His Father The Engineer

Ian Hacking

  • Understanding the present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man by Bryan Appleyard
    Picador, 272 pp, £14.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 330 32012 2

There’s widespread distrust of science and technology abroad in (at least) the prosperous English-speaking countries. It shows up where it hurts most. I don’t mean in lack of national funding for research, especially research for its own sake. There is, even in Britain after Thatcher, an amazing proportion of national treasure invested in the sciences. It may be spent unwisely on weapons or on grandiose enterprises like the human genome project. It may be necessary to do a lot of toadying about practical applications of pure research when asking for patronage. But public and private money is still being spent lavishly compared to any era of human history before the Manhattan project. No: where it hurts is in lack of students. Young people, we hear on all sides, are voting against science.

Some anecdotes: a young graduate trying out for a job in a large lab connected, as it happens, with the genome project finds that there is not a single native English speaker in the group below the role of manager. That is in what was and may still be Science City for the world – Berkeley, California. I am told by a man who has just retired from running an important nuclear physics and nuclear medicine facility in New Jersey that in recent years nearly all his graduate students came from China, partly because he helped inaugurate some exchanges years ago, but partly because he couldn’t get any American students. A friend who commutes weekly between Harvard and Fermilab has a lot of very good undergraduates, but complains she has only one really first-class postgraduate working under her at the high-energy laboratory: a wonderfully able person from Korea.

Once one escapes the vanity of national prestige, I can’t see too much wrong with this. For one thing there is a switch in the sciences. Molecular biology and cosmology have claimed the glamour of physics. More important, there is no lack of adolescent computer hackers. The engineering faculty in my part of the world – like schools everywhere that train those who will create, adapt and use future technologies – has incredibly high admission standards, and works the students so hard that when they have a moment off they go on dissolute binges. The faculty nevertheless has to turn away most of its applicants. But perhaps that’s not ‘real’ science? Well, there remain lots of people in the rest of the world who will carry on creative pure science. There has been a pretty steady transfer of research dominance westwards around the globe, and there is no reason to hope that it will stop at the shores of the Pacific. I don’t refer just to the Four Dragons: it is China and the Indian subcontinent that are providing so many of the research students. Recent times have been anomalous, both in the predominance of work done in English-language institutions, and in the percentage of young people seriously following a career in one of the sciences. Even now there are, proportionally, far more good young English-speaking scientists than there were in 1935, let alone in the heyday of Clerk Maxwell or of Newton. It is also my impression, though I’ve never counted, that a striking proportion of the more able scientists have been immigrants or foreigners in the lands where they did their best work. Like so much else, it all began in Greece. Pedants still call Aristotle the Stagirite after his city of birth. Archimedes was a research student in Alexandria before going home to make Syracuse the Berkeley of his day.

Nevertheless children aren’t attracted to the sciences. I’m not at all sure that the choice against science is much influenced by older generations. There is certainly, among many elders, an increasingly pervasive scepticism. The specialists – the sociologists, historians and philosophers of the sciences – canvass the alarming idea that the facts discovered even in the most austere disciplines are ‘socially-constructed’. Quite conservative writers coming from a feminist standpoint propose not merely the truism that men have run the sciences, but that a patriarchal vision of the world has been imposed upon nature itself: a master-slave model of genetic codes giving orders, of forces and speeds and collisions being the key parameters of the physical universe. I am told by those who read Heidegger that he is attractive because of his challenge to the technoscientific assumptions of Western civilisation. These highbrow animadversions on the classic Jacob Bronowski Ascent of Man vision of science, onwards and upwards, show up in a plethora of more popular anti-scientistic writings and talks.

The reasons for this ‘rage against reason’ may seem easy to find. The systematic destruction of nature – of the world beyond the city – has caught up with us. The trees around me are dying, the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River are, like so many other waterways, poison. There are thermonuclear bombs, and, though it has not quite sunk into popular consciousness yet, information theoretic (computer-controlled) weapons may have passed through the glitch stage (Vietnam) to the point where they often work (Iraq).

And so on. I am dubious about these grandiloquent evocations of the anguish of our era. That there is some truth in them is proven by the surest indicator: the choices of people making their first start in life. You can guess why many students take up computer science or engineering, but there is one booming region of science education from which students cannot expect a good future income. That is environmental studies, which attempt a return to a revitalised use of science after first turning away in revulsion. I would nevertheless look for more modest explanations of indifference to science. I would not underestimate the role of presumably well-meaning television shows in inducing a thoroughgoing revulsion. A few weeks ago I taught myself the rudiments of how the Scanning Tunnelling and Atomic Force Microscopes work. Inventions of the Eighties, they let us chart the surfaces of atoms and molecules, and even pick up atoms and put them down where we choose, one by one. Fascinating stuff, I think, but I’ve just seen a rerun of a 1989 Channel Four Vista programme about nanometer technology. It starred these microscopes and other devices, and presented them with appalling hype and rebarbative, meaningless ‘optimism’. The backlash is coming fast. I know of one British television production company now planning an anti-Bronowski series about Western science; I would guess there are others in the works.

