A rhetorical case study in the evolving presentation of science to the public
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.
"The way the public views science, and what scientists can and should do about that, are important for our future. Ploeger's study of the 'technological sublime' at Fermilab is thorough in its research and sophisticated in its analysis, and represents a big step forward in our understanding of these complex issues."—Spencer Weart, director, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics
"The late Joanna Ploeger has taken a close look at the persuasive dynamics of big science at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Her book takes us inside the thinking of those who must wrestle with the complicated problem of sustaining public and political investments in basic science. This is rhetorical anthropology at its best. Ploeger inserted herself into the scientific tribe so that she could learn its customs, language, mystical rites, and terrible dreams. But hers is also a study that has a firm footing in the larger field of science studies, and in this respect its reflective light will illuminate many of the questions that other scholars have been pondering. This is the lasting testament of a creative, thoughtful, and energetic scholar who left us way too soon. Our field owes a considerable debt of gratitude to David Depew whose selfless labor has enabled Joanna's legacy to come to light."—Thomas M. Lessl, Department of Speech Communication, University of Georgia