The renowned French anthropologist of science, Bruno Latour has reworked the epistemological question of scientific reference. In a photo-essay on how a small team of researchers sample soil in the Amazon Forest, he reaches the following conclusion: "It seems that reference is not simply the act of pointing or a way of keeping, on the outside, some material guarantee for the truth of a statement; rather it is our way of keeping something constant through a series of transformations. Knowledge does not reflect a real external world that it resembles via mimesis, but rather a real interior world, the coherence and continuity of which it helps to ensure." (58:1999). In the essay, Latour goes on to elaborate on what he might mean by "circulating reference": "An essential property of this chain is that it must remain reversible. The succession of stages must be traceable, allowing for travel in both directions. If the chain is interrupted at any point, it ceases to transport truth - ceases, that is, to produce, to construct, to trace, and to conduct it. The word "reference" designates the quality of the chain in its entirety, and no longer adequatio rei et intellectus. Truth-value circulates here like electricity through a wire, so long as the circuit is not interrupted." (ibid.:69). Latour's thoughts on how we might conceive the big question about what it actually is that the sciences make a reference to also consumed me during my fieldwork at NEEM. However, contrary to the Amazon, the NEEM camp was both a sampling site (the drilling trench) and a laboratory (the science trench). Thus, the NEEM site itself conflated the conventional spatial distinction between field sciences and laboratory sciences.
What we see in this cluster is that the samples of ice are packed at the "NEEM Post Office," where the ice cores begin a long voyage that will take some of them to Paris, others to Copenhagen, others to Tokyo, others to Grenoble, others to Bern, others to Bremerhaven, etc. As with Latour's soil samples from Amazonia, the fragments of ice will remain attached to their original context solely by the fragile link of the numbers inscribed in black on the plastic jewelry bags. Just how fragile this link in fact is became very apparent to me one morning in the science trench, where the anthropologist and a PhD student from CIC made one small mistake in the chain of transformations. Suddenly, the number on the first bag number with ice samples did not correspond to the second. We had to unwrap an entire morning's work of packing ice into small jewelry bags, before we found what had escaped us and could correct it.
What was apparent more generally in the science trench was the immense material processes of detachment, separation, preservation, classification and tagging. From being a solid part of the ice sheet, ice was transformed into ice cores, which were logged, measured, interpreted and inscribed in the science trench. Then, at the "NEEM Post Office" the cores were packed and labeled for far-away laboratories in Tokyo, Boulder, Bern, Grenoble, Copenhagen, etc. where the chemical and isomorphic composition of the ice cores were analyzed in greater detail.
When contemplating reference in paleo-climatology, there are three larger points to be made. The first is the immense labor required for the transport of reference, which this cluster conveys. The second is that knowledge is derived from movements and transformations, not from stable observation and contemplation of the ice. The third is what our mistake in the science trench showed, namely that every link in the chain has to be reversible. Scientific reference designates the integrity of the chain - from ice core to climate curve - in its totality. Scientific reference is true, when this chain is uninterrupted. Conceived in this way, climate science can be at the same time realist and constructivist, immediate and intermediary, reliable and fragile, near and far. The photographs in this cluster illuminate the perspective on "circulating reference" in science.
Read more about the photo series A Cold Northern Light here.