From The Archives

Enter the world according to the media — which is to say, the world most of us now inhabit — and you don’t often get to see images of research scientists at work. The boffins are not a prominent feature of prime time, not compared to doctors, lawyers, police officers, criminals or people who work in the media. When scientists crop up on television it’s mostly in commercials, where the backdrop of a busy, futuristic laboratory is de rigueur when announcing a breakthrough in the sheen of lip gloss. Plus the scientists are all played by actors and the labs are the invention of set designers.

Real research science has never been quite so photogenic. After all, science prizes certitude, not appearances. These days that makes for a refreshing change. Which is not to say science isn’t image conscious, just that its attempts to portray itself in heroic hues have always been half-hearted and clumsy. Science does not care to tart itself up for promotional purposes and, more to the point, doesn’t really know how.

In the archives of the Ottawa-based National Research Council of Canada there is an incomplete but intriguing photographic record of its work over the years. This is science as it sees itself. Pure science, unsullied by image consultants. Torn from their original contexts, the pictures are both comical and charming, like family snapshots from a time when everyone had goofy haircuts.

Many of the photographs were taken simply to document experiments underway, although what exactly was being investigated is anyone’s guess. A forlorn pair of long johns is peppered with what might be either moth holes or buckshot. Sometimes the pictures show nothing more than an apparatus, the dials and wires of yesterday’s science. Four squat cabinets with circular screens peer ominously at the camera, like a firing squad of death-ray prototypes. What are these machines really, and why are they arrayed outdoors in the snow? Industrial-strength sub-zero slide projectors? Tundra-tested washers and dryers? Blizzard-resistant televisions?

The shots with people in them look like promotional stills from low-budget science fiction movies. A number of these ran as illustrations for a gung-ho article on the NRC in a 1946 issue of the now-defunct weekend magazine The Standard. Two guys who look like minor characters from a Dashiell Hammett novel have a couple of slabs of spareribs hooked up to some electrical gizmo, as though they’re giving the pork a polygraph. These turn out to be NRC biologists N. E. Gibbons and G. A. Grant. During the war, the British had complained that Canadian bacon was too salty. Gibbons and Grant discovered that salts were forming during storage and solved the problem.

The other photographs are equally posed and no less absurd. An investigator performs what looks like emergency microscopic surgery on a carrot. Men stand proudly before a giant propeller in an enormous wind tunnel, using their own stature to demonstrate the scale of things.

Meant to show the range of serious work undertaken by the national research establishment, the NRC’s portfolio of photographs only affirms the popular stereotype of science as an arcane and bewildering business, no doubt powerfully relevant to the mundane world but in ways opaque and mystifying to the uninitiated. Cheerfully and unselfconsciously, these dated images serve to remind us that the signature feature of science, for the non-scientist, is that so many of us don’t understand it and never

  • Canadian Geographic July/August 1999