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.