One of the most overplayed broken records in science and art history is when discovery and influence are overlooked in favor of social norms. Think of it like the world’s biggest group project. Let’s say you are working on a project with a group where you do not hold the highest academic stature. Imagine dedicating your life to this project and making the most revolutionary discovery. Take it a little further and imagine all this hard work only for someone else to get the credit because they “look” like someone who would find this. That same person then wins the Nobel Peace Prize for your work. This exemplifies when socio-cultural barriers such as gender and academic stature hinder scientific progress. These barriers are reflected and critiqued in photographs and portraits of scientists. Artistic reflections of shortcomings within paradigm shifts can help remove discriminatory threads within the movements.
The concept of the paradigm shift originated from Thomas Kuhn in 1962. The shift is expressed as an entire thought community changing how they think about their study. Questions answered in previous paradigms must be studied again to be understood in unexplored contexts. One that echoes the longest is the social connotations behind gender and education within a thought community. We can’t seem to get past the need to over-contextualize gender and education when these communities go back to the drawing board.
One of the biggest fallacies woven into the social construction of the paradigm shift is the drive to maintain social normality within a field. The precursors to discoveries leading to or causing a paradigm shift are ignored due to the individual failing to fall within the social parameters of the ideal leader of the change. Take Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer at Harvard who discovered the makings of the universe were hydrogen-based, challenging the notion for the period that stars were made of heavy metals. However, her colleagues discredited her for her findings. Six months later, one of her male colleagues published a paper using her work and was considered the leading face of that paradigm shift for decades. Not only did she lose her life’s work to a man, but she was later driven out of her field of study to work under her husband. While seemingly more severe, this was not uncommon, but it is a classic example of scientific progress stalling to appease social norms.
Payne-Gaposchkin’s portrait is currently displayed at Harvard University in the same hall as Harvard’s President, A. Lawrence Lowell. While the works were never developed with the intent of interaction, Harvard Magazine said, “her eyes look left and slightly up, she is gazing directly at Lowell, no more than 30 feet away.” While the dynamic between the two portraits is noted, Payne-Gaposchkin is pictured inside a room looking out of a window with light peering in on her face. The hydrogen-filled sun’s angle on the work illuminates the overall scholarship of Payne-Gaposchkin. However, her appearance in the work aligns with trends in scholarly portraits for the period. She is portrayed interacting with the sun at a more muted personal level, and even then through a closed window. The sun shines on her face, but even then, she is blocked away from interacting with her discovery, her life’s work. Her placement in the same hall makes it as if she is looking up to the Harvard President, being the focus of conversation around her painting instead of her accomplishments.
Payne-Gaposchkin’s portrait highlights trends in capturing and illustrating women in STEM during that time. This notion towards women in the STEM field was reflected in commercials for smaller telescopes during the 1940s. Who better to be the face of commercial science than men?
Products like the Skyscope were popular telescope options in the 1960s. The advertisement depicts the product as the focus. Its placement between a man and his son uses the product to exemplify ideal masculine bonding.
While women in science were pictured in front of their work, it was infrequent and often displaced the scientist’s focus on the image of science. Referring to the advertisement, an extent of concentration covers their faces.
While social standards play a role in the portrayal of science and scientists, the individual’s level of education does as well. Jocelyn Bell, a postgrad student at Cambridge University, discovered curiously consistent pulses of radiation on a satellite in 1967. These seemingly synthetic wave patterns were thought to come from a satellite of sorts, but these pulses were coming from hundreds of light-years away. The credit for discovering these waves, termed pulsars, was given to her supervisors. Once again, the tale as old as time–doing the work in a group project and losing all the credit. Her supervisors went on to claim the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 1974. The outcome of her work echoed the same tune as others before her—to dedicate one’s life to science only to lose credit for those who better fit the social parameters of a scientist.
What is striking about Bell’s case is her portrayal in front of her discovery. While her supervisors received credit for her findings, she was photographed in front of the satellite that detected the pulsars. This variance from typical trends in women scholar photography could be interpreted as a social paradigm shift within the astronomy field. However, she was only a postgrad student in university at the time, so this variance could also be traced to her education level, as she did not receive her Ph.D. until 1969. Her photograph still diverges from trends in scientist portrait work and photography by capturing her behind her field of study and interacting with its findings.
Let’s look at the aftermath of Jocelyn Bell’s discovery of pulsars in 1967. While in the past, she was depicted in front of satellites that discovered these star pulses, here she is holding a book about astronomy and staring directly into the camera. The placement of the book and Bell’s attentiveness to the camera place the subjects in the same frame but minimize interaction. The minimal content interaction could be interpreted as a critique of the avoidant nature of the astronomy community at the time. In 1967, textbooks overlooked her accomplishments, searching for a more ‘socially acceptable’ scientist. This time, Bell overlooks the textbook.
The reflection of paradigm shifts in art is more uncertain than the outcomes of the transformations themselves. For example, the human genome was finally fully sequenced this year, so models regarding human genetics before March 2022 could be considered incomplete or out of date. The implications for how the art community will reflect these findings are uncertain, as we only know past shifts to determine how things will play out. That’s the beautiful thing about these breakthroughs—they break the bounds of our idea of science to set the standard of study for the future. Only time will tell what those standards will look like and how the art community reflects it in their work.