Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin is an emeritus professor in the history of science at Harvard. His books include The Scientific Life, A Social History of Truth and Never Pure.

Story of Eau

Steven Shapin, 4 July 2024

Among​ all the things that people take into their bodies, water is special, its necessity matched by its neutrality. There’s no doubt about the necessity. Human bodies are mostly water: about 60 per cent in adult men; a little less in adult women. Without water, death comes within days. A sedentary man of roughly normal weight, living in a temperate climate, requires about three litres...

Paradigms Gone Wild

Steven Shapin, 30 March 2023

Thetragedy of Thomas Kuhn’s life was to have written a great book. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962, when he was forty, and he spent the rest of his life distressed by its success. It has sold 1.7 million copies, and has been translated into 42 languages. Very few academic books sell in those numbers and scarcely any are still seen as state of the art...

From The Blog
27 September 2022

The ‘white bear problem’ in experimental psychology has to do with the unintended consequences of trying to suppress certain thoughts. I tell you not to think of white bears, and – see – you’ve just imaged up a white bear. It’s a bit like when the government tells you not to panic. On 15 September, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against a recipe for NyQuil Chicken.

Loose Talk: Atomic Secrets

Steven Shapin, 4 November 2021

When the Manhattan Project was launched in 1942, the military was fully on board and totally in charge. The army knew all about secrecy in weapons development and how to ensure it: people were vetted; fences were thrown up around installations; communications were censored; and, above all, compartmentalisation was made an organisational imperative. No one should know any more than they needed to know to do their job; specialisation spelled security. The most important group of people whose knowledge of Bomb design and fissile fuel-making was restricted were many of the elite scientists working on the Manhattan Project, while thousands of lower-level workers knew nothing at all about the project’s intended product. The problem, however, was that the key workers were civilian scientists accustomed to relatively open communication, not enlisted men used to following orders. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, won this battle with its overall director, General Leslie Groves.

A Pox on the Poor: The First Vaccine

Steven Shapin, 4 February 2021

In the British market for domestic lab­our, both inoculation and a personal hist­ory of smallpox counted as qualifications: you could then work safely with the em­ployer’s children. Parish officials came to appreciate that a pox on the poor was a risk to the rich, badly affecting both bourgeois health and the availability of labour. Quak­er ethics and general altruism were motives for the provision of free inoculation to the working classes, but economic self­-interest was just as much a part of it.

It’s like getting married: Academic v. Industrial Science

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 12 February 2009

The practices of science, it appears, are increasingly industrial in location, corporate in organisation, and product and profit-minded in motivation. In the eyes of various commentators, these...

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You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips, 3 April 1997

For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if...

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Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas, 22 September 1994

Most of what we know and think is secondhand. ‘Almost all the opinions we have are taken by authority and upon credit,’ wrote Montaigne, in an age when the sum of human knowledge was...

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Richard Tuck, 19 February 1987

‘Scientists’ in our culture are (in many disciplines) people who perform ‘experiments’ in ‘laboratories’ and ‘testify’ about them to a wider...

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