sciences…; second … they proposed a solution, an objectivity derived from structures, however those were defined.

Tom Schulte objectively teaches mathematics with loads of doc cam visuals at Michigan’s Oakland Community College.

Date Received: 
Monday, December 13, 2010
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Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison
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Tom Schulte
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Saturday, May 28, 2011