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


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University of Chicago Press
Publish Date
6.6 X 1.38 X 9.3 inches | 1.75 pounds
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About 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, the 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.


"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."

--Barry Werth, author of The Billion-Dollar Molecule

"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."

--Daniel S. Greenberg, author of Science for Sale

"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!"

--Paul Rabinow, author of French DNA
"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."--David Edgerton, author of The Shock of the Old
Shapin 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.--David Edgerton, author of The Shock of the Old "Library Journal Best of 2008 Sci-Tech Books"
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.--Thomas F. Gieryn "Science"
A stunning antidote to the naive portraits of how science is or should be done.--Thomas F. Gieryn "Choice"
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 "London 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 "New York Review of Books"
An evocative look at both the history of sociology of science and of lives in science.--Sally Gregory Kohlstedt "Journal of American History"