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The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation Hardcover – 19 Sep 2008

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"Remarkably rich in detail and revelation.... Shapin may not be doing a conventional history of the 'scientific life,' but what he has done is both novel and provocative." - New York Review of Books "[A] thought-provoking challenge to the assumptions of scientific objectivity by science's practitioners and an acknowledgment of just how important the morality of scientists may be in the advancement and authority of knowledge." - Library Journal "The Scientific Life provokes us to discard worn-out understandings that science outside universities is necessarily aberrant.... The book succeeds masterfully." - Science "A stunning antidote to the naive portraits of how science is or should be done." - Choice "Required reading for all scientists and those studying the social activity of science." - Nature "Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power, and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues.... Shapin tells this story exceedingly well, framing its episodes richly and developing them through vivid depictions of representative figures, texts, incidents, and anecdotes." - London Review of Books"

About the Author

Steven Shapin is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of A Social History of Truth and The Scientific Revolution, and, with Simon Schaffer, coauthor of Leviathan and the Air-Pump. He has also written for the New Yorker and is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books.

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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
A weighty book 2 Dec. 2008
By JohnVidale - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From reading the review in Science magazine Nov 21st, and considering of interest the topics of whether scientists are morally exemplary and comparing scientist at universities and in industry, I bought the book.

One theme of the book is that scientists used to be revered before they were so numerous and well-paid. The ideal of the early and mid-20th century of the creative scientist who chaffed when asked to do applied research is laid out in excruciating detail. While not a quantitative survey, dozens of books, social scientists, and specific universities are identified as contributing to this consensus.

Now scientists are only considered the moral equivalents of other professions. The author considers some scientists working in industry as opposed to in academia, however, have recaptured the elan and are highly admirable once again.

I'm still only midway through, (and will update this review if I survive until the end), but consider it only fair to post a heavy-reading warning. On p. 18, Shapin says "It is almost certain that this book's main readers will be ... historians and social scientists". It is indeed written in academic prose. No one at my dinner table could define quotidian (commonplace or routine), but by p. 25 that word had recurred eight times. Metonomy and trope also sent me to the dictionary to be met by jargon-laden definitions. The paragraphs generally fill an entire page.

I was skeptical of the author's theses, but find them depressingly (for a scientist like me) convincing. This is an important and well-thought-out book, thoroughly documented in a social science sort of way. It is peppered with lively quotes to benchmark intellectual positions in history, but don't take it to the beach for a light read.

[2-15-09, still plugging away, 2/3rds of the way through. The book leaves the same impression, and the arguments remain sociological rather than rigorous.]

[11-21-10, finally finished it. The last quarter when the thesis is pressed home that industrial scientists are as free as academic sciences comes across as repetitive, qualititative, and forced. Just because examples can be found favoring either job does not equate to industrial scientists having close to free reign. I also found the repeated claim of funding agencies being arbitrary and prejudiced against the next big thing inaccurate. However, the last two sections on details of venture capital solicitation and musings on an upscale cocktail party are well done.]
15 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Unbearably dry 18 Jun. 2009
By Randolph Crawford - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This should have been an fascinating important book. The life of a scientist is like an artist's: a high price must be paid to follow the muse. Too little has been written on the personal cost/benefit of choosing a scientific life or the impact on society of too many not doing so. In these times of accelerating technology-driven change, the future of any nation must be closely tied to its production and nurture of scientists. Unfortunately I can't recommend this book as a guide to that realm.

Shapin's prose is detached, academic, humorless. I had to wonder, who was his intended audience? Apparently it's scholars; only they could care for a book this dispassionate. Its cold lifeless voice rewards the reader with no highs or lows, just the unending march of disengaged disembodied fact, fact, fact. To describe the book as being dull as ditch water would be fair hypoberle (neologism intended).

Frankly I blame the publisher more than the author. No doubt there's a place for material like this, e.g. a university library. But this tome should never have found its way into a neighborhood bookstore to endanger mere mortals like me.

Shapin could learn from an author like Dan Dennett who also writes for academic advancement, but at least tries to engage the reader en route.
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