‘What’s in the box?’

The second in our series on this year’s group projects by Sci Com students is an exhibition piece. Douglas Heaven, Graham Shaw and Julia Robinson present: ‘What’s in the box?’

Weird and wonderful contraptions are at the heart of scientific discovery.

Before the invention of high technology laboratory equipment, scientists had to make do with whatever they could find to explore the world around them. This resulted in the creation of many complex and absurd-looking instruments like this one.

 Inside the box is an object, but the only way you can uncover what it is, is by observations through the careful use of your senses and discussions with your fellow scientists.

So take a look, listen and feel and have your own Eureka moment. 

We came up with the concept of a museum exhibition piece called ‘What’s in the box?’ to investigate the notion of scientific discovery. It is often taken for granted that scientists are able to explore the world around us by way of carefully refined methods of investigation. But throughout history, science has typically only been able to progress through observations made using tools. What knowledge we can be said to have of the world is mediated by the use of instruments and apparatus, and the possibility of scientific discovery is limited by the available technology.

In designing our own scientific contraption we aimed for an aesthetic that fetishised scientific equipment, making the appearance of our piece an important part of our project. Heath Robinson’s drawings of the early 1900s became a particular inspiration, and we wanted our device to be constructed to look like a complex and wacky science invention with overtly Victorian features – or a “steampunk” look. This required careful thought about the materials used and the way the piece was constructed. We wanted to emphasise the mystery, intrigue and novelty of scientific investigation and promote excitement and discussion in those who used it, whether old or young.

The three modes of interaction available to discover ‘What’s in the box?’ represent different epochs within the history of scientific instruments and the level of removal of the scientist from reality. The touch element is the most crude of the three modes and has the lowest level of removal. The scientist physically touches the object and discerns something of reality from their own senses. The ear trumpet used for our box is a Victorian stethoscope and so is actually from the same era we were trying to depict. It magnifies noise, but still relies very much on the scientist’s own senses. The telescope is from the 20th century and allows a scientist to see things that would not be visible to the naked eye. This represents the removal that much of modern science has from reality. Scientists rely on scientific instruments to accurately represent reality, but cannot know with certainty if they do.

Douglas Heaven, Graham Shaw and Julia Robinson are all studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College. 


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