04 January 2021

The loss of posters is a loss for science

Late last year, it became know that two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks are missing, presumed stolen.

One contains what has become an iconic scientific image. It’s sometimes called the “I think” sketch, which is the first in all of Darwin’s writing to show branching relationships of organisms.

Sketch of phylogeny by Charles Darwin

It’s a critical piece in understanding Darwin’s thinking about his ideas of evolution. We rightly mourn the loss and hope they are one day found.

Darwin’s notebooks were meant to be for himself only. But now they are part of the history of science, and scholarship on Darwin is rich and nuanced because he kept things. We have notebooks. We have letters. We have so much more than his published books (which themselves are a substantial record of achievement).

And yet... this sort of wholesale loss of scientific knowledge has largely gone on, unnoticed, after every scientific conference, when presenters throw away posters.

Imagine how much richer future histories of science would be if historians would have the posters from poster sessions. I can’t help but wonder how much seminar, prize winning scientific works started out as just another poster in a poster session.

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