Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin is an emeritus professor in the history of science at Harvard. His books include The Scientific Life, A Social History of Truth and Never Pure.

Loose Talk: Atomic Secrets

Steven Shapin, 4 November 2021

When the Manhattan Project was launched in 1942, the military was fully on board and totally in charge. The army knew all about secrecy in weapons development and how to ensure it: people were vetted; fences were thrown up around installations; communications were censored; and, above all, compartmentalisation was made an organisational imperative. No one should know any more than they needed to know to do their job; specialisation spelled security. The most important group of people whose knowledge of Bomb design and fissile fuel-making was restricted were many of the elite scientists working on the Manhattan Project, while thousands of lower-level workers knew nothing at all about the project’s intended product. The problem, however, was that the key workers were civilian scientists accustomed to relatively open communication, not enlisted men used to following orders. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, won this battle with its overall director, General Leslie Groves.

A Pox on the Poor: The First Vaccine

Steven Shapin, 4 February 2021

In the British market for domestic lab­our, both inoculation and a personal hist­ory of smallpox counted as qualifications: you could then work safely with the em­ployer’s children. Parish officials came to appreciate that a pox on the poor was a risk to the rich, badly affecting both bourgeois health and the availability of labour. Quak­er ethics and general altruism were motives for the provision of free inoculation to the working classes, but economic self­-interest was just as much a part of it.

Keep him as a curiosity: Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin, 13 August 2020

Everybody wanted to meet Joseph Banks; everybody wanted to see the spoils of his voyage. He had been elected to the Royal Society even before the Endeavour voyage and now he was admitted to its inner circles. There were sparkling dinner parties; he became a member of the taste-defining Society of Dilettanti and the Society of Antiquaries; and he was presented to the king, soon becoming a royal favourite and trusted adviser to the agriculturally obsessed ‘Farmer George’. Banks came back a cad as well as a hero. Botany in the Linnaean mode was already considered a louche science in the late 18th century – all that unwholesome prying into the sex lives of plants – and the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that ‘obscenity is the very basis of the Linnaean system.’ London satirists drew cartoons of Banks as a foppishly affected ‘Botanic Macaroni’ and as ‘The Fly Catching Macaroni’, while Gillray produced ‘The Great South Sea Caterpillar, Transform’d Into a Bath Butterfly’. But Banks brought a special frisson to the figure of the botanising voyager.

Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin, 4 June 2020

Itstarts with bone-shivering chills, which give way to a high fever. The attacks last between six and twelve hours, and end in profuse sweating. When the chills and fever subside, they leave behind an enveloping fatigue. But the relief may not last long. The symptoms can cycle back again, sometimes returning like clockwork every day, and sometimes every second or third day. If you’re...

RNA​ gets no respect. It is similar in make-up to its charismatic chemical cousin, with small structural variations. DNA is a very long double-stranded helix while many forms of RNA are shorter and single-stranded; one of the four nitrogenous bases in DNA is different from its equivalent in RNA; and the base-bearing backbone in RNA contains the five-carbon sugar ribose, while its equivalent in...

Enrico Fermi​ is just the latest in a long line of ‘last men who knew everything’. A handful of recent biographies claim the title for their subjects, which include the Renaissance naturalist Athanasius Kircher (two books); the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; the early 19th-century English physicist Thomas Young; and the 19th-century American palaeontologist Joseph...

Bare Bones: Rhinoceros v. Megatherium

Steven Shapin, 8 March 2018

What does​ a rhinoceros look like? If you are fortunate enough to have seen one in the flesh, you can can summon up an image from memory. If you haven’t seen one, you will have to conjure a mental image from pictures seen in books or in nature documentaries. There’s at least a chance that in forming this image your imagination will have tapped into a picture that is more than...

Hedda Gabler​’s husband, Jørgen Tesman, is an academic historian – diligent, if a little plodding. He is researching a book which he hopes will make a splash, secure him a coveted professorship and support his wife’s taste for life in Oslo high society. When Tesman’s aunt asks him what the book will be about, he says it will deal with the domestic industries...

More than Machines: Man or Machine?

Steven Shapin, 1 December 2016

When​ you consider the difference between a human being and a machine, you start with some idea about what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a machine. Some people now celebrate the technological advances that can make it hard to tell the difference; others view that difficulty with anxiety. They are concerned when machines do what we want to do; and they have species-self-doubt...

