Dr Simon Werrett – Thrifty Science  – History of Science – STSUCL
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Dr Simon Werrett – Thrifty Science – History of Science – STSUCL


Let me give you an example of Thrifty science. So, this is a piece of thrifty science. This is a bowl, it’s actually from the early 19th century. I keep it in my office and use it for classes occasionally, but the crucial thing about it, if you can see, is that it’s been repaired, so it has two staples in the back of it to bring the two pieces together. The point here is that today, if we have a bowl of equivalent cost and it breaks, we chuck it in the bin and we go and buy a new one. In the early modern period you didn’t do that – you repaired things until they were no longer repairable and then you’d probably find out a new use for the bits even when it was broken. And actually, repair was a really key part of of what I call thrifty science – so, looking after objects, making them last as long as possible, was really something that people cared about and spent a lot of time working on. In this case it’s interesting because they didn’t have glue that was strong enough to stick things together. We didn’t have superglue in the 19th century so until stronger glues were developed they used staples. And actually, think what a skill it involves to put those staples into porcelain or into China – that’s incredibly hard to do, so there were lots of professions that were dedicated to repair work and making things last as long as possible. It had scientific repercussions because it does raise questions about “how do you join things together” and “how do things cohere generally”, you know, the physical question. Can chemistry help make new glues, that kind of thing. But also, the general attitude – that’s the thing I’m really interested in – because that sense of making things last and repairing them also apply to things like scientific instruments. Typically people who made scientific instruments also spent a lot of their time repairing them. In fact, if anything, they probably spent more time repairing them and maintaining them than they did making new ones. So it was an incredibly important part of the history of science that tends to be overlooked. I think that’s interesting for two reasons. One is, we currently, in our environmental predicament want to know how to look after things to make them last. Sustainability is a key question. The other thing is that in the practice of being thrifty, of trying to find out new uses for things, people experimented – and I argue that modern science, in part, comes from that process of experimenting in order to be thrifty.

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