Former Laureates

Steven Shapin


‘History of Science’ was the theme of the 2005 Erasmus Prize. The prize was awarded to two scolars: both Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin. Their names immediately bring to mind their joint publication Leviathan and the Air-pump, a ground-breaking work in the field of the history of science. With this book, but also through their own individual work, Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin have changed the way people think about the history of science and its complex relationship with culture and society. They have shown how science and society are not separate entities that exist independently, and either influence each other or not. Instead, the practice of science, both conceptually and instrumentally, is seen to be full of social assumptions. Crucial to their work is the idea that science is based on the public's faith in it. This is why it is important to keep explaining how sound knowledge is generated, how the process works, who takes part in the process and how.

In his book The Social History of Truth, Steven Shapin explains the social history of scientific truth. Recently he has been studying the past and present science of nutrition, and the relationship between science and industry.

Simon Schaffer's special interest in the social history of science is the historic use and acceptance of instruments. In 2006 he presented the BBC scientific series called Light Phantastic.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, and to promote appreciation of these fields in society. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism, and un-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means; a money prize is awarded to a person or institution under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2005 to Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin.
The prize is awarded to professor Schaffer and professor Shapin on the following grounds:

  • They have, singly and together, transformed our understanding of the history of European science since the seventeenth century.
  • In their analysis they have linked fundamental innovations in science - such as the emergence of experiment as a method of inquiry - to political and social processes.
  • As a consequence of their work, the history of science was thrust into the centre of discussions about what can count as knowledge for who and why and in which historical context.
  • Research questions raised by Schaffer and Shapin, have contributed to the development of a new domain of study, in which the historical, sociological and philosophical study of science and technique became interwoven.
  • Schaffer and Shapin have demonstrated that a historical approach is crucial for our understanding of the connection between science and society. They have shown us how science has come to play a central role in modern society, and how crucial public understanding is to the task of realizing its promises for the future.
  • With insights derived from the historical study of science, Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin have broadened and enriched the academic and societal debate about the role of fundamental science in our present society.


You can't understand what Newton is doing in the 1660s, experimenting with prisms and sunlight, unless you realise he is obsessed by the problems of religion and God. Light interests him because it's the principle of divinity, or how creation happens. Realising the meaning of those experiments to Newton, in theological terms, demonstrates just how different the intellectual environment was to our current one. (1)

The field in which the 2005 Erasmus Prize is awarded is described as the History of science in relationship to culture and society. More than any other field, science embodies the European Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality. Science is an important bearer of the social and cultural identity of Europe that, in the classical analyses of the sociologist Max Weber, distinguishes itself from other societies and earlier cultures by its rationality. In documenting the development of knowledge and thereby emphasizing the rational and cumulative character of scientific knowledge, the history of science has reinforced the important place of science in European culture and society.

In the past decades, however, the exercise of the history of science has changed. What was a pastime for retired scientists has become an independent discipline, with its own professional standards, own journals and a new, unique vision of the phenomenon that is science.

The professionalization of the history of science has had far-reaching consequences in terms of content. When scientific developments are studied historically as a specific cultural and social domain, the enormous complexity of science becomes clear. In contrast to the long cherished philosophical ideal of the unity of sciences, the work of newer generations of historians of science has come to emphasize the diversity of styles of scientific argumentation and paradigms in science.

Historical research has made clear the difference between what these scientists do and what they say they do. Although the latter is frequently expressed in traditional, often quite simple images of rationality, in actual scientific practice it has become clear that other principles provide the guidelines. The history of science has revealed the important role of instruments, the organization of scientific disciplines and the specific forms of communication, such as scientific journals and professional conferences.