The backlash has been with us for some time in the written word. Bryan Appleyard intends to take full advantage of that. He has scorn for even the greatest popularisers in the Bronowski tradition, men such as Carl Sagan. He tells a story of some of the sciences from the time of Galileo to the present. Coming soon: the ‘humbling of science’ as we enter another ‘post-’ age (post-scientific, this time). He much regrets the pushing aside of the very idea of God, and the Cartesian exiling of the soul from the body. He deplores the triumph of the liberal-scientific culture which professes tolerance, and openness to change and new ideas, but generates only blandness and indifference. He believes we have to stand up now, or more and more of our mind and our culture will be invaded by ‘science’.

The book begins as if it were Late Victorian: the young Appleyard is deeply impressed by the ability of his father, an engineer, to work out the volume of water in a nearby water-tower, on the spot, on the back of an envelope. That is a time-warp recollection in itself: I wonder how many children today, who have an engineer for a parent, could have the same experience? His example serves for his general message. The sciences, pure and applied, amazingly answer endless questions which they themselves pose. But they constantly force upon us the idea that those are the only questions that matter. ‘Once the implications and shallowness of this trick are realised, fully realised, science will be humbled.’ To humble science is to make it only one among many types of human activity, and hence to make it more humane.

The villains of the book are Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking. Russell is presented as an ‘iniquitous’ apologist for science (why does that man still bring the word ‘iniquity’ to so many lips? He can’t be all bad, if he continues to prompt that description). Hawking is said to have stated, in an interview and at the end of The Birth of Time, that theoretical physics will come to an end, and with that, all questioning. (In contrast, I recall him saying that the end of theoretical physics would, among other things, allow people to get on with all the rest of the sciences, because an in-principle solution has very few computable in-practice consequences.) The heroes are Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein is taken to heart, for Appleyard does not propose that we go back to answering questions about the meaning of life or the existence of God or the nature of the soul. ‘There is no problem to be confronted,’ or so he has learned. Would that he had stopped there and learned the lesson of silence. In the next paragraph: ‘The way the language works tells us at every moment how to be ourselves. We are not machines because the language tells us so. Perhaps from that we can conclude that we have immortal souls.’ As you can see, Wittgenstein and Pascal have not served as models of logical cogency – or prose style. Appleyard goes on to tell us that the philosophers (the Russells) have tied the knots that make us ask questions we cannot answer; we read that these ‘knots have turned out to be contagious’. A few paragraphs later he switches from mixed metaphor to high romance: Pascal & Co knew ‘a secret that has been told in a whisper in the few dark shadows left in the bright glare of the history of the Enlightenment’. Appleyard nevertheless has good taste in quotations; I especially liked, from Pascal, ‘the strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life.’

What is the humbling of science for which Appleyard hopes? When it happens, ‘science can become itself again.’ Ah, a return to the origins, to the purity, to science itself. But hold on. When was the first coming, to which we can return ‘again’? We’re told a story of science from Galileo to the present. In it there seems to be no ‘itself’ for science to become again, except what Appleyard’s tart summary calls ‘a form of mysticism that proves peculiarly fertile in setting itself problems which only it can solve’. I’m not sure that Appleyard sees that he has, for once, alluded to a deep question: why is this fertility peculiar to the sciences? Every type of inquiry sets questions which probably only it can solve: how come the sciences can provide solutions, and indeed determine so well what counts as a solution? How do the sciences manage the trick of being, in a way, self authenticating, internally determining what shall count as true or false?

The book is written as a historical sketch of how we got to here. The accounts of the incidents have been competently checked against standard histories. There’s close attention to the reflections of science in the popular media, as signs of how the sciences affect our ways of living and thinking. The sciences singled out are those that could usefully be called the spiritual ones, the ones that impinge on, or serve to replace, standard Western yearnings for eternity, immortality, life, the soul, the mind, the inner constitution of things: astronomy, cosmology, high-energy physics, evolution, molecular biology. It is an instructive list. Nuclear energy notwithstanding, these sciences have so far had precious little effect on our mundane lives. It is chemistry that has changed the face of the earth, poisoned the air and the waters, and, some say, may heat us to extinction. (Chemistry is mentioned only once, in connection with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.) Likewise the knowledge of microbes and the practice of sanitation are responsible for the population explosion. I do wish the sceptics of science would ‘get real’, as the saying goes, and talk about the sciences that are killing us – and keeping us alive. The sceptics have too much succumbed to the rhetoric of the highbrow impractical sciences. Appleyard writes of quantum mechanics. Of course that is integral to cosmology and high energies, but where quantum mechanics has changed everything is in the solid state, from the displays on many readers’ wristwatches, through the music that most readers now play at home on CDs, to that Scanning Tunnelling Microscope making images of atoms. Those devices don’t even make sense without quantum mechanics. Appleyard’s attention to the spiritual sciences is, nevertheless, not entirely misdirected. For he holds that they have invaded and destroyed a whole family of characteristically human (i.e. European) aspirations and interests, resulting in a loss of soul, of meaning.

