Tag Archives: public understanding of science

Tripadvisor Rates Einstein: Traces of Public Memory and Science on the Web

Arguing with Einstein is one of my favorite photos of the Albert Einstein memorial. It encapsulates how some of the sculptor’s intentions, his argument about Einstein and science, manifest themselves in an invitation to argue with a statue. The seated statue invites us to sit on him, climb him, and argue with him, and it is my contention that sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Flickr offer us the ability to explore and examine our relationship to these kinds of monuments and memorials in unprecedented ways.

Photo: Schmidt, C., 2008. Arguing with Einstein, Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisbrenschmidt/2190660089/

Its been long in the making but I am excited to report that my paper Tripadvisor rates Einstein: Using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site is out in the newest issue of The International Journal of Web Based Communities. I did the primary research for this project back in my master’s program in a great course called Museums, Monuments and Memory. That was in the Fall of 2008. (I know, wow that was a while ago my how time flys in the world of academic publishing)

The paper is largely an attempt to parse out the different kinds about sites of public memory that we can tell when we draw on traditional archival collections, in this case using materials from the National Academy of Sciences archives, as opposed to the kinds of stories we can tell when we look at traces of experience and interaction with those sites of memory online. In this case, I find it particularly interesting to try and evaluate how some of the intentions in the design of the monument can be evaluated in the kinds of things that we create online as a result of experiences with the memorial. My hope is that this can serve as both further validation of the value of preserving public discourse on the web and potentially as an example for how other’s might use social sites like Yelp, Flickr, and Tripadvisor to explore and interrogate public memory.

Below is the abstract for the paper. I would love to hear any comments or critiques in the comments. Similarly, if you end up using the paper in any way I would also love to hear about it.


Near the US Capitol, in front of the National Academy of Sciences sits a gigantic bronze statue of Albert Einstein. The monument was created to celebrate Einstein and the sense of awe and wonder his work represents. However, while under construction, art critics and some scientists derided the idea of the memorial. They felt the scale of such a giant memorial did not fit the modesty of Einstein. This paper explores the extent to which perspectives of the monument’s public supporters and critics can be seen in how people interact with it as evidenced in reviews and images of the monument posted online. I analyse how individuals appropriate the monument on social websites, including Fickr, Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Yahoo Travel, as a means to explore how the broader public co-creates the meaning of this particular memorial. I argue this case-study can serve as an example for leveraging the social web as a means to understand cultural heritage sites.

If you don’t have access to the official copy I have my own personal unofficial personal archival copy that you can take a look at.

Re-mixing The Tech Tree: Build Your Own History Of Science

A few weeks back Rob Macdougall posted a great essay about using the game Civilization’s approach to the history of science and technology as a point of entry into conversations about models for representing the history of science and technology more broadly. Rob’s students picked apart the way the game allows players to develop science and tech. Student’s then proposed their own ideas for how to model the history of science in a video game.

There is a lot of excitement about games and education but so much of that fervor misses a crucial point at the heart of Rob’s assignment. Games, like other media (books, articles, films, etc.) express arguments in their content. But it’s not just the content of the games that make arguments. In most cases the most compelling arguments in games are actually embedded inside game mechanics. As Rob’s students uncovered, the structure of the tech tree itself makes assumptions about how progress, science, and technology work.

Rob’s assignment is in fact so fun that there are all sorts of gamers that do exactly this sort of thing for fun. Civilization has a sizeable Moder community, which spends a tremendous amount of time building, tearing apart, and remaking the way science and technology work in the game. For an indication of the tenaicty of this community take a look at this book length post on editing tech trees in Civ 4. More impressive than the posts length are the 150 comments from modders thanking and critiquing the work. For another view on the community check out this Civ Asia scenario. Many of these moders are going well beyond tweaking the game, for example in this thread some are working on put different civilizations on completely indpendent  trunks.

The tech tree is such a facinating entity that it provokes all sorts of gamers to get into heated arguments about how the history of science and technology works. In the face of this sort of evidence it is hard to support notions that limitations in the way Civ models history give gamers a poor conception of the way history works. On the contrary the enthusism of these moders seems to suggest that the mechanics of Civ provoke gamers to think more deeply about the nature of science and technology.