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.
Roger Turner, Research Fellow at the Science History Institute
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