The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

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Who are scientists? What kind of people are they? What capacities and virtues are thought to stand behind their considerable authority? The Scientific Life is historian Steven Shapin's story about who scientists are, who we think they are, and why our sensibilities about such things matter. From the early twentieth-century origins of corporate research laboratories to the high-flying scientific entrepreneurship of the present. Shapin argues that the radical uncertainties of much contemporary science have made personal virtues more central to its practice than ever before, and he also reveals how radically novel aspects of late modern science have unexpectedly deep historical roots. His elegantly conceived history of the scientific career and character ultimately encourages us to reconsider the very nature of the technical and moral worlds in which we now live.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Shapin (history of science, Harvard Univ.; The Scientific Revolution) here examines science as a vocation. The practice of science, once a calling from God or, perhaps, a mere amateur's hobby, has come into its own as a profession, particularly following World War II. Shapin's sociological history documents this vocational evolution as he raises the following questions: How does the practice and authority of science relate to the virtues of its practitioners? Is academic science superior to the commercialization of science? How does industry compete for the best minds in science? Can the practice of scientific research be organized, team driven, and accountable to investors? Shapin addresses all these questions without weighing in with his personal opinions on the topic. The result is a thought-provoking challenge to the assumptions of scientific objectivity by science's practitioners and an acknowledgment of just how important the morality of scientists may be in the advancement and authority of knowledge. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.
—Scott Vieira

The Scientific Life provokes us to discard worn-out understandings
— Thomas F. Gieryn
"A stunning antidote to the naive portraits of how science is or should be done."

"The pockets of science that are unaffected by commerce, or by the state, are steadily shrinking. To ignore this would be to deny the realities of today's science. After this book, that cannot happen again. The Scientific Life should therefore be required reading for all scientists and those studying the social activity of science.. . . . Shapin's study is neither a sources-based history of the past nor an empirical social science analysis of the present. It is instead an extended insightful essay. This genre enriches public debate."

— Jerome Ravetz

London Review of Books
Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues. . . . Shapin tells this story exceedingly well, framing its episodes richly and developing them through vivid depictions of representative figures, texts, incidents and anecdotes.

— Barbara Herrnstein Smith

New York Review of Books
Remarkably rich in detail and revelation. . . . Shapin may not be doing a conventional history of the 'scientific life,' but what he has done is both novel and provocative.

— H. Allen Orr

Journal of American History
An evocative look at both the history of sociology of science and of lives in science.

— Sally Gregory Kohlstedt

Barry Werth
“In The Scientific Life, Steven Shapin writes masterfully about the evolution of what he calls ‘the world of making the worlds to come.’ Broadly historic, yet deftly nuanced, Shapin constructs a journey that begins with the lone investigators and solitary altruists of lore, through the mutually disdainful academic purists and Organization Men of the mid-twentieth century, to today’s technoscientific movers and shakers, who roam an ambiguous moral cosmos of university classrooms, high-tech boardrooms, research hospitals, and Wall Street. He illuminates at each step along the way how men and women of science, who more than any other vocation present us with flashes of the future, have come to regard their pursuits, their times, and, most intriguingly, themselves. I greatly admire the learnedness and dexterity with which Shapin has pulled this off. A forceful, revealing, vital work.”
Daniel S. Greenberg
“Shapin’s The Scientific Life glitters with deep knowledge of the realities of contemporary science as practiced in academe, industry, and government. Lucidly written, it upsets much conventional thinking about the ways and workings of science. It is a terrific book, a welcome addition to a crowded genre, and adds greatly to Shapin’s formidable reputation as a leading historian of science.”
Paul Rabinow
“Shapin is at his most insightfully mature in this magisterial book. He leads us through a century long tour of the changing figure of the scientist in a remarkably clear and deeply learned manner. The result adroitly bypasses innumerable sterile debates by showing through scholarship and thoughtfulness the place of the scientists in the ‘way we live now.’ A tour de force!”
David Edgerton
“In this brilliant book Shapin takes us from celebration and criticism to description and understanding of one of the most important phenomena of the twentieth century—the creation of technical novelties. Richly paradoxical and entertaining, The Scientific Life contrasts the evidence-free moralizing of the cultural critics and early sociologists of science with the often insightful analyses of the despised industrial researchers. He shows that when adequately described the worlds of technoscientific research and venture capital are not the soulless, routinized, bureaucratic antithesis of the academic ideal, but ones where the necessary uncertainties of innovation are dealt with using face-time, trust, charisma, and even proverbs, things our narratives mistakenly consign to a pre-modern era. This is a book where the doers get their due and the contemplators their comeuppance; where the quotidian is richer than the transcendent.”
Science - Thomas F. Gieryn
"The Scientific Life provokes us to discard worn-out understandings that science outside universities is necessarily aberrant and that the credibility of scientific knowledge no longer depends upon moral judgments about the experts who make reality claims. In that task, the book succeeds masterfully."
London Review of Books - Barbara Herrnstein Smith
"Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues. . . . Shapin tells this story exceedingly well, framing its episodes richly and developing them through vivid depictions of representative figures, texts, incidents and anecdotes."
New York Review of Books - H. Allen Orr
"Remarkably rich in detail and revelation. . . . Shapin may not be doing a conventional history of the 'scientific life,' but what he has done is both novel and provocative."
Journal of American History - Sally Gregory Kohlstedt
"An evocative look at both the history of sociology of science and of lives in science."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226750255
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 486
  • Sales rank: 1,450,013
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Shapin is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of A Social History of Truth and The Scientific Revolution, and with Simon Schaffer, coauthor of Leviathan and the Air-Pump. He has also written for the New Yorker and is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Knowledge and Virtue
The Way We Live Now
2 From Calling to Job
Nature, Truth, Method, and Vocation from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries
3 The Moral Equivalence of the Scientist
A History of the Very Idea
4 Who Is the Industrial Scientist?
The View from the Tower
5 Who Is the Industrial Scientist?
The View from the Managers
6 The Scientist and the Civic Virtues
The Moral Life of Organized Science
7 The Scientific Entrepreneur
Money, Motives, and the Place of Virtue
8 Visions of the Future
Uncertainty and Virtue in the World of High-Tech and Venture Capital
The Way We Live Now

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