Why would anyone who is an historian of science spend their time thinking and researching and writing and lecturing about science and popular culture? Isn't it a sideshow to the real stuff, the important stuff: professional science? Recently, I found myself answering a variation on this question from someone who had come to a talk I was giving to an academic audience, and somewhere along the way of answering, I brought up the issue of cultural gatekeeping -- how specialists in areas like art and literature and music in the early twentieth century would have said that Charles Dickens wasn't "real" literature or jazz wasn't "real" music because it wasn't "real" capital C Culture (how we got the capital C categories is of course an interesting legacy of latter-nineteenth-century intellectual arbiters. For a provocative entry point, see Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America / Harvard U Pr, 1990).
Over the course of the 20th century there has been a widening acceptance within most fields of human activity about what counts as significant, even if it seems to fall within the area of popular culture rather than clearly fitting into what arbiters considered to be high culture, or serious culture. But science is an area that has been much more tenacious in marking out and keeping firm the demarcations between what is seen as important and what has been brushed off as peripheral, tangential, trivial. The cordoning off of science as high culture is an important historical divergence from other cultural areas, in my view, and one worthy of thinking hard about, just like we used to wonder why Charles Dickens couldn't be real literature, or whether or not a quilt could be considered to be a form of artistic expression, even if it covered a bed in someone's home rather than being displayed on a museum's walls.
The example I gave was one that means a great deal to me: an Italian immigrant's set of sculptures that he created in his backyard f rom the 1920s through the 1950s. There are seventeen structures, two of which are towers that reach nearly 100 feet high. They were created out of steel and cement and the discards of everyday life -- broken pottery, tiles, bits of soda and milk of magnesia bottles, and seashells brought to him by neighborhood children.
The towers are located at East 107th street in Los Angeles, and they therefore came to be called the Watts Towers, since that is the neighborhood where its creator, Sabato (known as Sam or Simon) Rodia lived, and where you will still find them today (his name for them was Nuestro Pueblo, or "Our Town"). But you only find them there today because of a demarcation clash that happened in 1959 about whether or not Rodia's towers mattered: in 1957 the City of Los Angeles had ordered them condemned, stating that they were "an unauthorized public hazard" and scheduled them for demolition. A group who had organized to save the towers argued that at the least there should be a stress test, and the city agreed if the group would pay for it. As Off the Map, a site on visionary art, recounts:
If The Watts Towers — built by one man using novel construction methods — could withstand 10,000 pounds of stress,The Towers would be spared. On October 10, 1959, 1,000 supporters held their breath as they watched Rodia’s structure weather — without signs of strain — the equivalent of seventy-six mile-an-hour sustained winds. It was, in fact, the testing apparatus that began to bend. The demolition order was revoked and a year later The Towers were opened to the public for a fifty-cent entry fee.
I first saw them about 1975, when a high school teacher took us on a tour of cultural artifacts in downtown Los Angeles -- the kind of artifacts that you wouldn't find inside a museum, that is. I was astonished by the towers, by the fact that they were so intricate and so complex -- by the fact that they rose out of a modest urban neighborhood with a kind of nonchalance as if of course every neighborhood should have its local artistic embellishments -- by the fact that they had been created by someone who had no formal training but nevertheless felt compelled to invent and improvise and design and make real the visions inside his head and heart over so many years. But most of all just looking at them and walking around them made me very, very, very happy -- even if there were many things wrong about the world I felt a kind of joy that I could live in a time and place in which they could exist and I could experience them and that we were bound together because I knew I would never forget them. And yet I might never have seen them if a small group of people hadn't argued for their value in order to save them, since the default view saw them as having little value, except, perhaps as a potential nuisance.
What gets left out of the official story, what gets left behind, what gets forgotten, and why . . . that is part of the story of science in the vernacular. And lessons from outside of science itself can help us think about these questions, too . . . but only, of course, if you think of science as a form of culture to begin with.
For more: There's wikipedia, and the local public television site for information, and a good summation of information on Rodia and the Towers from the documentary by Edward Landler and Brad Byer, I Build the Tower; see also an interesting interview with Landler. And here's Charles Mingus on growing up with the Towers.
Images: The first two are from http://www.wattstowers.us/; the third one is via flickr by bisayan lady; the fourth one is from wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Watts-towers.jpg.