Thursday, May 21, 2009

Boundaries of the New Frontier

Joanna S. Ploeger, The Boundaries of the New Frontier: Rhetoric and Communication at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

From the publisher:

Joanna S. Ploeger examines the communicative practices of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in suburban Chicago to show how the rhetoric of science functions as an indicator of the intellectual and political interests of scientific institutions. She delineates the rhetorical strategies by which Fermilab's founders, especially Robert R. Wilson, sought the consent, cooperation, and goodwill of its neighbors. Wilson's rhetoric was an attempt to distinguish Fermilab from other laboratories in the national network by emphasizing that Fermilab was not a nuclear-weapons laboratory and that its sole purpose was to advance theoretical physics for the sake of knowledge. To dissociate itself from weapons research, Fermilab incorporated the aesthetic of sublimity, emblematic of the laboratory's focus on high-energy physics, into the design of its buildings, grounds, public art, and outreach materials. Ploeger tests the success of Wilson's rhetoric through extensive interviews with researchers, administrators, and visitors at Fermilab.

Wilson's visual rhetoric strategies were unable to counteract the persistent belief that Fermilab was involved in nuclear-weapons research. In later years the end of the cold war diminished the urgency of physics research. This change in the national climate induced Fermilab's subsequent directors to stress the many potential uses of experimental physics, thereby opening Fermilab to a variety of projects at the cost of the aesthetic Wilson had tried to project. In tracking the evolution of the lab's representation of itself to its public, Ploeger's work combines rhetorical criticism, visual rhetorics, and qualitative analysis of interview data in studying a salient example that comes into focus only when all three methods are deployed collectively.

Joanna S. Ploeger (1967–2006) was an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and California State University, Stanislaus.


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