Dr. mat paskins
I work on history, sociology and philosophy of science, focusing especially on the longue durée history of material sciences in practical, laboratory, and policy settings. I have previously also worked extensively on popular science and science journalism, focusing especially on how narratives of past socio-material futures can challenge our assumptions about science and technology.
I also regularly review books for the Journal of Literature and Science, and am very interested in how technical details circulate between fiction, popular non-fiction, and the non-technical realm. I have also written about utopian themes in STS and science policy, especially among radical conservative thinkers.
Narrative Science Research Themes
Narratives of Synthesis
Chemists and people writing about chemistry have often characterised synthetic organic chemistry as something like a closed game, which is only intelligible to those with the necessary technical background. This is reflected in our historiographies of both chemistry and twentieth century science more broadly: it has proven remarkably difficult to integrate serious and sustained accounts of synthetic chemistry into broader understandings of twentieth century research. In addition, there is often a sense that histories of chemistry and chemical industry are well known, even though aspects of these histories are highly contestable. Catherine Jackson has recently done pioneering work in showing how serious attention to the shifting trajectories of nineteenth century chemical synthesis can help to challenge received wisdom about what was happening in factories as well as laboratories.
At the same time, a number of chemists have chosen to publish their accounts of chemical synthesis in the form of rich, remarkably contingent, narratives. Such accounts focus on the human factors and embodied decision-making involved in pursuing chemical synthesis. They draw out the tensions which currently exist within the field between those who claim that chemical synthesis can effectively be automated, reduced to a form of pattern recognition to be achieved by advanced AIs, and chemists more attentive to the material, epistemic and organisational specificities by which chemical research has often been pursued.
In this strand of my research, I explore how approaching accounts of chemical synthesis as narratives can help historians and philosophers to provide more robust and accessible descriptions of what chemists do, which in turn opens questions about the history of chemical practices during the twentieth century. By working together with chemists, I want to find ways in which non-chemists can follow more closely the paths and byways of this remarkably beautiful, troubling, and remarkably neglected domain of science.
Committee Narratives and Material Substitutions
In the second strand of my research for the Narrative Science project, I look at how scientific and technical committees produce knowledge. Such knowledge can be considered a kind of narrative at each of its stages, from the over-arching shared understanding by which committee work comes to be structured to the production of minutes and reports.
My particular interest is in a number of committees in the British government between World War One and the 1960s which dealt with problems of natural resources and material substitution. Understanding the wide variety of ways in which these committees created knowledge of materials, and the understandings of political economy, expertise and empire on which their deliberations drew, we can see the shifting ways in which the British government and the scientists on which it drew framed problems of natural resources and shaped definitions of material affordances. In particular, I want to ask how the comparative openness of Britain to external trade compared to autarkic war economies of other states, which produced significant numbers of material substitutes in the form of ersatz goods, synthetic gasoline produced from coal, and the like. How conditions of material emergency were navigated in policy settings involved significant narrative ordering.