Interview with D. Graham Burnett on the history of science
How did you decide to study the history of science?
In my first semester at Princeton I took Professor Mike Mahoney’s class, “The Origins of Modern Science,” History 291. It was a transformative course for me. The stakes seemed so high. Was it really possible that science -- the most powerful knowledge-making system ever devised by humans -- had emerged sometime between 1500 and 1700 from a mish-mash of mathematics, epistemological musings, parlor tricks, gentlemanly tinkering, and craft techniques? The idea was nothing short of staggering. Since I cared a great deal about both science and religion, I was drawn to the history of science as a field that would permit me to study how different ways of making sense of the world had emerged, come into contestation, and changed. In some cases, of course, whole frameworks for conceptualizing nature and humanity had more or less vanished. All of this was immensely stimulating and, somehow, very important to me.
You went on to write your senior thesis on lens making and optical theory. How did you come around to study British explorers?
Before coming to college I took a year off and spent time teaching and traveling in India. As a result of that experience, I had a strong urge to think about the world beyond Europe. In my sophomore year I was fortunate to be introduced to Professor Gyan Prakash, who encouraged me to link my growing interest in the history of science with my interest in the non-Western world. He was then at work on what would become Another Reason, a book that deals with these very issues. With his encouragement, I went back to India in my junior year and studied the history of the British railroads there. The railroads presented serious technical problems for the British and, at the same time, they were intimately tied up with British ideas about colonial governance and empire. In the end, my independent work in college stimulated an enduring interest in the relationship between science and technology and European imperialism in the modern period. That was what my graduate work was primarily about, and that is largely what I study now and teach.
How does cartography fit in?
Maps present a terrific way to open up this whole area. To make a map is a technical and scientific problem. But a map is also an artifact that can have powerful political, social, and economic effects. My first book, Masters of All They Surveyed, explores that intersection between the technical problems of mapmaking and problems of colonial and imperial governance.
What is the book about?
The book is about how people made maps in the field in the 19th century, and the significance of those maps. More specifically, it’s about how in the 1830s a bunch of guys went into the jungle in an area of South America claimed by the British (today the nation of Guyana) and emerged, sometimes years later, with data that enabled them to make maps of these places. These maps mattered, since they could be laid on tables in European capitals and marked up with meaningful lines as these regions were divvied among various distant potentates. To put it another way, Masters of All They Surveyed is about how you go from thinking about a place as terra incognita, as an unknown land, to thinking of it as a bounded, reified place -- the kind of place you can claim to own. How you go from the view of a place from the beach to that top-down view -- that wonderful God’s-eye view -- that cartographic representation affords.
Boundary controversies are a very familiar form of conflict around the world, and are often particularly acute in post-colonial nations. One point I make in the book is that this is at least partly a product of the surveying technique used, the traverse survey. Traverse surveying was, in a sense, all about crossing boundaries; it was about figuring out the limit of what was known and then going a little farther. In various ways, traverse surveying led people to make maps with highly unstable boundary lines. So the seeds of modern boundary conflicts in this part of the world were laid, I argue, in a specific practice of cartography in the 19th century.
What are you working on now?
My first book is about how people tried to be rational about a very difficult space -- the jungle. These surveying explorers had to be precise, metrical, and orderly about a space that has been characterized since forever as consummately irrational; they were trying to subordinate this opaque and recalcitrant jungle space to mathematics and geometry. For a long time I have been interested in another difficult space, the sea, which has also resisted mathematical description and been seen as opaque, deep, and fundamentally resistant to reason. Unlike the sky, which is orderly and regular, the ocean has historically been seen as chaotic and terrifying. In my current project I am using whales and dolphins to study this other recalcitrant environment and another group of scientists who tried to deal with it. I am interested in whales as what you might call “problems of knowledge,” and I am researching the different scientists who pursued these creatures in the 19th and 20th centuries: natural historians, biologists, ecologists, fisheries scientists, and so on. Whales have long been perceived, of course, as mysterious creatures, even as monstrous beings that lived, in a way, “behind God’s back.” And yet, over the last two hundred years or so, these strange animals have followed a remarkable trajectory: from soulless, mindless “beasts,” they have come to be understood (at least by many in the rich world of Europe and the United States) as soulful, intelligent, and musical “friends of humanity” -- as bellwethers of environmental irresponsibility, and even as totems of the counterculture. How did these big, furtive, bizarre animals come to be invested with such elaborate meanings? It is my intention to write a book that traces both the history of the science dealing with these animals and the cultural transformation they have undergone. The two stories are thoroughly intertwined, and that is part of what makes it all so interesting. For instance, research done in the 1950s and 1960s on the anatomy of the dolphin’s brain ultimately played a significant role in changing the dolphin’s place in the popular imagination. Later, the dolphin’s place in the popular imagination transformed the kind of science that could be done with them.
Do you have anything else you’d like to tell people?
I guess I would like to encourage undergraduates here at Princeton to try out a course in the history of science. It could change your life!