The emphasis on science as a practical, socio-cultural and historically anchored activity has led to many new research questions. That can be illustrated on the basis of how researchers talk about experiments. Whereas formerly the question of what can count as knowledge focused on the extent to which results of an experiment supported or refuted a given theory, practical questions have now been placed at the fore: how do researchers in varying disciplines organize their experimental work, how do they know that they have obtained results that they can publish convincingly, how long must they continue their experiments, and in what way must they present their results? What in the past used to be presented as the simple testing of a theory, now is seen as a complex practical activity in which diverse social, material and literary techniques play a role. If one wants to engage in experimental science, one must have not only instruments, but also the techniques to report experimental findings as facts, and must move in the social circles in which such reports are discussed in specific ways.

This interest in scientific practice has led for instance to reinterpretations of one of the most important episodes in the history of science, what is called the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Also in studying other episodes, in the more recent history of science, attention to the question of how science gradually crystallized from a broader cultural context into a separate praxis, turned out to be fruitful. Science can no longer be considered an autonomous activity, cut off from culture and society, but should be seen as a totality of activities that is interrelated with other social activities, with the arts, religion and literature.

The Erasmus Prize for 2005 is awarded to the two historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. Both authors have fundamentally changed our vision on the relationship between science and society, in particular with their jointly-written book Leviathan and the air-pump (1985).

The most compelling reason for awarding the Erasmus Prize to these two eminent historians of science lies in the fact that they have demonstrated in their aforementioned book, as well as in their successive, individual work, how science and society are not two separate entities which influence one another (or not), but that many social presuppositions are enmeshed in actual scientific practice, both in conceptual and instrumental practice. Society is already built into, as it were, scientific concepts which are used by scientists and even in the instruments that they employ. This point of view has become broadly accepted by now, even though its concrete applications and development still encounter as much resistance as ever. The notion that such a thing as scientific truth has a social history (and consequently is not above history) still engenders vehement reactions, as was apparent from the discussion upon the publication of Shapin's last substantive book, The Social History of Truth. But at the same time, the thought that science is based on trust and that trust has had different meanings for different levels of society, is a broadly accepted opinion.
Ladies and gentlemen, awarding the prize to Shapin and Schaffer is not a safe choice in the sense that they are people whose work is undisputed; however, their work has found its way into the main stream of modern history of science, and we can say without question that modern history of science would be unthinkable without their innovative and pioneering work.

Dear mr Schaffer, dear mr Shapin. The Erasmus Prize is a distinction that is awarded for life-time achievements, its purpose is not to encourage young and promising talent. This should, please, not be misunderstood, I hasten to say. It is obvious that both of you are not at the end, but in the middle of very productive careers in academia. But already you have made decisive innovations in the historic study of science. Your work is widely perceived as having changed our ideas on the history of science by pointing out the intricate relationship of science to culture and society. You have also shown us how science has come to play a central role in modern society, demonstrating what an impressive achievement modern science is and how crucial public understanding and trust is to the task of realizing its promises for the future. For and I conclude here with a quote from a book by Shapin:

Science is a system of knowledge by virtue of its being a system of trusting persons. (...) The potency of trust extends to every aspect of the day-to-day processes by which scientific knowledge is held and extended (2).

Gentlemen, I truly trust that the Erasmus Prize award will be perceived as underscoring your message. I congratulate you with the Prize and would like to ask both of you to please come forward now to receive the ornaments.



Photography: John Thuring

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, members of the Board of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, friends and colleagues:

I am a historian of science. Sometimes I say I am a sociologist of science. To be one of these things, as Oscar Wilde might have said, is a misfortune; to be both looks very like carelessness. The carelessness is my own: I was badly educated and never a proper member of any disciplinary tribe. The misfortune is more interesting: writing about the history and present-day realities of science in the way I do has been, at times, uncomfortable and unpopular. (Today's proceedings are not what I am used to.)

The discomfort is, of course, relative: my salary has been regularly paid and I have been lucky over the years in my colleagues and my students. Rather, the discomfort has to do with being a historian, or a sociologist, of science of a certain kind.