Appleyard is, happily, not entirely fixated on immaterial spirit. Growing up in an engineering family, he acquired a proper respect for mechanical ingenuity as another manifestation of human nature. That leads him to wax nostalgic. He is quite good on computers. He emphasises the way that in daily life they are black boxes. No one knows how they work. The value of technological innovation for its own human sake is too often overlooked, since no one understands it any more. Part of his message is that, at least in popular culture, no one cares about the hardware, which is both magical and, when it does not work, disposable. Instead the software is everything, a fact implicitly captured in Science Fiction.

Even here, Appleyard may not quite be up to understanding the present. For me a personal computer is indeed a black box. At my job there is a PC set-up that runs a laser printer. When it works I’m happy; when not, I fume, impotent. I expect Appleyard is the same. A couple of days ago I was fuming. A boy from another city walks in off the street; he wants, as it happens, to study the history of science. ‘Let’s see what’s wrong,’ he says, and opens up the black box. He’s never seen this model or its parts before; in half an hour he has figured it out and put it right. It was like that in a time when the most important black box, for most people, was an automobile. There’d still be a youth off the street who ... It’s true that the kid off the street can’t do anything about chips, but neither in days gone by could he do anything about the parts of the distributor: some parts come from the factory and that’s almost that.

When Appleyard bemoans the loss of respect for technological ingenuity for its own sake, I fear he means mechanical ingenuity. I share his regret. I also share his electronic incompetence, but my complaint about the ‘nerds’ is that they are positively obsessed by technical ingenuity, both hard and soft, and talk about it non-stop. Brunel would have felt at home with them. And for those who still fancy machines, I should mention that the nanometer technology TV show that I despised asserted that old-fashioned engineering is alive and well at the atomic level of solid-state physics.

Maybe it was the boy Appleyard marvelling at his father the engineer that set me up for age regression. At any rate the arrogant solemnity of the book gave me something I haven’t had since the age of ten when I had to sit through Sunday sermons – a fit of the giggles. I began to wonder if this was not a Euromarket version of 1066 and All That. That was a spoof on English history as it is taught, and was written for those who are terminally ten years old. Where will Appleyard commence his story? Start with 1066 and flip some digits. ‘I choose 1609,’ he tells us on page 17 (that’s Galileo looking through a telescope). A surprising number of the characters of 1066 reappear thinly disguised. All surviving ten-year-olds will recall, for example, Williamanmary, who, as 1066 says, was known as The Orange (there followed a drawing of a crowned orange). We find in Appleyard’s index as well as his text, a character called ‘Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain’. Alas, no drawing of a Seville orange, and, in the index, no unescorted Isabella either. Enough. Isabella does remind us how apt is the subtitle ‘Science and the Soul of Modern Man’. Aside from George Eliot, the only females to get into the book are queens. In addition to Isabella we have Our Lady of Loretto. Then there’s physics, who takes over from theology as the queen of the sciences. (Unfair! He also mentions Carson and there’s an unexplained allusion to Anna Bramwell, who is a lively historian of ecology.) Given the very high quality of much feminist analysis of science, this book, in so many ways a period piece, suffers from being too much in the vein of the Boy’s Own Paper.

Does the book, for all its pompous silliness, do a good job, the job it was written for? Officially it is presented as diagnosis – Understanding the Present. It is better seen as another symptom of that unhappiness about the sciences that is felt in so many quarters, nowhere more than among disenchanted schoolchildren. The analysis is pedestrian, the prose inflated. Does the book nevertheless give a voice to a lot of people who want to know enough to articulate their malaise, to give it a sense of history, and to connect it with some undefined sense of pointlessness in contemporary ‘liberal-scientific’ culture? Well, perhaps it does, although my respect for the target audience makes me doubt it. (The publishers do not share my respect; they purple the dust-jacket with: ‘This is an emergency, Appleyard writes, because we must now find our true nature before science crosses the final frontier of the human self.’) If the book does allow many readers to talk more openly and pointedly about something troubling, then it will have been worthwhile. That would not be enough to make it excellent ‘popular’ writing. There is a great contrast between Appleyard and two men who say kind things in the advance publicity for the book: James Lovelock and Oliver Sacks. Be as cynical as you please about Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis or Sacks’s romanticised neurology – they are writers whose best books deserve their enormous readership. They have changed the way countless people think about the mind or the planet. They have given ideas, be they true or false, that no one else would have brought into being and which genuinely have changed the feel which many people have of their, of our, of my world. Far better that the ideas should have emerged in popular form than been cloistered for years. Writers of popular science – I don’t mean popularisers of science – have never been better than at the present time. The author of this book is not in that number. He is just some sort of fellow traveller.