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.