Journalist and cultural critic Steven Berlin Johnson gave the keynote address at the ASTC Annual Conference in Philadelphia on October 18. His talk, entitled “Thinking Across Boundaries: Inspiration from The Ghost Map,” drew upon his most recent bestselling book. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World tells the story of London’s 1854 cholera outbreak. Although most authorities at the time believed in miasma (the idea that disease was caused by smells), physician John Snow and vicar Henry Whitehead gathered evidence to support Snow’s idea that cholera was a waterborne illness. Their work ultimately led to the establishment of safe water supplies and helped make city life possible.
Johnson encouraged science centers to take several lessons from this story. First, he stressed the importance of not framing science as a “steady march upward,” but instead making the effort to “look at the history of mistakes,” such as miasma. He also encouraged science centers to pursue a way of thinking that he called “the long zoom,” which involves thinking across different scales. For example, he said that Snow looked at the epidemic on every scale “from microbe to metropolis.” Johnson also suggested that science centers can fill a role as places where new ideas like Snow’s can develop. “As a society, we have to recognize the importance of cultivating hunches,” he said. “The history of ideas is filled with hunches that had leisure time to develop.”
About the image: Steven Berlin Johnson delivers the keynote address at the 2008 ASTC Annual Conference in Philadelphia. Photo by Christine Ruffo