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The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation Hardcover – October 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews


“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."
(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."

"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)

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226750248
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226750248
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,426,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful By JohnVidale on December 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From reading the review in Science magazine Nov 21st, and considering of interest the topics of whether scientists are morally exemplary and comparing scientist at universities and in industry, I bought the book.

One theme of the book is that scientists used to be revered before they were so numerous and well-paid. The ideal of the early and mid-20th century of the creative scientist who chaffed when asked to do applied research is laid out in excruciating detail. While not a quantitative survey, dozens of books, social scientists, and specific universities are identified as contributing to this consensus.

Now scientists are only considered the moral equivalents of other professions. The author considers some scientists working in industry as opposed to in academia, however, have recaptured the elan and are highly admirable once again.

I'm still only midway through, (and will update this review if I survive until the end), but consider it only fair to post a heavy-reading warning. On p. 18, Shapin says "It is almost certain that this book's main readers will be ... historians and social scientists". It is indeed written in academic prose. No one at my dinner table could define quotidian (commonplace or routine), but by p. 25 that word had recurred eight times. Metonomy and trope also sent me to the dictionary to be met by jargon-laden definitions. The paragraphs generally fill an entire page.

I was skeptical of the author's theses, but find them depressingly (for a scientist like me) convincing. This is an important and well-thought-out book, thoroughly documented in a social science sort of way. It is peppered with lively quotes to benchmark intellectual positions in history, but don't take it to the beach for a light read.
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15 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Randolph Crawford on June 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This should have been an fascinating important book. The life of a scientist is like an artist's: a high price must be paid to follow the muse. Too little has been written on the personal cost/benefit of choosing a scientific life or the impact on society of too many not doing so. In these times of accelerating technology-driven change, the future of any nation must be closely tied to its production and nurture of scientists. Unfortunately I can't recommend this book as a guide to that realm.

Shapin's prose is detached, academic, humorless. I had to wonder, who was his intended audience? Apparently it's scholars; only they could care for a book this dispassionate. Its cold lifeless voice rewards the reader with no highs or lows, just the unending march of disengaged disembodied fact, fact, fact. To describe the book as being dull as ditch water would be fair hypoberle (neologism intended).

Frankly I blame the publisher more than the author. No doubt there's a place for material like this, e.g. a university library. But this tome should never have found its way into a neighborhood bookstore to endanger mere mortals like me.

Shapin could learn from an author like Dan Dennett who also writes for academic advancement, but at least tries to engage the reader en route.
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