From the eighteenth through the early twenty-first centuries, the images that reveal the deepest commitments of the empirical sciences ― from anatomy to crystallography ― are those featured in scientific atlases: the compendia that teach practitioners of a discipline what is worth looking at and how to look at it. Atlas images define the working objects of the sciences of the eye: snowflakes, galaxies, skeletons, even elementary particles.
Galison and Daston use atlas images to uncover a hidden history of scientific objectivity and its rivals. Whether an atlas maker idealizes an image to capture the essentials in the name of truth-to-nature or refuses to erase even the most incidental detail in the name of objectivity or highlights patterns in the name of trained judgment is a decision enforced by an ethos as well as by an epistemology.
As Daston and Galison argue, atlases shape the subjects as well as the objects of science. To pursue objectivity ― or truth-to-nature or trained judgment ― is simultaneously to cultivate a distinctive scientific self wherein knowing and knower converge. Moreover, the very point at which they visibly converge is in the very act of seeing not as a separate individual but as a member of a particular scientific community. Embedded in the atlas image, therefore, are the traces of consequential choices about knowledge, persona, and collective sight. Objectivity is a book addressed to any one interested in the elusive and crucial notion of objectivity ― and in what it means to peer into the world scientifically.
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