Somatic vigilance and sonic skills in experimental plasma physics

Joeri Bruyninckx*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In contemporary laboratory workstations, automation promises a technological fix for producing more robust workflows. By insulating the experiment from tacit or embodied knowledge, it is expected to produce more reliable output. This apparent tension between trustworthy disembodied protocols and the unreliable human factor should not, however, be taken at face value. Instrument operators routinely face uncertainties and instrument opacity, and their concerns may be further aggravated when processes are automated. In some contexts, therefore, researchers cultivate such embodied practices precisely to assure themselves of the reliability of automated instruments and protocols. This qualitative study of research practice in a multi-disciplinary research group in physics and materials science shows that researchers complement instrument readings with 'somatic vigilance', a set of laboratory practices that emphasize hands-on instrument knowledge, material witnessing and rely on sensory experience to monitor experimental processes. Equating physical and epistemic proximity to an instrument, operators use these techniques to monitor their instruments and to manage their own expectations. Operators' reliance on auditory information and sonic skills to monitor their instruments and their environment illustrates the value of somatic vigilance on the laboratory's work-floor. Connecting scholarship in science and technology studies on trust management and embodied practice, somatic vigilance calls attention to the continuous maintenance of both instruments and user expectations as well as the situated and often embodied techniques that are required to manage trust in instruments. More than an unreliable human factor, it suggests that researchers instead, conversely, consider embodied knowledge a way to fix automation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)450-473
Number of pages24
JournalScience as Culture
Issue number3
Early online date12 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2020


  • Trust
  • senses
  • body
  • experimental physics
  • vigilance
  • AGE


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