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.

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