One of the founding fathers of our field wrote many years ago that the history of science was not, and should not be, a normal kind of history because science was not a normal kind of human activity. Rather, it was said, science was the only truly progressive form of human activity; its only truly rational culture. The history of science was a secret history; scientific discoveries were made by men of extraordinary genius; and the job of the historian of science was to document, collect, and collate these discoveries, and, as Ecclesiasticus put it, to praise famous men. The history of science was not normal in just the same way that the history of Christian religion in the nineteenth century was not a normal sort of history. Each counted in its time as the history of truth, and truth could not be accounted for by the mundane, the historically situated, and the human, still less the all-too-human.

But, like many of my colleagues, I started with a different sentiment: science, I thought, was a remarkable sort of human activity, but a thoroughly human activity nonetheless. This was quite a natural thing to think for someone like myself. For someone growing up in the United States in the middle of the just-past century the authority and power of science were evident - part of the air we breathed. Science had grown Big; it was an accepted arm of state power and wealth-making as well as an expression of a search for truth; the distinction between science and technology, so insisted upon by many of the pre-War generation of scientists, was becoming invisible; science had increasingly become an organized activity, dependent upon vast resources and expensive instrumentation; doing science had moved from a vocation of a privileged few to a job for many.

I was born in the year in which Los Alamos was built; as I grew up I enjoyed - as the advertising slogan put it - better living through chemistry, and did not enjoy, indeed, like many Americans, was terrified of the arms race and the possibility of nuclear Armageddon; I received one of the early doses of the Salk vaccine against polio; I worried about the environmental crisis, but was clear in my mind that, if there was to be a solution, it would be more and better science. I simply assumed that the cultural authority of science was secure forever; and I studied genetics, and, later, the history of science courtesy of the National Defense Education Act, an artifact of America's Cold War response to Sputnik and the fear of a shortage of scientists.

Members of my parents generation felt the need to protect science against threat - from superstition, from political interference, from anti-Semitism, from benign or malign neglect. My own generation was perhaps the first for a very long time that could even think of subjecting scientific knowledge and the conditions of its making to normal historical and sociological inquiry. How was this extraordinary knowledge made, maintained, and transmitted? That's what my work been about, including the work I was fortunate enough to do with Simon Schaffer - as it seems to me - so long ago. We wanted to know - in detail and not in abstract principle - how ordinary people produced this extraordinary knowledge. What was a day's work like in, for example, Robert Boyle's laboratory? What specific things did you have to do to secure the authority of that knowledge? Like many things that happened twenty years ago, I cannot remember how Simon and I actually wrote our book, but I vividly remember what a pleasure and an education it was for me. If I came with some of the questions, Simon came to our brief collaboration with others, and with more answers than I could then, and can now, absorb. He did not praise my folly, but he was endlessly tolerant of it, and for that I will always remain grateful.

Perhaps the matter-of-factness of the work we did together, and which we both, in our different ways, continue to do, was an expression, and remains a residuum, of a unique historical moment. It was certainly the distillation of much that we learned from our colleagues - for me, most especially, my colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, David Bloor and Barry Barnes - and also of those scholars who subsequently found what we had done appalling - a form of lèse majesté - but who nonetheless inspired and informed us.

Perhaps that historical moment is passing. Our public culture now gestures at both internal and external threats to the integrity of science. What once seemed in no special need of vindication now seems to some to require aggressive intellectual and political defense, while some critics point to aspects of contemporary science and technology which are, in their view, indefensible. It may soon become a lot harder to write about science as a normal sort of human activity. Of one thing, however, we can be certain: whatever historians and sociologists of science write about in the future will reflect their own society?s sensibilities about the nature of science and its virtues. This special sort of scholarship will be, as it always has been, an act of self-understanding.

The Erasmian and Enlightenment Republic of Letters will never again be constituted - our modern academic disciplines have become too restricting and too professional for that - but there was a moment, in the 1970s and '80s, especially in Britain, especially in certain pubs, coffee-houses, and cheap restaurants with vile food and worse wine when it seemed briefly to twitch into life again. I was fortunate to be there for that brief moment, and I am very fortunate indeed today to share this occasion with Simon and with so many of our friends and colleagues.