Infrastructural Science: How Science without Discovery Keeps Technology Working (At Least Some of the Time)

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk by Roger Turner, research fellow at the Science History Institute.


Roger Turner

Roger Turner

Science History Institute/Jay Muhlin

How is science involved in keeping the lights on, the airplanes landing safely, and the water safe to drink? This talk builds on the insights of historians of technology, such as Paul Edwards, David Edgerton, and the “Maintainers,” to reveal how science is implicated in material transformations of the world. Infrastructure isn’t just physical installations, such as roads, electrical wires, water pipes, and airports. Infrastructure also includes the systems necessary to manage the hardware so that stuff and communications flow uninterrupted. A distinctive form of science is part of those systems. Scientists and technicians observe the natural world and then report and forecast how the natural world changes. As the natural world changes in very ordinary ways (storms pass through, streams swell or shrink, diseases come and go), the engineers and technicians who operate infrastructures use that scientific data to make routine adjustments. Government agencies perform most of the scientific observations. Mostly this “infrastructural science” happens quietly, noticed mainly by the observers who do it and the operators who use it. But it is a crucial part of how the modern industrial world works. And when it breaks down, like with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, people can be seriously harmed. Attendees will leave this talk with a field guide to identifying infrastructural sciences in the wild.

About the Speaker

Roger Turner has been a research fellow at the Science History Institute since July 2016, contributing to public history projects in various media, including Instruments of Change, The Instrumental Chemist, and Distillations. He runs the blog Picturing Meteorology, which uses compelling images to engage readers in the history of atmospheric science. Before joining the Institute he taught American history, environmental studies, and STS at Dickinson College and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Roger’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the American Meteorological Society, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.