2 Feb 2010 12:00pm - 1:30pm CRASSH


Dr Chitra Ramalingam, ACLS Mellon Fellow 2009-10 presents her work at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

A light buffet lunch will be provided. Please contact Anne Alexander to reserve a place. Reading materials will be available before the seminar.


My research looks at how scientists devise highly refined practices of observation and visualization in the laboratory—how they see and make pictures—and how these ways of seeing and picturing are connected to the wider visual culture in which they also take part. In this talk I will introduce in an exploratory way some of the interdisciplinary themes I am engaging with in my book manuscript, based on my dissertation.

The project uses the history of the observation and visualization of the electric spark in Victorian physics as a focus to explore possible connections between the emergence of “modern physics” and the emergence of nineteenth-century “visual modernism.” In my research I have described how certain scientists used the term “appearances” (a telling synonym for “phenomena” in the period) to articulate a distinctive visual epistemology in the laboratory. This was an approach to experiment that emphasized observing, enjoying, reproducing, and describing the visible surface of the natural world—a dimension of experimental practice left out of our standard impression of physics as a science of disciplined abstraction, mathematization, and precision measurement.

I will discuss a few of the surprising intersections between this playful physics of the eye and the Victorian fascination with optical illusions, as well as with the development of new visual media like photography and pre-cinematic animation devices, and will ask whether “visual modernism” is as useful a term a term of analysis in the history of science as it has been in the history of art and visual culture.


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk