Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 July 2013
The interwar period in France is characterized by intense activity to disseminate science in society through various media: magazines, conferences, book series, encyclopedias, radio, exhibitions, and museums. In this context, the scientific community developed significant attempts to disseminate science in close alliance with the State. This paper presents three ambitious projects conducted in the 1930s which targeted different audiences and engaged the social sciences along with the natural sciences. The first project was a multimedia enterprise aimed at bridging what would later be named “the two cultures” – natural sciences and humanities – rather than at popularizing scientific results in the society at large. The second project, an encyclopedia named Encyclopédie française edited by the French historian Lucien Febvre, was meant to shape a cultural view of science for the general public. The third project and the most successful enterprise was the Palais de la découverte designed by the physicist Jean Perrin and explicitly aimed at attracting the young public. This paper explores the paradoxes that resulted from these large enterprises. Despite their social ideals, the scientists-popularizers favored an elitist concept of popular science essentially aimed at integrating science into high culture. While they strove to overcome the increased specialization of sciences, their efforts nevertheless accelerated the professionalization of scientific research and the isolation of science in an ivory tower. In their attempts to get closer to the public, they eventually contributed to spreading the cliché of the increasing gap between the scientists and the public.