Some generalisations​ about the natural world are easy to recall because they are expressed in apothegms – concise, rhetorically marked-out sayings that stick in the mind and come easily to the tongue. Whatever goes up must come down; for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction; all life from pre-existing life; all cells from pre-existing cells; the angle of incidence...

Confusion of Tongues: Scientific Languages

Steven Shapin, 3 December 2015

From​ God’s point of view, the problem with the Tower of Babel was an excess both of hubris and of technological power. God had designed human beings to recognise the limits of what they could achieve, and here they were building a ‘tower whose top is in the heavens’. Not in my backyard, God thought, and pondered both the cause of man’s vaulting ambition and how He...

Pretence for Prattle: Tea

Steven Shapin, 30 July 2015

During​ the four centuries of its presence in British life, tea has made the transition from the exotically novel to the domestically ordinary, from a drug with possibly potent psychoactive powers to the mere ‘cup that cheers’, from a focus of social ritual to a casually taken and often solitary drink, from control by a quasi-state monopoly to a series of branded products...

Libel on the Human Race: Malthus

Steven Shapin, 5 June 2014

The​ Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus liked to look on the bright side. True, that hasn’t been the usual assessment: his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was intended to drench the parade of Enlightenment optimism about human possibility. The Radical writer Richard Price reckoned that an expanding population was a good thing, and that it would follow inevitably from more virtuous...

‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’ That’s known as Murphy’s Law. It’s invoked in all sorts of settings, but its natural modern home is in engineering, where it is generally attributed to a remark made around 1950 by an aeronautical engineer called Ed Murphy, who was working on the design of rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In the...

Fat Man: Churchill’s Bomb

Steven Shapin, 26 September 2013

Winston Churchill’s decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Berlin on 1 July 1947 wasn’t a difficult one. The war hadn’t been going well since the landings in the Pas de Calais in May 1946 were thrown back with terrible losses – a failure that had much to do with the amount of treasure and materiel that had been diverted to Britain’s nuclear...

Catastrophism: The Pseudoscience Wars

Steven Shapin, 8 November 2012

Fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, a chunk of stuff blew off the planet Jupiter. That chunk soon became an enormous comet, approaching Earth several times around the period of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and Joshua’s siege of Jericho. The ensuing havoc included the momentary stopping and restarting of the Earth’s rotation; the introduction into its crust of organic chemicals (including a portion of the world’s petroleum reserves); the parting of the Red Sea, induced by a massive electrical discharge from the comet to Earth; showers of iron dust and edible carbohydrates falling from the comet’s tail.

The geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are fond of merry japes, locally known as ‘hacks’. One of the more memorable happened one night in October 1958 when an MIT fraternity had the idea of initiating new members by making them measure a bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus with Boston. Crossing the bridge was often a wet, windy and...

An Example of the Good Life: Michael Polanyi

Steven Shapin, 15 December 2011

Michael Polanyi lives on in the footnotes. If you want to invoke the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’, Polanyi is your reference of choice. You’ll probably cite his major book Personal Knowledge (1958), maybe the earlier Science, Faith and Society (1946), maybe the later The Tacit Dimension (1966). ‘We know more than we can tell’ was Polanyi’s dictum. We know how...


Steven Shapin, 30 June 2011

Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for.

What’s your dust worth? Corpses

Steven Shapin, 14 April 2011

When I was a boy – on this evidence, a miserable, maudlin sort of child – I used to kill time by calculating the value of a human life. Not the value of your soul or your contribution to civilisation or your lifetime earnings or your insurable value or the sums your heirs might realise in a wrongful death suit. I was interested in what a life’s worth when broken down into...

Good Housekeeping: William Petty

Steven Shapin, 20 January 2011

In 1667, the Royal Society’s first historian described the early Restoration as ‘this Age of Experiments’. He was advertising the society’s new scientific programme and he was making a joke. One of the society’s most prominent members had designed and built a new sort of ship – a ‘Double-Bottomed’ vessel, a kind of catamaran – intended to...

Uncle of the Bomb: The Oppenheimer Brothers

Steven Shapin, 23 September 2010

HUAC: Is your brother a member of the Communist Party?

