How childhood experiences of science and nature have changed over time isn’t a very busy area of historical research . . . the history of science tends to be the history of scientists, and so the topic of childhood just doesn’t seem to be very important. (Unless it’s maybe to take a quick look at the childhood interests of a famous scientist, such as when Charles Darwin mentions in his autobiography that he and his brother performed chemistry experiments. He comments that "the fact that we worked at chemistry somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact, I was nicknamed ‘Gas.’" Yes, step up right here for your obscure facts!). So when our class spends time on the material culture of science toys, the students are really working through uncharted territory, developing historical hypotheses and raising questions that have so far eluded most scholars. Can you tell I’m looking forward to reading their papers? :-)
In their take-home essay exam, one object some of them may end up discussing in comparison to A.C. Gilbert’s early erector sets and chemistry sets is a recent toy: The Smithsonian Crime Scene Investigators Forensics Science Kit (list price of a hefty $59.95; comes with its own synthetic blood samples). In some ways it is an obvious updating of the regular old chemistry set (which also featured crime detection), with a sexy police work twist that resonates with CSI-watching parents, perhaps. Whenever I run across an ad for this thing I always imagine that it mostly appeals to parents and kids who have never been near a crime scene – if you grow up around the sound of gunshots, would this be an appealing toy? The idea of learning science through what (seems to me) a rather ghoulish means is a bit disconcerting to me, I’ll admit. There is something that bothers me about the idea that science can only be compelling to the non-nerdly if it is associated with murder and mayhem.
I was addicted to murder mysteries when I was growing up, so I was reading about some pretty ghoulish matters all things considered (Edgar Allen Poe anyone?), so I’m not quite sure why I find the forensics science kit so off-putting . . . maybe because the mystery stories were about other times, other places (all those English country house murders a la Agatha Christie, or noirish thirties LA), rather than representing a present world everyday local news mentality ("if it bleeds it leads"). The crime lab scenarios probably aren’t any more gruesome than your average Grimm’s fairy tale, either (nasty witches wanting to roast children as in Hansel and Gretel, for example) or in the Harry Potter books (is there anything more unnerving than Lord Voldemort's regeneration?).
About six or seven years ago the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was busily trying to interest Hollywood television writers and producers in creating shows that would feature engineers and scientists in a positive light, trying to reverse the negative images that persist (the mad scientist, and so forth) – little did they know that CSI and all of its spinoffs would come out of nowhere to splash heroic scientists doing heroic science into blockbuster status. As a Washington Post article put it in 2004:
Talk to network programmers these days -- or just look at the fall television lineups -- and it's quite clear that science is hip. Science is popular. Science grabs ratings . . .
"About 80 percent of this phenomenon can be summed up in three letters: 'CSI,' " says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "The show has been so successful that all manner of people are borrowing from it. One of the things that makes it unique is that it has this kind of biological specificity. It's not like slasher gore, it's more like what you'd see if you were president of the science club. It's Quentin Tarantino merged with science class."
Yes, Quentin Tarantino merged with science class! Just the right image . . . it seems as if that's what it takes to make science popular in the 21st century. I wonder why the Sloan Foundation didn't hit on this right off ?! (And Tarantino wrote and directed last year's two-episode tour de force finale from season 5, "Grave Danger." It must have been inevitable.)
But now we have the "CSI Effect" to deal with in real world jury rooms, where a vision of hyperscience garnered from forensic science shows slams into the less technologically enhanced world of most crime scene investigations, skewing jury verdicts. Perhaps another example of needing to be careful about you wish for. As a recent article noted, television shows like CSI:
foster what analysts say is the mistaken notion that criminal science is fast and infallible and always gets its man. That's affecting the way lawyers prepare their cases, as well as the expectations that police and the public place on real crime labs. Real crime-scene investigators say that because of the programs, people often have unrealistic ideas of what criminal science can deliver.
What ideas about science and scientists are supplied to kids by forensic science kits along with the plastic gloves and fingerprint powder? If only $59.95 would buy me a history detection kit, I'd be set.
For more: The CSI franchise and others in the genre have sent interest in forensic science programs at colleges soaring to unanticipated heights, and this has also filtered down to CSI-styled science summer camps for kids. The Sloan Foundation is serious about affecting popular culture with real dollars in its quest for a fuller representation of science and engineering: see here and here for two reports on the 2005 Sloan Film Summit at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Image: The fingerprint is from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Scientific and Technical Databases website: http://www.nist.gov/srd/fing_img.htm