States of Secrecy

Scientific secrecy from alchemy to the atomic bomb
A transhistorical conference at Harvard University
April 11, 2009, Science Center 469


STATES OF SECRECY is organized by Daniel Margocsy (Harvard University), Koen Vermeir (University of Leuven), and Alex Wellerstein (Harvard University).

It has been sponsored by the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the following Working Groups in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University: Early Sciences Working Group, the Modern Science Working Group, the Bodies of Knowledge Work Group, the History of Medicine Working Group, Medieval/Early Modern Latin and Early Modern/Modern French Research Group, and the Dissertation Writer's Working Group.

Conference Statement

Scientific activity has long been considered open by definition. Scientists often preclaim that knowledge can only advance when discussed freely and without restrictions. Yet recent studies have shown that secrecy is an equally constitutive element in the production and circulation of technoscientific knowledge. By using a transhistorical and cross-cultural perspective, this conference hopes to investigate how scientific secrets have been with us since the Antiquity. It will focus on the role of secrecy in four different contexts.

First, the exclusion of certain groups from the circulation of knowledge has allowed for the exploration of subjects that would otherwise be too hot to handle. In the early modern period, alchemists often wrote cryptically because they believed that the wider dissemination of their knowledge might harm the people. In 21st-century America, the government regularly classifies information to protect the nation. While alchemists feared that uncouth apprentices might accidentally let all hell break loose by botching an experiment, contemporary states are more worried that professionals intentionally apply classified knowledge for the purposes of terrorism.

In addition, secrecy might permit the scrutiny of topics that could upset the moral order of society. During the scientific revolution, anatomists reverted to Latin when discussing the structure of the reproductive organs. By using Latin, they excluded women whose passions would have been aroused by contemplating the virile member. 20th-century socialist countries applied similar care when discussing advances in Western science. While ideologically trained scientists could benefit from reading American journals in private, the general public would have been infected by their capitalist propaganda.

Restricted access to sites of production is often equally necessary for the production of valid experimental results. Medieval magicians could only conjure up demons when closed up on their own in the study. Similarly, modern experimental laboratories are often built in spaces distant from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Astronomical observatories do not function well in cities where light pollution obscures the skies. Elementary particles can only be detected in isolated environments.

Last, but not least, trade secrets often provide a productive environment for profit-oriented inventors. When Galileo invented his telescope, he did not circulate it among fellow scientists until he received sufficient acknowledgment and rewards from his patrons. Modern-day pharmaceutical and software companies are also reluctant to share their results before their initial investment has yielded profit.

Our conference does not wish to condone the use of secrecy in scientific research. Yet its constant presence in technoscientific activities calls for deeper scrutiny. Over the course of our conference, graduate students and experts in the field will consider how intellectual property regimes, technologies of encryption, the classification and censorship of information, and restricted access to laboratories have been a constant concern for science in the last millenium.

Special thanks to

Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School

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