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At the Amsterdam

Steven Shapin: A Wakefull and Civill Drink, 20 April 2006

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee House 
by Brian Cowan.
Yale, 364 pp., £25, January 2006, 0 300 10666 1
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Coffee House: A Cultural History 
by Markman Ellis.
Phoenix, 304 pp., £8.99, November 2005, 0 7538 1898 1
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... I went to a coffee house this morning. I had a ‘grande’ latte. It cost me $3.20. Sometimes I carry the coffee with me to work in a cardboard cup; this time I sat in the coffee house and drank it while reading the newspaper. I went by myself and did not have a conversation with any of the other customers – several of whom I vaguely recognised but most of whom were strangers ...

When Men Started Doing It

Steven Shapin: At the Grill Station, 17 August 2006

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany 
by Bill Buford.
Cape, 318 pp., £17.99, July 2006, 9780224071840
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... What’s all this fuss about cooks and chefs? The how-to-cook sections of bookshops are as big as the how-to-be-successful-in-life sections; it’s no longer clear where one ends and the other begins. Many of the books sell themselves not so much as sources of practical information – how to make a wild mushroom risotto – but as windows onto both the skills and the emotional life of a celebrity cook ...

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 unsuitable for high office; reputations are damaged; valued institutions are undermined; colleagues turn against each other and the whole affair has a poisonous effect on normal social relations ...

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 understands’ and one of the multitude who understood scarcely a word of it; the wholly other and the all-too-human; the virgin ascetic who accused John Locke of trying to ‘embroil’ him with women, and the supreme London boulevardier whose consuming passions included Château Haut-Brion, the theatre and serial embroilments with women ...

Species-Mongers

Steven Shapin: Joseph Hooker and the Dead Foreign Weeds, 20 November 2008

Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science 
by Jim Endersby.
Chicago, 429 pp., £18, May 2008, 978 0 226 20791 9
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... In the great adventures of botanical discovery from the 17th to the 19th century, expertise about plants was often supplementary cargo in voyages whose main purpose was to find, chart and conquer new lands. You planted the flag and then you named the plants. Making an inventory of the world’s plants, learning where they grew (and where they could be made to grow), and figuring out what they were good for, were activities hugely dependent on the navies, armies and trading companies of the big imperial powers ...

Against the Pussyfoots

Steven Shapin: George Saintsbury, 10 September 2009

Notes on a Cellar-Book 
by George Saintsbury, edited by Thomas Pinney.
California, 348 pp., £20.95, October 2008, 978 0 520 25352 0
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... George Saintsbury was in the taste business. By profession, he made judgments of taste on works of literature. He produced dozens of editions of the work of novelists and poets and more than 50 monographs, including A History of Elizabethan Literature, A History of English Prosody, The English Novel, A History of the French Novel and, self-referentially, books about books about books – A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe from the Earliest Texts to the Present Day, A History of English Criticism ...

Abishag’s Revenge

Steven Shapin: Who wants to live for ever?, 26 March 2009

Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer 
by David Boyd Haycock.
Yale, 308 pp., £18.99, June 2008, 978 0 300 11778 3
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... Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. Her name was Abishag. She was of the tribe of Issachar, from the village of Shunem, and, for that reason, was known as a Shunammite ...

The Superhuman Upgrade

Steven Shapin: The Book That Explains It All, 13 July 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow 
by Yuval Noah Harari.
Vintage, 528 pp., £9.99, March 2017, 978 1 78470 393 6
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... Hedda Gabler​ ’s husband, Jørgen Tesman, is an academic historian – diligent, if a little plodding. He is researching a book which he hopes will make a splash, secure him a coveted professorship and support his wife’s taste for life in Oslo high society. When Tesman’s aunt asks him what the book will be about, he says it will deal with the domestic industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages ...

