Mid-Semester Essay Ideas
During my time in LB492, I found the epistemological themes of how we arrive at certain knowledge to be very fascinating for me. As we begin working on the mid-semester essay, there are three branches of this theme that I think would be interesting for me to focus on:
- What kind of knowledge does Redniss’ artwork convey about Marie Curie’s life and work that could not otherwise be communicated?
- How does epistemic variation in introspective knowledge explain variation in the ethics of white supremacy culture?
- What knowledge claims could an apolitical science make?
For the first question, Redniss’ book, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout: Marie and Pierre Curie, features artwork on every page that complements the text. The book is formatted in such a way that on some pages, she continues the story of Marie Curie’s life, and on others, she tells brief asides of the science and technology of the time. I recall being amazed at how engaged I felt during the reading of certain passages that sounded like they would have come from a textbook. For example, Redniss writes, “Mechanisms that depend on piezoelectricity are found today propelling droplets in inkjet printers” (Redniss, 31). On the same page, the background contains lovely artwork of bright and colorful polyhedra, presumably to represent the crystalline structure necessary for piezoelectric properties. I believe that the artwork here does more than just emphasize the importance of crystalline structure to the mechanism of piezoelectricity, which could be communicated with a simple sentence, and in fact conveys a sort of “emotional” knowledge. The facts on the page might not engage the reader, but they would have captivated a physicist. I feel that this kind of knowledge, which reflects what it is like to be in someone’s shoes, is uniquely communicated through the arts. This is in addition to the Exploratorium’s statement that art can make science more engaging and approachable.
For the second question, introspection is a source of knowledge that interests me a lot. It is what allows us to know how we feel and what we believe. There is no way for me to be certain that someone else is sad (even if they were to tell me, they could be lying), but I can possess knowledge about how I feel. This connects to standpoint theory because introspective knowledge is inherently situated in the observer. It also explains why it is not enough to simply consider a marginalized viewpoint, but rather to have individuals behind that viewpoint participate in decision-making. Something that stood out to me in reading Traweek’s work as well as the Cole readings was the presence of white supremacy culture in the physics community. To characters, Traweek herself and Oppenheimer, are presented in these readings that are clearly opposed to this culture, however it seems that many people in positions of power saw nothing wrong with it. I believe that variation in introspective knowledge, coming from differences in life experiences, can inform us on why different people arrive at different ethical conclusions regarding characteristics of white supremacy culture.
For the last question, I want to draw upon Neils Bohr’s wife, Maragaret, in Frayn’s play, “Copenhagen.” In the play, Maragaret insists that Bohr and Heisenberg not talk about politics. Moreover, in Traweek’s work, she mentions that many physicists have a suprapolitical view of physics knowledge. Here, I want to challenge the idea that physics as we know it can be apolitical by a sort of proof by contradiction. I want to envision a science free from political cause and consequence and demonstrate how limited it is, specifically in the small number of knowledge claims that it can actually make. As supporting evidence, I can also reference Redniss’ book, which contains many physics claims, and evaluate whether any of them are truly apolitical.
- Redniss, L. (2010). Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: a tale of love and fallout. It Books.
- McDougall, M., Bevan, B., & Semper, R. (2012). Art as a way of knowing. Exploratorium, San Fransciso.
- Traweek, S. (1992). Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Harvard University Press.
- Cole, K. C. (2009). Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World he Made Up. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Okun, T. (2000). White supremacy culture. Dismantling racism: A workbook for social change groups, Durham, NC: Change Work.
- Frayn, M (1999). Copenhagen. Anchor Books