sound science

Cover design by Noortje Bruyninckx Cover image © by Jeroen Diepenmaat

Cover design by Noortje Bruyninckx
Cover image © by Jeroen Diepenmaat

Over the long twentieth century, biologists have adopted a series of mundane recording technologies such as gramophones, sound-on-film and tape recorders, and deployed them in their own studies of animal vocalizations. This dissertation investigates how these scientists have appropriated, used and legitimized such technologies as their own ― as scientific instruments in biological studies of bird song. It asks how scientists have used their ears and recording technologies in their work, what kind of knowledge this delivered and specifically, how such techniques of listening and recording have been legitimized as authoritative ways of investigation.

To the extent that historians of science and technology have dealt with recording and listening in science, they have framed it in terms of science popularization or taken for granted its appropriation as a scientific tool. This dissertation instead highlights the sustained physical, social and material work that has been involved in achieving scientific authority. Particularly in the context of field ornithology – involving a highly accessible subject and field environment – the role of these tools was being negotiated by a very diverse group of users: birdwatchers, amateur technophiles, professional ornithologists, ethologists, bio-acousticians, recording engineers, broadcasters and the general public.

Scientists could not escape the association of sound recording with functions of entertainment, popular culture and even art. This involved adapting existing artifacts, practices and conventions; re-conceptualizing epistemic notions like realism, sound fidelity and aesthetics; and instating new social and moral regimes for intellectual ownership, accountability and giving recognition. At the same time, these cultural technologies were never just appropriated; they also reconfigured scientific practice itself. New tools for documenting, editing and manipulating, analyzing and visualizing, transporting and circulating animals’ acoustic behavior changed the ways in which these actors learned to understand and appreciate sound, as well as the sensory strategies, listening techniques, and technical skills they were expected to master and employ.

Methodologically, this dissertations draws upon an extensive collection of archival sources (such as correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, field- and laboratory notes and editing forms, as well as recordings), published literature and oral history interviews, collected at the British Library, the Humboldt Universität Tierstimmenarchiv, Cambridge University Library, the BBC Written Archives, Cornell  University Library and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Combined, these sources enable one to trace sound recording from out-of-sight fields and sites of trade and exchange to their public appearance in scientific papers or radio broadcasts.

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