Robert Oppenheimer: He is not a member of the Communist Party, to the best of my knowledge.

HUAC: Are you speaking as of the present time?

Robert Oppenheimer: I am, sir.

HUAC: Was he a member of the Communist Party in the past?

Robert Oppenheimer: Mr Chairman, I will answer the questions you put to me. I ask you not to press...

The winner of a horse race is the fastest animal, but in a dog show the best of breed isn’t the fastest, or the biggest, or the hairiest, but the truest to type. The top beagle is reckoned to be the essence of beagleness, and the best dog in show is the animal that is more true to its type than any other is to its. So where – among these and other economies of merit – do we find notions like the best dish, the best chef, the best restaurant, or even the best national cuisine? And what kind of sense does it make to say that one national cuisine has lost the race for excellence to another?

The Darwin Show

Steven Shapin, 7 January 2010

The offensive against the atavistically religious and the misunderstanders may not be quite what it seems, or at least not quite as straightforwardly targeted as it seems. There is little public understanding of evolutionary theory, but there is little public understanding of physical chemistry or thermodynamics or bio-informatics.

Against the Pussyfoots: George Saintsbury

Steven Shapin, 10 September 2009

George Saintsbury was in the taste business. By profession, he made judgments of taste on works of literature. He produced dozens of editions of the work of novelists and poets and more than 50 monographs, including A History of Elizabethan Literature, A History of English Prosody, The English Novel, A History of the French Novel and, self-referentially, books about books about books –

Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.

Her name was Abishag. She was of the tribe of Issachar, from the...

In the great adventures of botanical discovery from the 17th to the 19th century, expertise about plants was often supplementary cargo in voyages whose main purpose was to find, chart and conquer new lands. You planted the flag and then you named the plants. Making an inventory of the world’s plants, learning where they grew (and where they could be made to grow), and figuring out what...

Until fairly recently, you did not choose a scientific career with the idea of getting rich. After the end of World War Two, American academic scientists started out on about $2000 a year – the rough equivalent of $17,000 these days – while few full professors at the peak of their careers commanded as much as $10,000. The American scientist, a writer in Science magazine observed in 1953, is not properly concerned with hours of work, wages, fame or fortune. For him an adequate salary is one that provides decent living without frills or furbelows. No true scientist wants more, for possessions distract him from doing his beloved work. He is content with an Austin instead of a Packard; with a table model TV set instead of a console; with factory rather than tailor-made suits. … To boil it down, he is primarily interested in what he can do for science, not in what science can do for him.

In 1617, the governors of the Dutch East India Company placed an order for goods to be procured by their agents. The shopping list included a hundred thousand bags of black pepper and thousands of pounds of other sorts of pepper; as much in the way of cloves, ginger and cinnamon as the ships could carry; 1000 barrels of nutmeg and 300 of mace; 3000 pounds of cassia wood (closely related to...

Possessed by the Idols: Does Medicine Work?

Steven Shapin, 30 November 2006

Historical progress is back, even if it was only in some genres of academic history that it ever went away. It’s been some time, certainly, since historians of art saw painting as a triumphal progress from Titian to Tracey Emin, or historians of music celebrated a linear ascent in compositional quality from Bach to Birtwistle. It was, perhaps, in political history that historians first...

Well over half a billion books about food and wine are sold in the States every year and the circulation of glossy food and wine magazines goes up and up: Bon Appetit (1.3 million), Food and Wine and Gourmet (both about a million). By comparison, the circulation of the New Yorker was just short of a million in 2004. And now its former fiction editor Bill Buford has provided one of the most evocative testaments to our – and his – current obsession: Heat is a record of several years spent in willing servitude to some of the great chefs, and food artisans, of Manhattan and Italy. He wants to know what it’s like; he needs to know how to do what they do. He wants the magic, and he knows that it can’t be had through the reading of books and the watching of television shows, but only through the laying on of hands.

I went to a coffee house this morning. I had a ‘grande’ latte. It cost me $3.20. Sometimes I carry the coffee with me to work in a cardboard cup; this time I sat in the coffee house and drank it while reading the newspaper. I went by myself and did not have a conversation with any of the other customers – several of whom I vaguely recognised but most of whom were strangers....

