Skip to main content

Collecting Experiments

Making Big Data Biology

Databases have revolutionized nearly every aspect of our lives. Information of all sorts is being collected on a massive scale, from Google to Facebook and well beyond. But as the amount of information in databases explodes, we are forced to reassess our ideas about what knowledge is, how it is produced, to whom it belongs, and who can be credited for producing it.
Every scientist working today draws on databases to produce scientific knowledge. Databases have become more common than microscopes, voltmeters, and test tubes, and the increasing amount of data has led to major changes in research practices and profound reflections on the proper professional roles of data producers, collectors, curators, and analysts.
Collecting Experiments traces the development and use of data collections, especially in the experimental life sciences, from the early twentieth century to the present. It shows that the current revolution is best understood as the coming together of two older ways of knowing—collecting and experimenting, the museum and the laboratory. Ultimately, Bruno J. Strasser argues that by serving as knowledge repositories, as well as indispensable tools for producing new knowledge, these databases function as digital museums for the twenty-first century.

392 pages | 35 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Biological Sciences: Natural History

History: History of Technology

History of Science


"We often think of big data as an explosive departure from the past. Science historian Bruno Strasser reveals it as part of a historic continuum. The sense of ‘information overload’ has existed since the Renaissance, and today’s data tsunami emerged from two traditions in biology: natural-history collecting and the lab. Hybridized, they led to vast accumulations of knowledge. Strasser’s case studies compel, from geneticists’ ‘museums’ of maize (corn) varieties to a groundbreaking mine of digital data, the 1965 Atlas of Protein Structure and Sequence, coproduced by bioinformatics pioneer Margaret Dayhoff."


"Strasser posits that biology’s increasing emphasis on large databases, best exemplified by the rise of genomics and bioinformatics, is a return to the venerable world of natural history—of collectors, curators, and museums. Beyond biology, the book connects to the broader context of data science emerging within many academic disciplines and throughout modern life. Many of the trumpeted concepts of data science can be seen simply as a rediscovery of existing concepts from traditional fields such as library science, hybridized with computer science and statistics. . . . As Strasser has clearly shown, the advancement of biological science depends on working out such data-ownership kinks."


"A long-awaited piece of work, and worth the wait. . . . Strasser’s book is important in many ways, no less because it feels like the culmination of a historiographical trend, one that has put to rest a simplified view of the history of biology as the opposition of a 'mere descriptive' approach and an analytical/interventionist attack on the study of living beings. . . . Collecting Experiments offers a sophisticated view of the life sciences that cuts across traditional dichotomies thanks to a careful reconstruction of episodes where two modes of working, the comparative and the exemplary, came together. Strasser’s book is a thoroughly researched and well written book that will appeal to many readers, both within the field of the history of science and those who want to understand contemporary developments in the life sciences."

Journal of the History of Biology

"Collecting Experiments puts the brakes on the hyperbolic enthusiasm for data and the computational power to make sense of it and takes the time to consider some of the practices of knowledge production and information sharing before the dominance of 'big data' in the biological sciences. Strasser’s book provides a history that bridges the distance between the twentieth century’s experimentalists and the data-obsessed present in the life sciences. . . . Strasser’s book should have a strong resonance for scholars in the social sciences and humanities, especially those with a focus on critical analyses of data-driven research, political economies of scientific knowledge, and the history of knowledge. Collecting Experiments is well written and accessible to a general audience outside history, especially readers interested in the natural and life sciences or those who are curious about how scientific knowledge is collectively built through the collection and dissemination of data."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"Strasser presents a hybrid schema, reflecting the early collection approach to gathering scientific information, as favored by naturalists and paleontologists, in conjunction with the later experimental approach favored by molecular biologists. This is a fascinating read, with ample notes and references and occasional figures supporting the assertions. . . . Highly recommended."

Choice, 2020 Outstanding Academic Title

"Collecting Experiments is an essential book to understand the present 'big data' situation in the experimental life sciences. It provides a solid framework to interpret the relationship between collecting data and experimenting in biology, it thoroughly shows how we got to the present 'big data' biology situation, and it articulates suggestions on how we should interpret bioinformatics as a discipline and its relation to experimental biology."


"For historians of biology, Collecting Experiments is an essential text, one that draws in, and on, the history of technology. Bruno Strasser's analysis of collections is novel, even when addressing examples familiar to historians, thanks to his in-depth attention to archival sources. The history of computing is a persistent theme and in light of the importance of maintaining and 'curating' collections, the book also offers insight for historians of infrastructures. The dynamics involved will resonate with anyone studying the creation and maintenance of a shared resource, be that a network, a standard, or materials. . . . Collecting Experiments will surely inspire a great deal of work to come."

Technology and Culture

"Through his provocative history of biological data collections as research tools, Strasser does more than unravel longstanding assumptions about the trajectory of biology from natural history to experiment in the 20th century. He also shows biologists how this history itself might be another useful tool, a resource for understanding contemporary tussles over attribution, authorship, and open access. . . . Detailed and engaging."

