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Science set in its social context
on 3 April 2010
The author reminds us that the original meaning of `science' covered all knowledge, and the branch we now call science was previously called Natural Philosophy. The word `scientist' was coined only in 1833. How science in the modern sense came to separate itself from other kinds of knowledge is one of the themes of this survey which awesomely ranges over all the sciences. Other themes that frequently recur in it include:
1. Debunking the cult of the lone genius who advances knowledge purely by his own discoveries. Although Newton acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, many other famous scientists are shown as ruthless and successful self-publicists. So we often ignore the earlier ideas on which they drew, and we sometimes ascribe to them the contributions of their later followers. Particularly from the late 17th century onwards, scientists are helped by being part of communities operating in well-organized scientific institutions. Patricia Fara also repeatedly notes the time interval between scientific discoveries and their general acceptance.
2. Showing that even what now seem the most ludicrous `scientific' procedures like alchemy have made contributions to later science - in this case, for example, the notions of experimental chemistry, the creation of some apparatus, the isolation of certain chemicals and, perhaps above all, the willingness to manipulate nature, not merely to understand it. So not only alchemists but also magicians like Paracelsus and John Dee, whose mathematical skills made many people believe in their medical prescriptions, find a place in Patricia Fara's history of science.
3. Showing how the pursuit of science was, until fairly recently, not regarded as an end in itself, but was shaped to support pre-existing philosophical or theological concepts. One example is the effort of Kepler and Copernicus to marry their observations respectively to Neoplatonic and Pythagorean notions of harmony. Botanical and anthropological classifications reflected and then reinforced existing prejudices about the hierarchies of gender and race. And even today, Patricia Fara points out, preconceived ideas can influence the compilation and interpretation of data - not to mention the occasional falsification of data or suppression inconvenient results in battles between scientists.
4. Pointing out that the material about which scientists have theorized has often been provided by hosts of unnamed and unacknowledged practical men and sometimes women. During the despised Middle Ages, it was some humble technical inventions and innovations that made revolutionary contributions to progress in agriculture, and instruments initially designed by artisans for practical purposes (navigating, timing, weighing and measuring) provided the initial tools, sometimes refined or adapted by scientists, for scientific progress. The snobbish distinction between gentlemen and aristocrats who "philosophized" about science and those who worked with their hands (and for gain) runs through much of the history of science. Only rarely were those women who collaborated with their menfolk in scientific work acknowledged; and not until 1945 were the first two women actually admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. And when in the 19th century explorer went to remote parts of the globe on scientific expeditions, in their sense of European superiority they scarcely mentioned the native guides whose local knowledge contributed so much to theirs.
5. Stressing that any successful development of science depends on supportive infrastructures - technological, economic, institutional, political, and cultural. There are interesting illustrations of how the development of science has been affected when it was left largely to free enterprise and commerce (as in 19th century Britain), compared with how it fared with state support (for better, as in 19th century Germany) or worse (as in 19th century France).
6. Combatting (surely outdated) Eurocentric histories of science and stressing the scientific ideas that reached Europe from China, India and the Middle East. Apparently it was not until Joseph Needham's work in the 1950s that Europeans appreciated just how many inventions originated in China and not in the European Renaissance; and there are some socio-political suggestions why Chinese and Arabic inventions did not lead to the explosive efflorescence to which they would lead in Europe.
Apart from these themes, a wealth of fascinating material is packed into this book. Having started with the Babylonians, its last section is a thoughtful and thought-provoking survey of where the different sciences stand today, and also of how important aspects of it are enmeshed in international commercial and military rivalries.
Inevitably there are some passages which many non-scientist will find difficult to follow, especially when we reach modern physics; but they are remarkably few. The style is always limpid and sometimes conversational; the tone pleasantly iconoclastic, occasionally sarcastic and once or twice even cynical in the attribution of motives. And the many illustrations, though often too small for comfort (you can often find bigger versions on Google Images), are beautifully chosen and analyzed to show the social attitudes which inspired them.
A splendid achievement.