Hydrogen and nitrogen combine only with difficulty. Since the reaction N2 + 3H2 <�–> 2NH3 is reversible, you need just the right conditions to drive it forward to produce significant quantities of ammonia (NH3). If the temperature is too low, the formation of ammonia is favoured but the reaction goes slowly. If the temperature is too high, the reaction goes faster, but any ammonia produced tends to dissociate into its elements. Pressure is another relevant variable: higher than atmospheric pressures favour ammonia formation. So, if ammonia is what you want, you need very cleverly to manipulate temperature, pressure, a catalyst and the design of the reaction vessel. In 1909, the academic physical chemist Fritz Haber and the industrial metallurgical engineer Carl Bosch succeeded in doing this, and they patented the process the following year. Within four years, the process had become commercial, the foundation of a huge German-dominated industry centred on ammonia works in Oppau and, from 1917, in Leuna. Haber became famous and wealthy. The giant chemical firm Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik (BASF) – later folded into I.G. Farben – had been funding Haber’s research, doubling or tripling his already generous professorial salary at Karlsruhe, on the condition that he obtain company permission before publishing any details, and the terms of the BASF patent gave him 1.5 pfennigs for every kilo of ammonia produced using his process. In the last year of the war, the factories in Oppau and Leuna produced 115,000 tons, and Haber’s royalty payments were worth the present-day equivalent of about $4 million. Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918; Bosch became chairman of BASF, which made huge amounts of money from the process, and he too eventually won the Nobel Prize (in 1931). All this represented an early milestone in the formation of what came to be called the military-academic-industrial complex.

In Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, Dorothy Moore – a retired music-hall chanteuse and the wife of a moral philosopher called George Moore – is going dotty in her bedroom. The precipitating cause is a televised fight between the first two astronauts to land on the Moon about who gets to go back home on a damaged lunar ascent module that can carry only one. Astronaut Scott shoves...

Should you win the Nobel Prize in physics, a lot of people will get in touch. Some of them will be former students (wishing you well); some will be colleagues (saying they wish you well). Presidents and prime ministers, who have no clue what it is you’ve done, will write, expressing the nation’s gratitude for whatever it is you’ve done. Childhood friends will write, saying...

“There is wide agreement that Parker’s descriptive language is more standardised and less fanciful than most, and that his descriptions are at least as effective as any other wine writer’s in the fiendishly difficult task of conveying some idea of taste, smell and texture. Compare Parker on the 1998 Château Léoville-Barton (’impressive concentration, chewy, highly extracted flavours of black fruits, iron, earth and spicy wood’) with Andrew Jefford in the Financial Times on a Georges Duboeuf 2003 cru Beaujolais (’This dark wine . . . helicopters into the mouth with spinning blades of intense fruit’). Parker evidently thinks there has been too much bullshit in wine writing, that it’s a mark of corruption, and that both a simplified vocabulary for talking about wine and a more straightforward sensibility towards what makes wine good are ways of cleansing the Augean stables of the wine world.”

“As an Atkins dieter, you will eat as much as you want, as often as you want; you will eat – and Dr Atkins repeats this word incessantly – ‘luxuriously’: ‘heavy cream, butter, mayonnaise, cheeses, meats, fowl’. The discipline of dietary moderation – indeed, the virtue of temperance – is no longer the way to health. And, despite What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great and Living Longer and The Maker’s Diet: The 40-Day Health Experience that Will Change Your Life Forever and dozens of other faith-based fatloss initiatives, among the bestsellers there is no question that an ample dietetics might be sinful.”

Alfred Lee Loomis was well connected. Some of his most valuable connections flowed from the accident of a fortunate birth. On his father’s side, the family came to New England only a few ships after the Mayflower, and Loomis’s father was a wealthy Gilded Age New York physician who combined fashion, philanthropy and philandering in ways that could have made him a character in a...

In 1999, when the French peasant leader José Bové trashed a McDonald’s under construction near Montpellier, so becoming a national and, soon, international resistance hero, one motive for his virtuous vandalism was cheese. The Americans had unilaterally imposed trade restrictions on the excellent local Roquefort, and, if there was going to be no Roquefort in the US, there...

Ivory Trade: The Entrepreneurial University

Steven Shapin, 11 September 2003

Here is the sort of thing that appals critics of the modern American entrepreneurial university. Members of the physics department invent an electronic gadget that looks like it might be useful in aviation guidance systems. Hearing about the technology, the university’s administration, including a trustee who had been a right-wing Republican President of the United States, takes control...

