Sunday, March 7, 2010

D. Kevles, "The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America" (NY, 1978)

Kevles is writing a history of the professionalization of science (and perhaps of the “Greatest Generation” of scientists?).  He traces the professionalization of science back to the late 19th century (post Civil War).  The goal of the emerging class of scientists (the name was coined by William Whewell in 1840, and replaced the tern “natural philosopher” during this time) was to exclude amateurs, improve the condition of science in the colleges and universities and enlarge the role of science in the federal government.  One of the early marriages between science and the government was the Army sponsorship of geographic and geologic surveys, a connection that linked science and western exploration.

 Even at this early stage of things, the scientific community made the distinction between “abstract” and “practical” science.  Abstract science was the study of nature for the sake of understanding its substance, its workings, its laws.  Practical science was the exploitation of nature and of nature’s laws for the sake of material development.  But the public did not understand this distinction, nor did they understand the dependence of technology on scientific progress.

Of course the connections between science and government grow tighter during military conflicts, especially World War II, where it can probably be claimed that science won the war.  (The Atomic bomb ended the war, radar won it).  The story that Kevles tells us is one of the growing involvement of science with government.  We see increases in federal spending on science, the creation of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, the National Science Foundation, the Atomic Energy Commission, the expansion of military research laboratories.  (Is this authoritarian technics taking over democratic government?)  And ultimately we see the politicization of science with the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and scientists speaking out against government policies and research efforts (ABM, for example, or SDI).

So does science serve society or does society and government serve science?  With the political and social changes that take place in the 60's and 70's we see science going from a position of prestige to one of distrust.  Does science get tarred with same brush as the political institutions?  Or do failures in big science contribute to the distrust of government?  Big science, big government, where do we draw the lines?  Or has government fallen into the technology trap?  Only technology can save us from the problems that technology has created, only technology can provide us with the security that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly unstable world.  Can we spend our way out of a recession?  Can we invent our way out of the mess that our inventions have left us in?

If science won WWII, did it lose Vietnam?  Are we giving too much agency to science?  Ultimately it all comes down to human beings and how we use the knowledge available to us.  If science has agency, it is because we have given it to it.  The Frankenstein of the novel is the scientist, not the monster, only in the movies does the monster get a name.

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