Unsettling Science: Expertise, Narrative and Future Histories

This new three-year project, funded by the AHRC is led by PI, Dr Amanda Rees, in collaboration with Co-Is Professor Iwan Morus (University of Aberystwyth) and Dr Lisa Garforth (University of Newcastle).  The project will explore the history of the future, working with colleagues from Aberystwyth and Newcastle to examine the ways in which, during the long technological 20th century, popular and public culture drew (knowingly or otherwise) on the sciences in order to conceptualise and visualise their future prospects.

Project summary

Over the next three years this project will explore how modern Western intellectual culture has been underpinned and inspired by the sciences, and how in turn consumers and producers of popular culture have engaged enthusiastically and critically with new scientific knowledges and the social possibilities and problems they raise. Unsettling Science focuses on the different imagined futures that modernity has produced between the late 19th and early 21st centuries.

At the heart of the project are three case studies exploring how new scientific developments conditioned cultural understandings of the present and constructions of the future through three important periods of modernity. We begin with the optimism and excitement of innovations in physics and experimental cultures during the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, move on to look at the ways that discoveries in the biological sciences in the high modernity of the inter- and post-war period changed conceptions of humanity and nature, and end as modernity falters at the turn of the century in the face of environmental and resource crises, producing new understandings of complexity in the ecological sciences.

The case studies are enhanced by three additional studies which seek a broader understanding of how publics engage with science fictions and speculative science futures. They will explore how science has been presented in popular periodicals; consider how past visions of the future help us to understand contemporary social choices; and examine how contemporary science fiction writers and readers are anticipating the future now, in the face of scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, challenging issues about energy futures, and new possibilities engendered by genetic manipulation.

The project is focused on the period from 1887 (the date of publication for de Ferranti's design for Deptford Power Station, and the beginning of large scale electricity generation in the UK) to 2007 (the appearance of the International Panel on Climate Change's 4th Assessment Report, which put the issue of anthropogenic climate change beyond reasonable scientific doubt), and examines both specific case studies and the broader context of this long, technological 20th century.

There are six components to the project ‒ three case studies of particular constellations of scientific, social, literary, economic and moral issues, texts and authors, which are embedded within three contextualising studies which look more broadly at how these ideas and techniques were mobilised and put to use within popular culture and by non-specialist audiences.


Project Updates

Unsettling Scientific Stories, unsettling histories of science?

Amanda Rees, Principal Investigator

The AHRC-funded ‘Unsettling Scientific Stories: Expertise, Narrative and Future Histories’ project began in October 2015. Based at the Universities of York, Aberystwyth and Newcastle, its focus is on how science and technology was used to write the history of the future, in fiction and in fact, throughout the long, technological, twentieth century.

Why another ‘long’ century? Well, the project’s timeline officially begins with the publication of de Ferranti's design for Deptford Power Station in 1887, marking the beginning of large scale electricity generation in the UK, and ends with the appearance in 2007 of the 4th report of the International Panel on Climate Change, which put the issue of anthropogenic climate change beyond reasonable scientific doubt. In other words, we’re investigating the period of history in which British society became fundamentally interpenetrated by and dependent on the operation of increasingly global scientific and technical systems. From reshaping the landscapes through industrial agriculture and urban architecture to remodelling interpersonal relationships through social media and wearable tech, developments in science and technology have profoundly changed the way in which we understand and experience community life. Even more significantly, as we know, they’ve changed the way in which we think about the future and even how we think about what the future actually is.

