Wissen fuer Alle: Popular Science in Austria-Hungary

Zachary Barr

Fin-de-Siecle Austria (1882-1914), famous for its artistic and cultural luminaries, was also home to a natural scientific tradition of tremendous achievement in a wide variety of fields, including geology, physics, physiology, meteorology, and evolutionary biology. The influence of this tradition was widespread, extending beyond the rarified realm of laboratories, academic journals, and conferences to many areas of public life, as parties across the sociopolitical spectrum marshaled facts, objects, theories, practices, and texts to help settle disputes, undermine opponents, gain supporters, and discipline followers. Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics, for example, was used by Liberals to justify constitutional rule-of-law as “the most probable state”; geological maps served as a critical resource for Czech and German nationalists in their conflicts over ownership of the Bohemian Woods; and climatological models were integrated into Habsburg administrators’ arguments for the natural cohesion and unity of Habsburg lands.

The mechanisms by which natural-scientific knowledge circulated throughout the social, cultural, and political life of the Monarchy, and the consequences of this circulation for “elite” Habsburg science itself, were far more complicated, not to mention interesting, than the frictionless “diffusion” of self-evident, stable facts and theories from scientific experts to passive, lay audiences. That is, despite the ostensibly empyrean, universal nature of scientific knowledge and “the scientific worldview,” the movement of scientific claims relied on extensive networks of people, objects, practices, sites, and institutions. Moreover, the process of materialization within, and circulation through, these networks transformed the mobilized content, as the parties involved contested and negotiated their meaning and interpretation.

My dissertation argues that organizations dedicated to “popular science” were important, but oft-overlooked nodes in these scientific networks. Representing political and class affiliations ranging from Liberal to “neutral” to socialist and working-class, these organizations offered direct points of contact between elite scientists and general lay audiences, and played a critical role in facilitating the circulation of scientific work from the local confines of the lab or seminar to broader sites and contexts, and then from these broader sites and contexts back to the spaces of elite science. In focusing on “knowledge in transit” between these two domains, I ultimately hope to reveal a number of interesting things about science, the “lower orders” of society, and the relationship between the two in late-Imperial Austria. I also hope to draw attention to the importance of popular science and popularizations of science to the broader scientific enterprise, and to challenge the notion that audiences for popular scientific works were –or are- merely objects of domination by “the scientific gaze,” or passive spectators of –rather than participants in- scientific activity.

A generous summer grant from the Social Sciences Division gave me the time and resources to think more deeply about popular science, circulation, and communicative action as constitutive parts of the scientific enterprise, and to read more broadly in the relevant English and German historiographies. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the SSD’s support allowed me to put together and defend a dissertation proposal, which has served as an essential blueprint for the archival work I’m currently conducting in Vienna.


Zachary Barr is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.