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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’ consumption ...

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 has one less oxygen atom – hence deoxyribose (so RNA is ‘ribonucleic acid’ while DNA is ‘deoxyribonucleic acid ...

One Peculiar Nut

Steven Shapin: The Life of René Descartes, 23 January 2003

Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes 
by Richard A. Watson.
Godine, 375 pp., £22, April 2002, 1 56792 184 1
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... For René Descartes, the problem of keeping body and soul together took three forms. First, how did thinking stuff keep company with material stuff? Soul was active, unextended in space and immortal; body was passive, extended and, if it made up the structure of a human being, distressingly mortal. And yet humans were unique hybrids, in which rational minds volitionally moved brute matter, making them something quite different from parrots, apes and ‘earthen statues ...

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 do have changed enormously over the past centuries ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

What did you expect?

Steven Shapin: The banality of moon-talk, 1 September 2005

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth 
by Andrew Smith.
Bloomsbury, 308 pp., £17.99, April 2005, 0 7475 6368 3
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... In Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, Dorothy Moore – a retired music-hall chanteuse and the wife of a moral philosopher called George Moore – is going dotty in her bedroom. The precipitating cause is a televised fight between the first two astronauts to land on the Moon about who gets to go back home on a damaged lunar ascent module that can carry only one ...

Tod aus Luft

Steven Shapin: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, 26 January 2006

Between Genius and Genocide: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare 
by Daniel Charles.
Cape, 313 pp., £20, September 2005, 0 224 06444 4
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... Hydrogen and nitrogen combine only with difficulty. Since the reaction N2 + 3H2 2NH3 is reversible, you need just the right conditions to drive it forward to produce significant quantities of ammonia (NH3). If the temperature is too low, the formation of ammonia is favoured but the reaction goes slowly. If the temperature is too high, the reaction goes faster, but any ammonia produced tends to dissociate into its elements ...

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 presaged Nobelity ...

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, incoherence and unstable foundations ...

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 ...

Talking with Alfred

Steven Shapin: Mr Loomis’s Obsession, 15 April 2004

Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War Two 
by Jennet Conant.
Simon and Schuster, 330 pp., £9.99, July 2003, 0 684 87288 9
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... Alfred Lee Loomis was well connected. Some of his most valuable connections flowed from the accident of a fortunate birth. On his father’s side, the family came to New England only a few ships after the Mayflower, and Loomis’s father was a wealthy Gilded Age New York physician who combined fashion, philanthropy and philandering in ways that could have made him a character in a Henry James novel ...

Possessed by the Idols

Steven Shapin: Does Medicine Work?, 30 November 2006

Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates 
by David Wootton.
Oxford, 304 pp., £16.99, June 2006, 0 19 280355 7
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... Historical progress is back, even if it was only in some genres of academic history that it ever went away. It’s been some time, certainly, since historians of art saw painting as a triumphal progress from Titian to Tracey Emin, or historians of music celebrated a linear ascent in compositional quality from Bach to Birtwistle. It was, perhaps, in political history that historians first recognised their job to be something like interpreting the past in its own terms, warning themselves against the tendency to award points to past actors insofar as their thinking anticipated the present ...

Floating Medicine Chests

Steven Shapin: The Dutch East India Company, 7 February 2008

Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age 
by Harold Cook.
Yale, 562 pp., £25, April 2007, 978 0 300 11796 7
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... In 1617, the governors of the Dutch East India Company placed an order for goods to be procured by their agents. The shopping list included a hundred thousand bags of black pepper and thousands of pounds of other sorts of pepper; as much in the way of cloves, ginger and cinnamon as the ships could carry; 1000 barrels of nutmeg and 300 of mace; 3000 pounds of cassia wood (closely related to cinnamon); 6000 pounds of camphor; and the same amount of the ginger-like galingale ...

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