The Scientific Takeover

A question is bound to arise how a scientifically ignorant person, like the present writer, can presume to review Charles Gillispie’s remarkable book (itself the continuation and completion of his earlier Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime, published back in 1980). Of course, Gillispie’s is a work not of science but of history, the history of science, and to some extent of political history. It is concerned with the changing shape of what the state seeks from scientists and gives them in return, and the way in which, in response to this, science organizes itself, both as a profession and as a discipline. Gillispie’s example is France just before and after the French Revolution—and for a good reason, for during this period (which spans two generations) French scientists were well ahead of all their rivals.

But the question I opened with had better be faced. For Gillispie is, clearly, thoroughly at home in the language and concepts of the sciences: of pure mathematics, chemistry, mathematical physics and astronomy, biology and natural history, not to mention engineering, mining, and agronomy. He is also a master of lucid explanation, so far as explanation to the ignorant can go, as well being the teller of some highly gripping tales; and he has an admirable, logically taut, often quietly witty, prose style. The uninstructed reader could be said to get everything from him—except science.

Fifty years or so ago the novelist C.P. Snow, in a public lecture, launched a debate about what he called the “two cultures”—meaning literary culture and scientific culture—and the strange and almost total lack of communication between them, which he blamed mainly upon the literary culture. It was a foolish lecture, as may be seen from his complaint that the epoch-making discovery made in 1956 by the American particle physicists Yang and Lee—that parity, or space-reflection symmetry, is not conserved in weak interactions—was most probably not, as it so obviously should have been, “talked about at every High Table in Cambridge.”

The nonconservation of parity: a pretty topic for general conversation! What on earth could the ignorant be expected to contribute to the talk? The best they could do would be to listen open-mouthed. But then, that is the point that should be made. The gulf between Snow’s two cultures is irremediable because of a quite simple but iron law: that nothing a nonscientific person says about a scientific matter can be of the slightest interest to the scientist. There is no symmetry, and can be no genuine exchange, between scientific and literary culture. Gillispie supplies a rather neat rider to this. To an observer contemplating three centuries of science, he says, it appears—a little surprisingly—that communication has succeeded more nearly among scientists than any other class of person. But that is because their exchanges are “confined to matters to which people in ordinary life are generally quite indifferent.”

The …

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Letters

The Scientific Takeover’ September 22, 2005