a website collaboration between Science Service and the Smithsonian Institution

David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
Please consult the author for permission to republish any part of the thesis.


A selected footnote will return to the place you were reading last when using Microsoft's Internet Explorer
(this function is not recognized by Netscape versions)

The founding of Science Service in 1920 marks a watershed in the history of the popularization of science. It represents the first successful attempt of the American scientific community to create a permanent independent institution for spreading a knowledge of and sympathy for science among the general public. It also marks the end of a decline and the beginning of a revival in the popularization of science, a revival which Science Service played a significant role in furthering.

Chapter I of this study places the founding of Science Service within the context of the decline and revival of popularization, and explores the motives of its founders which derived in large measure from certain effects, both direct and indirect, of the First World War.

Chapter II documents the history of the first decade of Science Service in its struggle to win a place for its science stories in the newspapers, the problems it encountered in trying to humanize science without vulgarizing it, and its eventual success in the latter part of the twenties in bringing reputable science reporting to the American public.

Chapter III focuses on the content of the popular science of Science Service, taking the writings of Edwin Emery Slosson, director of the Service from 1921 to 1929, as a representative sample. Edwin Slosson was extremely influential in the early development of Science Service, and his tenure as its director provides the time-frame of this study, including as it does the years in which the institutional framework and editorial policies of the Service were determined.

The popularization of science is a subject which has unfortunately received little attention from historians, and consequently there are few precedents on which to model this study. There is one general precept advanced by Charles C. Gillispie, however, which I have adopted as a historiographical principle for the study of popular science. Gillispie remarks in The Edge of Objectivity that scientific ideas have historically been interpreted (or misinterpreted) in accordance with the needs and wants of the culture in which they are introduced. From this inescapable fact Gillispie concludes that "necessarily, the permeation of culture by science must be a problem in accommodation rather than a study in validity.'' 1 I have taken this statement to mean that in the study of the impact of science on culture through the mediating influence of popular science, the historian's task is not to judge whether a given interpretation of a scientific idea is "right" or "wrong," but to understand the cultural forces which shape that interpretation and give it meaning within its historical context. With this goal in mind, this study hopes to contribute toward a greater understanding of the dynamics of the interaction of science and culture.

Chapter I    Chapter II    Chapter III            Table of Contents

Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979

National Museum of American History

Search - Site Map - Subjects to Choose From - Numbering Format

Credits - Copyright - Comments