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Post-Scepticism

Richard Tuck

19 February 1987
Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life 
by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer.
Princeton, 475 pp., £40, February 1986, 0 691 08393 2
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... put before them. The subject of this entertaining and important study is in effect the emergence of this practice and the removal of quotation-marks from these hitherto contentious or puzzling terms. StevenShapin and Simon Schaffer are historians of ‘science’ who were led by their discontent with the hegemony of experimentation to study the controversy between Robert Boyle, patron saint or founding ...

It’s like getting married

Barbara Herrnstein Smith: Academic v. Industrial Science

12 February 2009
The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation 
by Steven Shapin.
Chicago, 468 pp., £15, October 2008, 978 0 226 75024 8
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... of scientists? And what basis is there, anyway, for our notions of either the character of scientists or the nature of ‘science itself’? In posing these questions and seeking to answer them, StevenShapin 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. The Scientific ...

A Man’s Man’s World

Steven Shapin: Kitchens

30 November 2000
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly 
by Anthony Bourdain.
Bloomsbury, 307 pp., £16.99, August 2000, 0 7475 5072 7
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... 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 later diners ...

The Cinderella Molecule

Steven Shapin: Solving the Ribosome

24 January 2019
Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome 
by Venki Ramakrishnan.
Oneworld, 272 pp., £20, September 2018, 978 1 78607 436 2
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... 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 DNA ...

Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas

22 September 1994
A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in 17th-Century England 
by Steven Shapin.
Chicago, 483 pp., £23.95, June 1994, 0 226 75018 3
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... whatsoever’; and Robert Boyle ruled that it was ‘improper’ to ‘urge and rely on Testimonys for matters whose Truth or Falshood may be proved by manifest Reason or easy Experiment’. As StevenShapin observes in his subtle and learned book, we should get a very misleading impression of the scientific practice of 17th-century England if we were to take this individualistic rhetoric ...

Short Cuts

Thomas Jones: Darwinians & Creationists

1 November 2001
... In the last issue of the LRB, StevenShapin mentioned an anti-Darwinian organisation in California called the Institute for Creation Research. ‘Its leading lights call themselves Creation Scientists,’ he wrote, ‘and its website flaunts ...

Scientific Antlers

Steven Shapin: Fraud in the Lab

4 March 1999
The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science and Character 
by Daniel Kevles.
Norton, 509 pp., £21, October 1998, 0 393 04103 4
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... 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 ...

Nobel Savage

Steven Shapin: Kary Mullis

1 July 1999
Dancing Naked in the Mind Field 
by Kary Mullis.
Bloomsbury, 209 pp., £12.99, March 1999, 0 7475 4376 3
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... 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 ...

Sailing Scientist

Steven Shapin: Edmund Halley

2 July 1998
Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas 
by Alan Cook.
Oxford, 540 pp., £29.50, December 1997, 0 19 850031 9
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... 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 ...

Trust me

Steven Shapin: French DNA

27 April 2000
French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory 
by Paul Rabinow.
Chicago, 201 pp., £17.50, October 1999, 0 226 70150 6
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... 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 ...

Don’t let that crybaby in here again

Steven Shapin: The Manhattan Project

7 September 2000
In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist 
by S.S. Schweber.
Princeton, 260 pp., £15.95, May 2000, 0 691 04989 0
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Atomic Fragments: A Daughter’s Questions 
by Mary Palevsky.
California, 289 pp., £15.95, June 2000, 0 520 22055 2
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... 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 of Los Alamos, remembered the line from the Bhagavad Gita where Vishnu says: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds ...

Fat is a manifest tissue

Steven Shapin: George Cheyne

10 August 2000
Obesity and Depression in the Enlightenment: The Life and Times of George Cheyne 
by Anita Guerrini.
Oklahoma, 304 pp., $25.95, February 2000, 0 585 28344 3
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... 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 ...

Guests in the President’s House

Steven Shapin: Science Inc.

18 October 2001
Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion 
by Daniel Greenberg.
Chicago, 530 pp., £22.50, October 2001, 0 226 30634 8
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... 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 in view. True, Americans ...

Dear Prudence

Steven Shapin: Stephen Toulmin

14 January 2002
Return to Reason 
by Stephen Toulmin.
Harvard, 243 pp., £16.95, June 2001, 0 674 00495 7
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... 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 for their superficiality ...

Milk and Lemon

Steven Shapin: The Excesses of Richard Feynman

7 July 2005
Don’t You Have Time to Think? The Letters of Richard Feynman 
edited by Michelle Feynman.
Allen Lane, 486 pp., £20, June 2005, 0 7139 9847 4
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... 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 they knew that nerdiness ...

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