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...

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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