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The great thinkers of that extraordinary age, including Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Christopher Wren, are shown in the context in which they lived and worked. We learn of the correspondences they kept with their equally passionate colleagues and come to understand the unique collaborative climate that fostered virtuoso discoveries in the areas of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, botany, geography, and engineering. Ingenious Pursuits brilliantly chronicles the true intellectual revolution that continues to shape our very understanding of ourselves, and of the world around us.
In 1997, scientists working at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh announced a remarkable breakthrough in biological research, in the journal Nature. Ian Wilmot and his team had successfully cloned a living sheep using genetic material from cells in an adult sheep's udder.1 The impetus for this piece of research had come from the rapidly developing field of biotechnology: genetic engineering had already been used to breed sheep whose milk contained vital human proteins used in the medical treatment of cystic fibrosis. Cloning would allow the commercial company, with some of whose funding the research was associated, to produce entire flocks of such sheep, facilitating the production of these new-type medical materials. Ultimately, according to the company's spokesman, Wilmot's cloning technique might be used to 'farm' the human blood clotting factors needed to treat haemophiliacs.
But Dolly the cloned sheep was not heralded as a glorious piece of innovative science. Aghast, the newspapers of the world responded to this sensational scientific advance with a clamour of moral outrage. Driven blindly by the search for the new, we were told, the Scottish scientists were careering towards disaster along that sinister path to damnation notoriously embarked upon by the demonic hero of Mary Shelley's famous novel, Dr Frankenstein. In no time at all we would face the nightmare scenario of genetically engineered armies of identical soldiers, bred to exterminate with ruthless efficiency. Parents would shortly decide exactly what mental and physical characteristics they wanted for their offspring and order them tailor-made, off the shelf. Worst of all, with no further need for sperm in order to beget children, men would be sidelined or cut out of the reproductive cycle altogether, consigned to the scrap heap of history.
For many ordinary people nowadays, it seems, the scientist is the enemy: a detached, remote, forbidding figure, bent uncompromisingly on seeking solutions to complex general problems, without regard for the damaging implications of his 'tampering with nature' for moral probity and human values. The legacy of this inhumane, alien scientific practice is, it is claimed, all around us, beyond the possibility of ordinary people's control. Its malign influence is perceived to lie behind the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the proliferation of biological weapons in the Middle East, and the experiments routinely performed on animals by cosmetics and other consumer-product manufacturers.
Art and literature, according to this view, stand in humane opposition to science. Artists are the trusted guardians of morality: a small, committed band of civilised and sensitive dreamers who nurture our society's conscience and sustain its values and beliefs. However, in the same year in which Dolly the sheep was cloned, the artist Damien Hirst's Away from the Flock-- whole sheep preserved in formaldehyde--was included in the Sensation art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. That exhibition, too, caused outrage with some sectors of the public and censorious remarks from the tabloid press because artists like Hirst refused to give the public pat answers to moral questions. What the critics found disturbing about the exhibition was the perceived cynicism of the art objects displayed, the way Hirst's pickled sheep and the adjacent sliced cow apparently set out with the sole object of shocking their audience. Each unsettled onlooker had to make up their own mind and contribute their own evaluation to the experience of visiting the exhibition.
In the case of art--even avant-garde art--the public and the press expected the artists to be deeply engaged with society and its burning issues, and to offer us telling evaluative insights. Hirst's pickled sheep and segmented cows seemed to refer to animal experimentation and genetic engineering, but refused to offer a moral position. Yet still the very act of provoking us was assumed to make some contribution to a shared understanding of humanity at the end of the twentieth century. Whether they were for or against Sensation, those who wrote or talked about it assumed that those who made art were deeply immersed in the world we inhabit, that the ideas and processes of art were tightly interwoven with the fabric of our society's informing ideas and practices. When the hoo-ha was over, public discussion of the works of art in the Sensation exhibition turned out to have produced insights into the state of our contemporary society as profound as any stimulated by the more familiarly 'aesthetic' work of early twentieth-century artists such as Cezanne or Renoir.2
Personally, in my own intellectual pursuits, I have never felt the need to choose between the arts and sciences. I grew up in a harmonious household in which these 'two cultures' coexisted peacefully. My mother's hands shaped figures out of clay, my father's hands described for us the primitive movements of flint on stone by which 'man the tool-maker' struck fire. At mealtimes, Newton's theory of gravitational pull and the poetry of William Blake were discussed in the same breath; Einstein's and Picasso's enduring contributions to our cultural landscapes were treated as part of a single ferment of intellectual creativity. In that family environment I gained the conviction that imaginative problem-solving is at the root of all human inventiveness, both in the sciences and the humanities. I also learned to believe that intellectually and aesthetically creative people--scientists and artists--were together part of that global community which provides a constantly updated version of those 'human values' on which the well-being of humankind depends.3
