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1/2 idea No. 22: Do all public spheres have a science? Has entirely private science existed?

By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

A couple of naïve questions, which can be answered with examples or counterexamples.

  1. Do all (modern?) public spheres have science?
  2. Have any entirely private scientists existed?

Science seems to be an inherently public process. Data can be gathered, experiments conducted, phenomena observed by isolated individuals. The conduct of more complex scientific procedures is usually the work of many, although such groups might remain private. But the validation of claims to scientific knowledge, the testing of claims by independent parties, and the incorporation of validated claims into a system of knowledge, held in common, all require not just multiple private persons but an opening into, and operation within, a public sphere.

The first question asks whether the overlap between public spheres and science is exact. If science is necessarily public, do all public spheres entail a science? Scholars of Indian Ocean have shown that there existed, prior to and outside of colonial networks, a vigorous global South-South public sphere. What kinds of science were implicated?

The second question might be in the category of things we don’t know we don’t know. Does, for example, anyone know of an example of someone working alone on their science in the twentieth century, who never tried, or was not able to, connect their science to public networks? What would their science be like? Would it indeed be science at all? It is possible to be an entirely private novellist, or an entirely private artist, but is it, categorically, possible to be an entirely private scientist?

The answer to the main question might be a group rather than an individual. So a second class of answers might be from private commercial science. (A third class might be from secret defence science.) Most commercial science is conducted mostly in private spaces, but is partly made public in minimised ways, such as through patent descriptions, or through the necessarily public connections required by metrological calibration. There are clearly degrees of privacy. But what would be the most extreme case? Has there ever been attempts to take science, so to speak, off grid?


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