Rough Trade: Robert Hooke

Steven Shapin, 6 March 2003

If you are a scientist at an American research university like mine, you know what to do if you think you’ve hit on some technique or bit of knowledge that might have commercial potential. You go online to the university’s technology transfer office, download an invention and technology disclosure form, and fill in the details. You have to do that because all such intellectual...

For René Descartes, the problem of keeping body and soul together took three forms. First, how did thinking stuff keep company with material stuff? Soul was active, unextended in space and immortal; body was passive, extended and, if it made up the structure of a human being, distressingly mortal. And yet humans were unique hybrids, in which rational minds volitionally moved brute...

Barbecue of the Vanities: Big Food

Steven Shapin, 22 August 2002

I am thinking of making Tuscan bean soup for dinner tonight. (My wife is from Birmingham and prefers her beans with sausage, egg and chips, but I have my limits.) If this were an ordinary day, I’d just get on with making the soup. I’ve got the things I need: the beans, pancetta, garlic, olive oil, parsley and chicken stock. I’ve made it dozens of times, and, after I’ve...

Megaton Man: The Original Dr Strangelove

Steven Shapin, 25 April 2002

The risk of being blinded was thought to be very real, so the witnesses to the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico in July 1945 were given strict instructions to turn their backs on the initial blast. The physicist Edward Teller refused to obey orders. He put on an extra pair of dark glasses under welder’s goggles, smeared his face with ointment, and looked straight at the...

Dear Prudence: Stephen Toulmin

Steven Shapin, 14 January 2002

Every now and then philosophers discover the virtues of common sense. This surprises their friends and delights their enemies. The surprise arises from philosophy’s traditional commitment to identifying and repairing the cognitive errors of the vulgar: common-sense language in need of clarification; common-sense reason requiring rigorous replacement; common-sense judgments marked down...

America loves science. It has always loved science. As long ago as the 1830s, Tocqueville remarked on America’s love of science, and present-day surveys establish not only that 85 per cent of Americans believe that science ‘makes the world a better place’ but that an astonishing 80 per cent endorse Government support for scientific research even when no material benefits are...

A Man’s Man’s World: kitchens

Steven Shapin, 30 November 2000

One of the defining sites for modern social science was the doorway dividing the kitchen from the dining-room in an early 1950s Shetland hotel. On the kitchen side of the door casually employed crofters swiped their filthy fingers through any passing pudding they found particularly toothsome; smelly socks hung steaming on tea-kettles; and butter partially unused by guests was reshaped for...

The rhetorical yield from the first atomic explosion was low – only one entry for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. When the plutonium bomb exploded on the Jornada del Muerto near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the Scientific Director or of Los Alamos, remembered the line from the Bhagavad Gita where Vishnu says: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ One other remark deserves to be immortalised, which Oppenheimer himself later judged the best thing said at the time. When the blast subsided, the physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, in charge of the test, turned to Oppenheimer and declared: ‘Now we’re all sons of bitches.’’‘

Fat is a manifest tissue: George Cheyne

Steven Shapin, 10 August 2000

Physicians have historically walked a fine line between expertise and common sense, between innovation and tradition. If what they said to their patients was unintelligible, they ran the risk of being ignored. If, on the other hand, it was believed that doctors’ knowledge and advice were little different from common sense, what was the point of listening to them? What doctors know and what they can do have changed enormously over the past centuries. So has lay knowledge about health and disease, and it is a truism that much common sense on these matters is now shaped by the pronouncements of medical expertise. In the part of the culture I inhabit it counts as common knowledge that an LDL-cholesterol level over 160 means that you should go easy on the butter and the beef; that a blood-pressure reading higher than 140/90 is a sign that you’ve got to take some tablets and do something about your way of life; and (if you’re a late middle-aged male) that a Prostate Specific Antigen level of more than 2.5 augurs a biopsy and maybe worse. All this is testimony to the medicalisation of the common culture (especially in the United States), and to a vocabulary shared by modern doctors and their more medically literate patients.

