There’s no story quite like our own – we catch up with an author who has tackled the history of science in the twentieth century
Science since the beginning of the twentieth century – that’s quite a period to cover. From Einstein’s new physics to the Manhattan Project, from eugenics to the Human Genome Project – Jon Agar has taken on a mammoth challenge to cover some of the most important scientific discoveries and movements of the last century, and to do so succinctly.
His book – Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond – has been described as ‘the book historians of modern science have been waiting for’. This month we spoke to Jon about how he chose to tackle the subject, and what he does when he’s not writing.
The book covers quite a broad period of scientific discovery, how did you decide to tackle the subject, and why section the book in the way you have?
So much has happened in the sciences over the past 112 years. At the start of 1900 the great discoveries in physics – quantum mechanics and relativity, for example – were still to come. In astronomy there was no suspicion of the Big Bang or the fact that the universe was expanding, let alone the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. In biology, many scientists accepted evolution but rejected Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Modern genetics was yet to come.
My aim was to write a history that showed how the sciences developed as part of wider changes in the world. Scientists, I feel, have used their special skills to address all sorts of problems, and it is that link that allowed me to both tell the story of discoveries, new theories and important experiments but also show how they fitted with what I call ‘working worlds’.
It’s a big, dramatic story. But there were also ways in which I did not want to tell it. I resisted the temptation to tell separate histories of disciplines, partly because some of these exist, and partly because many of the many of the intriguing features of how science changed in the twentieth century were shared across disciplines. Many disciplines scaled up, for example, after the 1920s in comparable ways. Likewise, the Cold War shaped scientific agendas in specialties as diverse as physics, oceanography, computer science and psychology.
What are the main trends you noticed while writing this book, and how have they changed? Do you see them changing in the future?
There are two trends that stand out. The first is the rise of the United States as a pre-eminent scientific power. The signs were there in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in subjects such as astronomy, in which Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy paid for the construction of the giant telescopes at Mount Wilson. But after the Second World War this leadership spread to nearly all subjects. The question that historians have to pose and answer is why did this happen? The second trend is the special importance of the working world of warfare – the design and maintenance of fighting forces and the technological systems that support them – for the sciences in the twentieth century. Radar is a really interesting case: all kinds of specialties from operational research to radio astronomy were pushed forward by scientists who had worked on radar and translated skills, equipment and ideas from one to the other.
These trends are changing now. The end of the Cold War was significant – think, for example of the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider. War is perhaps a less significant working world now compared to the maintenance of human health as a working world for new science. Furthermore, countries such as China, India and Brazil are spending more of their national wealth on research and development, and will have a different set of priorities compared to the United States. We might expect science to be shaped by these new priorities.
Can you pick one scientific movement as the most important?
Tough question. The movement towards Big Science is perhaps the most important. Without the model of Big Science there would be no atomic bombs, Standard Model, or full sequence of the human genome.
In terms of new findings there is a wealth of candidates to choose from. A personal favourite is Carl Woese’s mid-1970s discovery of Archaea, the third branch of the tree of life. It was a complete surprise. After centuries of natural history it was only recently that the general shape of the descent of living organisms has been reliably mapped.
War has quite a heavy presence in the book – are you now disillusioned with scientific breakthroughs when they’re centred on war?
No, disillusioned is not the right word. I think it is a fact of history that the science, technology and warfare have been intertwined, perhaps especially so in the twentieth century. Sometimes the relationship is direct. An example would be the Manhattan Project, in which physicists, chemists and engineers undertook a mission to build the first atomic bombs. And anyone who remembers the peaks of the Cold War, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s or the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980s, will still feel the intense anxiety of living under the threat of nuclear destruction. But often the links were contingent and surprising. For example the first detection of gamma-ray bursts was made in the late 1960s by the Vela satellites that were designed to spot breaches of the nuclear test ban treaty.
You’re also a senior lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College London – tell us more about your position here.
STS, or Science and Technology Studies is a real crossroads of a subject. It takes in history of science, philosophy of science and studies of contemporary science – how it is organised, paid for and communicated. It is absolutely essential in the sciences to specialise. Only by specialisation can a scientist train up in the necessary techniques, or know what the interesting research topics are. But what’s lost is a view of the whole. I love teaching STS, especially to science students, because it can paint a big picture but also pose questions about how science fits in with wider concerns.
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