5 Questions With . . . Jennifer Tucker on Mars, Victorian England

David PesciMay 4, 201111min
Jennifer Tucker is co-teaching a course this semester on “Interpreting Life on Mars: Scientific Data and Popular Knowledge.” (Photo by Olivia Drake)

In this issue we ask “5 Questions” of Jennifer Tucker, associate professor of history, associate professor of science in society, and associate professor feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

Q: Professor Tucker, you started off with an undergrad degree in biology but you’re on the History Department’s faculty here and specialize in, among other areas, Victorian London and British cultural history. How did your interest evolve in these directions?

A: I entered college with a strong interest in history, but I also loved science courses. At Stanford I combined a major in the neurosciences of visual perception and memory with coursework in history of science and history of art. After receiving a Marshall Scholarship to study at Cambridge University, I completed graduate work in the history of science, focusing on, among other things, issues of visual representation in scientific and popular culture. The time I spent in the UK made up my mind to continue the study of history; talking with other historians of science sparked my desire to understand the power of visual communication in scientific and technological cultures and to engage the sciences as historically evolving practices – two interests that still invigorate my teaching and research. Most of my scholarship and teaching concentrates on British history during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when people around the world were experimenting with new visual technologies, such as photography and cinema. In addition to teaching general courses in British history and history of science, I also direct seminars and thesis research at Wesleyan on various topics in the history of science and visual communication. Some of the courses I teach include “Evolution, Pictures and Publics,” “Scientific Visualization in Western Culture from Leonardo’s Drawings to MRIs,” “10 Photographs That Shook the World,” and “Fact and Artifact: Visual Persuasion, Expert Evidence, and the Law.”

Q: You also have an appointment in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality studies. Is there an overlap with your Science in Society work or is this a separate research and teaching area?

A: Yes, there is an overlap. This semester, for example, I am teaching a course called “Gender and Technology.” The class analyzes the role of gender and other social factors in a variety of technologies and technology systems such as telecommunications, medicine and public health, transport, military, computers, capital investment, agribusiness, and environmental engineering. We also explore how concepts of masculinity, femininity and technology are reproduced in popular mass culture and everyday life, from techno music and hobby clubs to domestic interior and office design.

Q: This semester you are co-teaching a course with Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies Martha Gilmore titled “Interpreting Life on Mars: Scientific Data and Popular Knowledge.” How did this partnership form and what exactly are you and Professor Gilmore focusing on in the course?

A: Professor Gilmore and I both have prior scholarly interests in Mars, but from different disciplines: Marty is a planetary geologist who specializes, among other things, in the study of planetary features on Mars, while I have published historical research on visual representations of Mars and Martians in Victorian England. We long have wanted to teach a course on Mars together; a Sciences Across the Curriculum (SaC) grant created that opportunity. A significant part of the public’s fascination with and support for scientific investigations of Mars has related to its apparent potential as an abode for life, owing to its proximity and similarity to Earth. Our course explores the history of scientific and popular interest in the planet Mars, addressing such questions as:

  • Under what historical circumstances did interest in the idea of a plurality of worlds develop in the ancient world and flourish during the Middle Ages?
  • How did planetary research change as the center of astronomical work moved over time, from Jesuit monasteries and royal courts to private observatories and international science organizations?
  • What scientific evidence has been advanced for and against the idea of life on Mars since the first telescopic observations of Mars were made by Galileo in 1609?
  • Marty and I work together on all aspects of the class, from lectures on the history of planetary exploration and national space science policy, to the design of lab modules, mapmaking exercises, and telescopic observations that give students a practical understanding of the work done in planetary observation today. We also explore the nature of public interest in Martians and UFOs as expressed through art, psychology, literature and cinema, and offer guidance on students’ final research papers and group poster session. By bringing our different disciplinary perspectives to bear on a set of common problems and questions, we are able to show how public perceptions, support and interactions become integral to current scientific practices – often with unintended consequences!

    Q: What is your book, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, about?

    A: Nature Exposed addresses several questions arising at the nexus of history of science, history of photography and British cultural history:

  • In what cases did scientists in the early days of the mechanical reproduction of images turn to photographs as visual evidence?
  • Through what processes and conditions did photographs enter scientific literature?
  • What was the nature of scientific debate about their truth or falsity?
  • Among other things, my book provides evidence that the relationship between ideas of photography, science, and truth was complex and often uncertain during the nineteenth century. By following the controversies and commentary that surrounded the early creation of scientific photography, from bacteriology to meteorology to psychical research and planetary science, I show how the photograph functioned as a witness in different contexts of nineteenth-century scientific investigation – the observatory, the laboratory, the spiritualist seance, and the naturalist’s field station, for example – and to cast new light on the social history of science and the power of visual culture in scientific communication.

    Q: What other projects will you be involved with in the near future?

    A: I presently am working on a new book, ”The Art and Visual Politics of the Tichborne Claimant Affair,” which is a study of the reception of visual and expert evidence in British law and popular culture from 1850 to 1900. The project focuses on a pivotal case in legal history, the trials of the Tichborne Claimant. Today, the Tichborne trials, held in London from 1871 to 1874, are still remembered for their length, their spectacle, and for the extraordinary interest they attracted, both at home and abroad. The trials elevated an English emigrant working as a butcher in rural Australia into the most popular hero of the British metropolitan working classes during the late nineteenth century. With support from a British Academy-Huntington Library Fellowship for Study in Great Britain and a Curran Fellowship for Research on the Victorian Press, I plan to spend part of this summer in England researching photographs, engravings, and other visual materials that circulated around the time of the trial in order to show how the physical movement of photographs and other visual materials through time and space shaped the meaning of the case from the beginning. I also am conducting research on the significance of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1850 to 1930 in the history of photography and cinema, particularly documentary film. As the new Image Editor of the international online journal History and Technology, I also am working now to create a feature that will become a useful platform for the exchange of ideas and approaches among scholars worldwide who want to integrate our understanding of technology into broader historical and comparative accounts.