The most striking thing about the way we talk about science these days is just how little we talk about it at all. No large fundamental question focuses our attention on the adventure of discovery; no grand public project stirs our reflection on the perils of technological control. Nothing for decades has approached the imaginative impact of relativity or the double helix, the moon landing or the bomb. Even genetic research, which generates so much attention in the media, is understood more as a medical issue–news you can use–than an issue of science as such. And if we talk about science very little, we talk about the scientist even less. The old stereotypes, once so evocative–the genius, the benefactor, the madman–have lost their potency. No Einstein or Pasteur anymore, no Frankenstein or Strangelove. Scientific research has become so highly collaborative, so much a group endeavor, that the investigators have been eclipsed by the explainers–the Sagans and Pinkers and Gladwells. Science has become so pervasive a part of the way things run that, like the servants in a Victorian household, the people who actually make it happen have disappeared into the wallpaper.
Steven Shapin’s new book makes those people visible again, gives them a history and clears away the preconceptions with which the larger culture has surrounded them. Shapin’s earlier studies–Leviathan and the Air-Pump, A Social History of Truth and The Scientific Revolution–concentrated on the early years of modern science, the age of Galileo and Newton. Now he turns his attention to the past two centuries, bringing his story all the way to the present–or even, since scientists are understood to be the people, as he says, who create the future, a little further. Combining historical scholarship with sociological research, Shapin reveals the often sharp discrepancies between cultural assumptions about the scientific life and the attitudes of scientists themselves. Ideals such as creativity, integrity and autonomy are put to the test of actual experience. But though the book’s historical sections are consistently interesting, it seems to this lay reader that Shapin’s approach to contemporary institutional structures avoids most of the important questions about the ways scientists go about their business today and the effect these arrangements have on the kind of science–and therefore the kind of future–that we end up getting.
Shapin’s narrative begins with the shift from science as calling to science as job. The figures of the Scientific Revolution–men like Newton and Boyle–were seen as rare spirits working in austere solitude to unlock the secrets of God’s creation. With little institutional support or financial reward, these natural philosophers, as they were called, devoted themselves to the discovery of divine Truth with a monastic disregard for material advantage. But two broad developments brought an end to this ideal. The Industrial Revolution gave science an instrumental purpose, and the secularization of consciousness deprived the natural world of its sacred aura. Science became caught up in the business of producing profit and enhancing state power, purposes mundane rather than transcendental. And scientific inquiry, whatever ends it might be put to, could no longer be seen as a form of metaphysical discovery. The one ultimate Truth became many empirical truths. Though the notion of the scientist as a kind of oracle of nature lingered on until well into the next century–Einstein, revered as both genius and sage, is exemplary–the idea of science as a higher calling had lost its philosophical underpinnings. What had been a vocation was on its way to becoming a mere occupation.