The scientist is not a malevolent Dr Frankenstein, creating monsters beyond his control. The scientist, like the artist, is one of us. He or she pursues scientific research along directions set by the interests and preoccupations of the community he or she belongs to. What keeps the scientist alert to the moral implications of his or her investigations is that sense of belonging, together with the fundamentally collaborative nature of the scientific project itself. Anyone who has watched a team of scientists at work in a modern laboratory will know that there is more to scientific inquiry than the lonely, rational pursuit of truth. From the designing of experiments to the writing up of results, science is conducted by vigorous group discussion and debate, marked by those moments of dazzling illumination and shared recognition that characterise insight in all domains of human endeavour. Advance in any field has always been preceded by a sudden leap of the imagination, which is recognised for its brilliance by the participating group, and galvanises them in their turn into further activity. Here is a kind of intellectual anthropology that can be further explored. Our Western intellectual heritage has been shaped by ingenuity, quick-wittedness, lateral thinking and inspired guesswork, but not haphazardly. In its detail it is guided and given its informing values by a common code of practice, which is simply an extension of the rules that govern our everyday life.4
As ever, those who insist on the separate spheres of art and science claim that the division of arts and sciences is a recent one. Leonardo da Vinci could master the fundamental tenets of ballistics and design a siege-engine for his noble employer as readily as he could handle the colours on his palette to create the enduringly beautiful portrait known as the Mona Lisa. Today no single mind has the range and flexibility to cope with both the cerebral rigours of 'hard' science and the mental agility of the contemporary creative arts. This is, I think, to miss the point. I do not believe that science and art are, or ever have been, two distinct practices; rather, they comprise a range of perennially familiar practices in two largely distinct, but occasionally overlapping spheres.5
The meeting point--the domain of overlap between styles of ingenuity--is technological inventiveness. It is no accident that the words 'ingenious' and 'engineer' derive from the same root (ingenium: mental ability, cleverness, a naturally clever temperament). Within fifty years of Galileo's construction of a working telescope, expert microscopists like Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek had discovered protozoa and human sperm, using the same lens technology, and were developing the biological theories to explain what they saw. Using the same technology, Dutch artists were producing still-life painting of unparalleled and lasting beauty. Technology continues today to provide the vital trigger for pure science--it was Maurice Wilkins' X-ray diffraction photographs that set Crick and Watson off on the right path towards discovering the fundamental structure of DNA, and Rosalind Franklin's even more technically exceptional photographs that clinched their argument.
These are the issues I explore in the present book. By temperament I am a historian, who believes that the clearest answers to our present dilemmas are to be found in the past, I look at the emerging process of science at the key moment of European 'progress'. The changes in intellectual outlook of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries formed the basis for what many consider to be the most important 'event' in Western history--the so-called 'scientific revolution'.6 Its breakthroughs in thought and its advances in science still stand today at the centre of every area of modern life. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, international trade and an increasing demand for consumer 'worldly goods' on the part of the wealthy triggered the European Renaissance in art and learning.7 The intellectual advances of the scientific revolution took place in the context of the broadened horizons of that consumer revolution. Emerging seventeenth-century science matched and furthered the globalising interests that the Renaissance had stimulated.
The early modern world was in a kaleidoscope of flux before the philosopher John Locke redrew the contours of graspable ideas, and the scientist Robert Boyle heated mercury in his crucible, or Galileo Galilei rolled a ball down an inclined plane. In Ingenious Pursuits I explore the forces for change that brought the human and natural sciences together and gave them shape. Each of my selected contributing factors--among them, precise time measurement, enhanced astronomical observation, selective animal and plant breeding, technological advances in navigation, chemical substance analysis, the mathematics of naturally occurring curves--lays a crucial part of the foundations for modern thought and the practice it animates. With each successive layer it becomes easier for the inquiring minds of the next generation to identify the problems on which to focus their attention. The consequences of these key changes surround and envelop them, they shape the world the aspiring mind actively inhabits.
These defining scientific moments were inseparable from the rest of early modern day-to-day life. The key questions whose solution shaped our modern world view arose out of events regarded as remarkable well beyond the confines of any small, select band of intellectual innovators: the appearance of two unusually bright comets in quick succession; a piece of new technology (such as the microscope) becoming available on the open market; a new commodity (such as cocoa or coffee) 'taking off' with discerning consumers; the observed therapeutic effectiveness of a non-indigenous, naturally occurring substance (such as rhubarb or quinine).