Good Housekeeping

Steven Shapin: William Petty, 20 January 2011

William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic 
by Ted McCormick.
Oxford, 347 pp., £63, September 2010, 978 0 19 954789 0
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... In 1667, the Royal Society’s first historian described the early Restoration as ‘this Age of Experiments’. He was advertising the society’s new scientific programme and he was making a joke. One of the society’s most prominent members had designed and built a new sort of ship – a ‘Double-Bottomed’ vessel, a kind of catamaran – intended to require less draught, to sail faster and with a smaller crew than anything then at sea ...

Confusion of Tongues

Steven Shapin: Scientific Languages, 3 December 2015

Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English 
by Michael Gordin.
Profile, 432 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 78125 114 0
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... From​ God’s point of view, the problem with the Tower of Babel was an excess both of hubris and of technological power. God had designed human beings to recognise the limits of what they could achieve, and here they were building a ‘tower whose top is in the heavens’. Not in my backyard, God thought, and pondered both the cause of man’s vaulting ambition and how He might put a permanent check on it ...

Pretence for Prattle

Steven Shapin: Tea, 30 July 2015

Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World 
by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger.
Reaktion, 326 pp., £25, May 2015, 978 1 78023 440 3
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... During​ the four centuries of its presence in British life, tea has made the transition from the exotically novel to the domestically ordinary, from a drug with possibly potent psychoactive powers to the mere ‘cup that cheers’, from a focus of social ritual to a casually taken and often solitary drink, from control by a quasi-state monopoly to a series of branded products largely dominated by multinational firms, from an artisanal to an industrial product ...

Bare Bones

Steven Shapin: Rhinoceros v. Megatherium, 8 March 2018

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History 
by Juan Pimentel, translated by Peter Mason.
Harvard, 356 pp., £21.95, January 2017, 978 0 674 73712 9
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... What does​ a rhinoceros look like? If you are fortunate enough to have seen one in the flesh, you can can summon up an image from memory. If you haven’t seen one, you will have to conjure a mental image from pictures seen in books or in nature documentaries. There’s at least a chance that in forming this image your imagination will have tapped into a picture that is more than five hundred years old – Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of the outlandish pachyderm, made in 1515 ...

Barbecue of the Vanities

Steven Shapin: Big Food, 22 August 2002

Eating Right in the Renaissance 
by Ken Albala.
California, 315 pp., £27.95, February 2002, 0 520 22947 9
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Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health 
by Marion Nestle.
California, 457 pp., £19.95, February 2002, 0 520 22465 5
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... I am thinking of making Tuscan bean soup for dinner tonight. (My wife is from Birmingham and prefers her beans with sausage, egg and chips, but I have my limits.) If this were an ordinary day, I’d just get on with making the soup. I’ve got the things I need: the beans, pancetta, garlic, olive oil, parsley and chicken stock. I’ve made it dozens of times, and, after I’ve decided that this is what I want to eat, I don’t usually think any more about it ...

Rough Trade

Steven Shapin: Robert Hooke, 6 March 2003

The Man Who Knew Too Much: The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635-1703 
by Stephen Inwood.
Macmillan, 497 pp., £18.99, September 2002, 0 333 78286 0
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... If you are a scientist at an American research university like mine, you know what to do if you think you’ve hit on some technique or bit of knowledge that might have commercial potential. You go online to the university’s technology transfer office, download an invention and technology disclosure form, and fill in the details. You have to do that because all such intellectual property (IP) discovered by this university’s employees belongs to the university ...

Ivory Trade

Steven Shapin: The Entrepreneurial University, 11 September 2003

MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science 
by Henry Etzkowitz.
Routledge, 173 pp., £70, June 2002, 9780415285162
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Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialisation of Higher Education 
by Derek Bok.
Princeton, 233 pp., £14.95, April 2003, 0 691 11412 9
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... Here is the sort of thing that appals critics of the modern American entrepreneurial university. Members of the physics department invent an electronic gadget that looks like it might be useful in aviation guidance systems. Hearing about the technology, the university’s administration, including a trustee who had been a right-wing Republican President of the United States, takes control of the intellectual property and proceeds to patent it, hoping to generate licensing income for the university, and to cut in one of the inventors for a small slice of the pie ...

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