Trust me: French DNA

Steven Shapin, 27 April 2000

The DNA molecule is as interesting in social theory as it is in science. It is the great Modernist molecule: the ultimate chemical basis of our common humanity, what makes biologically equivalent all those whom the Enlightenment supposed to be created equal. The fact that we know these things about DNA testifies to the authority of the greatest Modernist cultural enterprise, the natural sciences. DNA is also an anti-Modernist molecule: a molecular warrant for all the natural differences the conservative thinker could ever want to identify and insist on – differences between unique individuals, between the sexes, races and nations. From this point of view the idea of French DNA – its distinctive populational characteristics – makes as much sense as the idea of, say, Bill Clinton’s DNA. And DNA is a Post-Modernist molecule, since fragments of our contemporary expert culture insist that the reflexive condition for believing these things about DNA, or indeed disbelieving them, is ultimately ascribable to the workings of DNA itself, while the knowledge of those workings is an authentic item of our culture. So what are the intellectual, institutional and legal schemes of things in terms of which the Frenchness of DNA might come to be insisted on?’

Nobel Savage: Kary Mullis

Steven Shapin, 1 July 1999

In one of the most celebrated expressions of scientific humility, Isaac Newton said that he felt himself to have been ‘only like a boy playing on the seashore … whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’. Kary Mullis approaches the seashore from a different direction. On the day he won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Mullis went surfing. The camera crews tried to follow him down the Southern California coast, ‘asking everyone who came out of the water whether he was Kary Mullis’. Mullis was enjoying his new-found anonymity and got a surfer-dude friend to admit to being the great man himself. How does it feel to win the Nobel Prize? The surfer-dude was word-perfect: ‘It’s like a dream come true.’ By the time Mullis had towelled off and chilled out, the paparazzi were laying siege to his house. ‘As it turned out,’ he writes, ‘none of the other Nobel laureates that year were serious about surfing, and “Surfer Wins Nobel Prize” made headlines.’‘

Scientific Antlers: Fraud in the Lab

Steven Shapin, 4 March 1999

It is a contemporary American morality play. The leading roles are played by an alpha male and his junior female colleague; bad behaviour between them is alleged; accusations of lying fly about; charges of cover-up garnish the original accusation; an ad hoc government investigative team runs amok, and due process is trampled underfoot; the credibility of the senior male is tarnished, and he is deemed unsuitable for high office; reputations are damaged; valued institutions are undermined; colleagues turn against each other and the whole affair has a poisonous effect on normal social relations. DNA evidence is crucial to the case, but all finally comes down to questions of intent which material evidence of deeds cannot unambiguously decide. Ultimately, many in the audience to whom the drama played for so long weary of it and wonder whether the chase has been worth the quarry, yet all are agreed that both the alleged bad behaviour and the means of making it accountable are deeply symptomatic of the state into which America has got itself.

Sailing Scientist: Edmund Halley

Steven Shapin, 2 July 1998

Joined for all time on the title-page of the Book that Made the Modern World are Isaac Newton (who wrote the Principia Mathematica) and Samuel Pepys (who, as President of the Royal Society, licensed it to be printed). It is one of the oddest couples in the history of thought: the man who, as a late 17th-century Cambridge student was heard to say, had ‘writt a book that neither he nor any body else understands’ and one of the multitude who understood scarcely a word of it; the wholly other and the all-too-human; the virgin ascetic who accused John Locke of trying to ‘embroil’ him with women, and the supreme London boulevardier whose consuming passions included Château Haut-Brion, the theatre and serial embroilments with women.‘


Bad Medicine

30 November 2006

Steven Shapin writes: If being right is to be the criterion for historians’ attention, when exactly shall we start? Who and what are we permitted to write about? I applaud Wootton for aiming to instruct the laity; I regret that he has served them so badly.

It’s like getting married: Academic v. Industrial Science

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 12 February 2009

The practices of science, it appears, are increasingly industrial in location, corporate in organisation, and product and profit-minded in motivation. In the eyes of various commentators, these...

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You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips, 3 April 1997

For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if...

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Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas, 22 September 1994

Most of what we know and think is secondhand. ‘Almost all the opinions we have are taken by authority and upon credit,’ wrote Montaigne, in an age when the sum of human knowledge was...

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Richard Tuck, 19 February 1987

‘Scientists’ in our culture are (in many disciplines) people who perform ‘experiments’ in ‘laboratories’ and ‘testify’ about them to a wider...

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