FASEB Journal

"A welcome addition to attempts by historians of uncovering the long-term trajectory of today’s biomedical practice. . . . Strasser's approach to collection and experimentation as historically intertwined categories is an invaluable tool."

Acta Biotheoretica

"Amidst all the hype surrounding Big Data and the life sciences, Bruno Strasser uncovers the deep continuities of collecting and comparing that link the latest data banks to venerable natural history museums. This bold book rethinks the relationship between field, laboratory, and archive, with important implications for the ethos of open publication in science."

Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

"The long-contested line between experimental life sciences and those that collect, compare, and classify is once more unsettled. It is now accepted that comparative sciences are open to experiment and always have been. And Bruno Strasser now argues that the celebrated achievements of experimental biology have similarly depended on practices of collecting and curating. And not just in our own new world of digital databases, but historically: from when experimenters first thought to make collecting forever obsolete. Strasser supports his bold revision with case studies of a broad range of sciences, from taxonomy to serology, experimental and then molecular biology, and bio-informatics. In its historical depth and breadth this is a benchmark book; and for all who want to know how life sciences really work, it's a must read."

Robert E. Kohler, University of Pennsylvania

"Collecting Experiments is an exciting and welcome addition to the historiography of the long-standing debates about the changing roles of experimentation and description in the life sciences. Rejecting the older notion of an impassable dichotomy, Bruno J. Strasser suggests that the rise of experimental approaches to biology in the  nineteenth century did not eclipse the more descriptive work of natural history, but rather became a part of an overall 'way of knowing' that included both approaches. 'Big data,' whether obtained by experimental or observational methods had to be analyzed in the same manner. Strasser has done a great service to clarify the historical relationship between these two methodologies.  It is a must  for all scholars in the history of biology."

Garland Allen, Washington University in Saint Louis

"A masterful, groundbreaking work: Strasser explores collecting activities in multiple branches of biology and medicine across several centuries, covering the territory from natural historical specimens to blood and proteins, and on to DNA sequences and contemporary big-data biology. His book assesses issues of lasting salience, including control of the collections, access to specimens and data, modes of publication, and assignment of authorship and credit. Strasser contends that big-data biology is not a sharp departure from the past but a hybrid, a joining of the experimentalist-reductionist inquiries into model organisms with the practices of collectors who classified and characterized their specimens and compared them with others. Strasser’s research is wide and deep, his prose lucidly informative, and his analysis subtle, discerning, and persuasive."

Daniel J. Kevles, Yale University

"You might think that museums are for collecting and laboratories for experimenting. Bruno J. Strasser tracks the creation of a hybrid culture—a 'way of knowing' that was comparative and experimental at the same time. Molecular biologists used the protein sequences of very various species to crack the genetic code. From bacteria to blood and protein to DNA, this engaging book restores collecting to the experimentalist tradition and gives 'big data' biology the history it needs."

Nick Hopwood, author of Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Table of Contents

Biology, Computers, Data
Biology Transformed
Naturalists vs. Experimentalists?
The Laboratory and Experimentalism
The Museum and Natural History

Chapter One. Live Museums
Microbes at the American Museum of Natural History
The Industrialization of Mice
Corn in an Agricultural Station
Sharing Flies
Viruses, Bacteria, and the Rise of Molecular Genetics
Putting Stock Centers on the Federal Agenda
Biological Collections Become Mainstream

Chapter Two. Blood Banks
Measuring Species, ca. 1900
Alan A. Boyden’s Serological Systematics
A Museum in a Laboratory
Between Field and Laboratory: Charles G. Sibley
Collecting in the Field
Hybridization, Not Invasion

Chapter Three. Data Atlases
Understanding How Proteins Work
Cracking the Genetic Code
From the Field to the Laboratory
Margaret O. Dayhoff, Computers, and Proteins
The Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure
A Work of Compilation?
The Gender of Collecting
Research with the Atlas
Whose Data? Whose Database?

Chapter Four. Virtual Collections
From Physical to Virtual Models
The Systematic Study of Protein Structures
The Creation of the Protein Data Bank
The Natural History of Macromolecules
Privacy, Priority, and Property
A New Tool for Research

Chapter Five. Public Databases
Information Overload on the Horizon
Margaret O. Dayhoff vs. Walter B. Goad
Europe Takes the Lead
Mobilizing the National Institutes of Health
Collecting Data, Negotiating Credit and Access
Distributing Data, Negotiating Ownership
A Conservative Revolution

Chapter Six. Open Science
Databases, Journals, and the Gatekeepers of Scientific Knowledge
Databases and the Production of Experimental Knowledge
Sequence Databases, Genomics, and Computer Networks
The Rise of Open Science
Databases, Journals, and the Record of Science

The End of Model Organisms?
The New Politics of Knowledge
Archives Consulted

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press