There are six components to the ‘Unsettling Scientific Stories’ project. Three are case studies, each focusing on a specific period within the long century: Victorians and Edwardians, White Heat/Cold War and Environment, Complexity, Catastrophe. These look in detail at how science and technology were deployed in thinking about the future at these historic points. They are investigating how the dazzling displays and spectacular experiments of scientist-performers encouraged the development of a culture of futurism, in fiction, in fact and in a variety of different spaces. More prosaically, they are considering how ideas of improvement, reform and progress were gradually replaced later in the century by notions of planning and crisis, as the limitations on public and private resource (physical, economic, historic) became plain, and the future became something that could and should be prepared for. These case studies will show how the optimism of the 1880s had, by the turn of the next century, become considerably blunted, as fears of political or military disaster became overlaid with the awareness that the notion of the human capacity to control natural systems had been somewhat overstated. Confidence in technological, or technocratic progress was increasingly confronted, in novels, films, research papers and committee rooms, with its unanticipated – and wholly unintended – consequences. The future was becoming fearful.

Tying these case studies together, however, are three ventures which stretch across the century, each focusing in a different way on how people use science – consciously or not – to think about the future. Over the course of this century, we wanted to investigate how people thought about, used and judged scientific knowledge. In a sense, what we wanted to create with these three elements was a means to develop a ‘Citizen History of Science’.

Past Periodicals, based at Aberyswyth University, is surveying journals from throughout the period to see how science is deployed within their pages: magazines that adopted a range of political and economic perspectives, and which were widely read, but which didn’t consider themselves primarily oriented to ‘popular science’. It’s examining articles and editorials alongside cartoons, picture, adverts and other ephemera in order to identify and categorise scientific themes and questions as they emerged in the popular context, and assembling them into a database. This will – in the first instance – provide a key resource for the project itself, but also, we hope, become an enormously useful tool for other scholars. Its fundamental role is to help us figure out how people in the past used science to imagine their future. Parts of the database will increasingly be available online as the project proceeds – take a look at http://unsettlingscientificstories.co.uk/past-periodicals-database.

In tandem, one of the parts of the project based at Newcastle University – Prospecting Futures – is investigating how people in the present use science to think about the future. Treating SF readers as lay experts in both science matters and contemporary future making, this part of the projects works with them to reflect on what they know. At the moment, it’s exploring the nature of the texts and narratives that it will use – popular and obscure, challenging and entertaining, short sharp visions of different scientific, social and political themes as well as more immersive efforts at world creation. It’s going to critically reflect on what active readers do when they read about the future – how do they navigate the extraordinary variations in form and genre, how do they deal with the pleasures and frustrations of engaging in worlds that are both strange and familiar, and how does this shape their notion of what our present could become? We’re currently making connections with reading groups and other interested parties across the North East and Wales – if you’re interested, please contact amy.chambers@newcastle.ac.uk for details.

The final (University of York) venture focuses on the decisions that people make – individually and collectively – about the future. Presenting Choices is creating an interactive role-playing game that focuses on how the future (our present) emerged out of past decisions. Asking players to imagine themselves back into that past, it will offer them different storylines and scenarios – drawn from the empirical work done in other areas of the project – and give them the opportunity to navigate their way through what choices they might themselves historically have made. As such, it will play a key role in project outreach. But we also intend to use it more directly in relation to our notion of ‘Citizen History of Science’. In particular, we will build in feedback opportunities throughout, asking our players to tell us ‘what information did we leave out?’ ‘is this the right way to tell this story?’ ‘was the cartoon or the advert or the editorial more useful in making your decision?’. We presented a beta version of this when Amanda Rees and Iwan Rhys Morus gave a plenary at the Science in Public conference in Kent this summer – and got a lot of useful feedback from the audience. Further details can be obtained from sam.robinson@york.ac.uk.

We hope that these different outreach elements will help us understand not just how people, whether scientifically trained or not, use science to think about the future, but also how non-historians utilise historical knowledge. We will then, we hope, be able to use that information to improve our own analytic narratives, and to deploy them more actively in public debate as we work on ways of achieving ‘Citizen History of Science’.

We also, however, plan to read a lot of really good stories, some of which may well involve space battles, while we’re doing it. 


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Contact the researchers

Dr Amanda Rees (York)
Professor Iwan Morus (University of Aberystwyth)
Dr Lisa Garforth (University of Newcastle)
Dr Sam Robinson (York)

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