It is because science grows out of the preoccupations and pressures of everyday life that its discoveries have, in the end, to be accessible to all of us. Scientific progress ought to be meaningful to the ordinary person in the street because each of us has participated in the way of life that has produced the problems pressing for solution. We may not understand the jargon, or know enough mathematics to follow the equations, but we ought all to be able to understand that the laboratory which has cloned Dolly the sheep has thereby made it possible to mass-produce medical products vital to combat the world's new, virulent diseases.
I begin here with events surrounding the appearance of two comets in 1688-9. In the course of the story of the 'twinned' comets, one meets a whole collection of largely unfamiliar intellectual heroes of the scientific revolution--Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, John Flamsteed, Jonas Moore, Johannes Hevelius, Gian Domenico Cassini--as well as the better-known figures Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren. These smaller, 'local' figures are ingenious pursuers of innovative understanding. Their crowded, motley lives, in which conversation in the coffee-house and vigorous correspondence with like-minded individuals in other countries figured as importantly as strenuous private study and laboratory experiment. They serve as models for successful intellectual engagement in the period. In the following chapters these men crop up repeatedly throughout my story, in the most unexpected locations in Europe, the East Indies and the Americas, pursuing a curiously varied collection of investigative goals, and motivated by a volatile mixture of self-interest, opportunism, curiosity and pure research.
We begin with a collection of technical instruments that became catalysts for scientific advance in the course of the seventeenth century: the microscope, the telescope, the pendulum dock, the balance-spring watch and the air-pump. With the aid of these instruments my ingenious protagonists embarked on strange new quests for understanding the natural world, from the minute detail of the digestive systems of fresh-water shrimps to the regular motions of the farthest visible satellites circling the planets of the solar system. It was in the course of investigations such as these that some justly famous scientific problems--determining longitude at sea, and the functioning of the human vascular and respiratory systems among them--were posed and subsequently solved. Both questions and answers were to large extent instrument- and equipment-driven.
From there we move to mapping, and the scientific disciplines transformed by the extraordinary natural historical discoveries--new plants, animals and minerals--made in North and South America, Africa, India, China and Japan. Here, inevitably, our by now familiar cast of characters operate in an atmosphere tinged with political and military influences, as they pursue astronomical, cartographic, botanical and mineral interests, during unstable political times, in barely colonised territories overseas. Back at home, commercial interests and consumer demands turn out to have had a vital part to play in shaping emerging specialisms as apparently 'pure' as botany and entomology. Meanwhile, such individuals as Hans Sloane and James Petiver, whose considerable personal fortunes were made speculating in new pharmaceuticals like cocoa and quinine, became enthusiastic collectors of rare scientific specimens, channelling their wealth into funding specimen-gathering expeditions, and purchasing the intact collections of other enthusiasts. Such men ultimately became the founding fathers of our public museums, their largely haphazard assemblages shaping such venerable institutions as London's British Museum.
The process of transmission of the new science was, furthermore, part and parcel of a general explosion in written and printed communication of the same period, which influenced its nature, and determined some of the future directions of its development. A central part of the activities of the London Royal Society, for example, was the exchanges of letters between the Society's official Secretary and scientific enthusiasts all over Europe. This was the age in which ordinary people assembled sizeable personal libraries; it was also during this period that a number of these were lost in the Great Fire of London.
Finally, I return to the colourful tale of Francis Crick and James Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA--the deep structure of genetics--as told by Watson himself in 1968, in his best-selling book, The Double Helix. It was this breakthrough in March 1953 that opened the way to the fundamental advances in understanding of inherited human characteristics currently informing the human genome project, and which led to the genetic engineering which produced Dolly the sheep forty-five years later. That story, I suggest, is uncannily like those that unfolded in the seventeenth century. For the practice of science has been one and the same throughout its history--a story of chance, creative misunderstanding, wrong turnings, sudden opportunities taken, succumbing to sponsorship, and the inspired ingenuity of individual men and women.
1. L Wilmut et al, 'Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells', Nature, 385 (1997), 810-13.
2. N. Rosenthal and S. Fraquelli (eds), Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (London: Royal Academy of Arts in association with Thames and Hudson, 1997).
3. Bronowski, Science and Human Values.
4. On the anthropology of science, see Latour, Laboratory Life.
5. For the opposed view that science is a distinct practice, utterly unlike 'art' or even 'common sense', see Dawkins and Wolpert.
6. See, however, the wonderful opening sentence of Steve Shapin's recent book, The Scientific Revolution: 'There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.'
7. Jardine, Worldly Goods.
|List of Illustrations||ix|
|1||Signs of the Times||11|
|4||Running Like Clockwork||133|
|5||Breaking New Ground||177|
|7||Examining the Evidence||273|
|8||Committed to Paper||313|
|Cast of Characters||366|