‘MAKING DO’ – Sarah Longair

RESPONSE #5 Sarah Longair

Our final session led by Simon Werrett used his recent article on ‘Recycling in Early Modern Science’ as the starting point for the discussion. In this paper he draws attention to the techniques and apparatus of early modern scientists to explore ‘the process of invention’. Through this discussion, he shows much continuity between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ science, as understood in this period, thus offering new perspectives on innovation in science and the practice of experimentation.

The idea of a scientist’s home as the setting for such experimentation particularly intrigued me – considering the house in this way tests and blurs our conventional spatial demarcations and the associated disciplines which take place within them – cooking must be the most regular scientific activity that we all do, mostly without thinking of it as chemistry: mixing materials and heating them to cause chemical reactions, thus changing the properties of the original substances. This is echoed in the current trend in restaurants and bars where contemporary chefs and cocktail mixologists keenly emphasise the scientific approach to their creative culinary process.

The careful preservation and re-use of materials – recycling and mending apparatus after failures or unexpected reactions – has long been characteristic of the work of scientists. As Simon described in his article, famously J. J. Thomson described the Cavendish in Cambridge as a ‘string and sealing wax laboratory’. I discussed this with a physicist from the Cavendish recently who iterated how scientists in the laboratory continually worked with extremely limited budgets. The First World War meant there were no funds for research while the celebrated physicist Ernest Rutherford was a genius at carrying out brilliant experiments with very simple equipment. He famously said: “Gentleman, we have no money and so we have to think”.

An important strand in my research is investigating the work of amateur scholars and museum professionals in the Indian Ocean and the 19th and 20th century colonial world. In the case of the Zanzibar Museum, the idea of recycling and making-do was ever present. Cases were adapted and re-purposed, one curator found the complex bureaucratic process to procure new items via the Crown Agents from Britain too irksome so relied upon her local staff and network of craftsmen to find creative solutions for display and storage. A focus upon the apparatus of museum work – the display cases, the workshops, the taxidermy tools – draws our attention to the staff who are often forgotten recyclers of objects and purveyors of knowledge.


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