"Tall Tales and Short Stories: Narrating the History of Science."
Keynote Lecture for the BSHS, CSHPS, and HSS Joint Meeting,
St. Louis, 3 August 2000.
To talk about the cultural relations of science in this international setting, it seemed to me I could do no better than invoke the aid of W. H. Auden, a poet with a significant interest in the sciences and a genuinely transatlantic outlook. Let me start by reading a poem of Auden’s that ought perhaps to be better known in our discipline; it is called "The History of Science":
All fables of adventure stress
The need for courtesy and kindness:
Without the Helpers none can win
The flaxen-haired Princess.
They look the ones in need of aid,
Yet, thanks to them, the gentle-hearted
Third Brother beds the woken Queen,
While seniors who made
Cantankerous replies to crones
And dogs who begged to share their rations,
Must expiate their pride as daws
Or wind-swept bachelor stones.
Few of a sequel, though, have heard:
Uneasy pedagogues have censored
All written references to a brother
Younger than the Third.
Soft-spoken as New Moon this Fourth,
A Sun of gifts to all he met with,
But when advised ‘Go South a while!’,
Smiled ‘Thank You!’ and turned North,
Trusting some map in his own head,
So never reached the goal intended
(His map, of course, was out) but blundered
On a wonderful instead,
A tower not circular but square,
A treasure not of gold but silver:
He kissed a shorter Sleeper’s hand
And stroked her raven hair.
Dare sound Authority confess
That one can err his way to riches,
Win glory by mistake, his dear
Through sheer wrong-headedness?
Perhaps the reason the poem has not been much discussed in our field is obvious enough: it doesn’t seem to be about the history of science, but rather about love, or moral character, or how people find their ways through their lives. Even if we acknowledge Auden’s title, we might at first be inclined to reject the allusion. Haven’t we got beyond the notion that the history of science is a heroic romance, a "fable of adventure"? Aren’t we a bit embarrassed today by the suggestion that our discipline should tell tales in which heroes survive perilous ordeals to wake the sleeping princess of scientific truth? William Clark has brilliantly deconstructed historical works that take the form of epic romances, such as Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. In these stories, superhuman heroes surmount obstacles, solve riddles, and pursue their quests in a social vacuum, unsullied by contact with the mundane realities of work or money. Sharon Traweek has identified the part played by such "male tales" in socializing new recruits to the masculine domain of scientific research, giving them mythical heroes on which they can model their lives. History, we would surely say, has to keep its distance from such self-serving mythology. We want our stories to be more ironic than these, richer in their depiction of context, less "whiggish."
But isn’t that also what Auden was proposing? The "sequel," censored by the "uneasy pedagogues," is a counter-myth of perverse idiosyncrasy and willful rebellion, where the end is not the predicted goal but a "wonderful instead." A story of this kind will inevitably be found unsettling by "sound Authority," not just because the fourth brother’s methods were unorthodox but because his accomplishment was entirely unexpected. A history that told his story would subvert pedagogical authority by calling into question the methodological rules of the elders and even their beliefs about the truth inquiry has revealed. We can read Auden as pointing out this subversive potential of the history of science, its capacity to unsettle assumed certainties by telling stories in which the past does not lead uniformly to the present. This was the point made by Thomas Kuhn at the opening of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he announced that history, if it were only taken seriously, had the capacity to transform existing assumptions about the character of scientific knowledge. Auden’s companion-poem, "The History of Truth," confirms this reading: there, he sketches how the confidence of the ancients that "The Truth was there already to be true" has vanished in our contemporary age when, "practical like paper-dishes, / Truth is convertible to kilowatts." The unfolding of history, he suggests, has embraced truth within its grasp; one can no longer have faith in it as something entirely outside human life.
Auden’s poem points, I suggest, to the fundamental crux of a subject called "the history of science," namely the realization that truths of nature have their own historicity. If we had ever forgotten the disturbing implications of this, the unfolding of the "science wars" in the 1990s surely brought them home. Auden indicates how these implications might be understood in terms of the narratives about science that surround us. In the course of the recent quarrels, it emerged that "sound Authority" and "Uneasy pedagogues" were not at all happy about having their heroic myths deconstructed. Whatever other issues (philosophical, political, and moral) were at stake in these sometimes heated debates, they unwound in the shadow of an anxious nostalgia for the good old stories that were no longer being told.
The "science wars" have been analyzed at length, from a variety of positions, and I don’t intend to add to that commentary today. Nor am I going to discuss the problems confronting our discipline in the context of specific academic institutions. Instead, taking my lead from Auden, I want to consider the stories we are telling about science in relation to some of those that are circulating in our culture at large. My point will be that there is significant overlap between the narratives of professional historians and those composed by scientists themselves, by dramatists, journalists, novelists, and others. Instead of seeing this as a threat to professional integrity, I suggest we regard the exchange of narrative forms and themes as a source of potentially enriching resources for our discipline and as a pointer to opportunities for scholarly work to reach audiences outside the academic community. Even an informal conspectus—which is all I shall be offering here—on the stories about science in which we are immersed can suggest more optimistic conclusions than those we might otherwise derive from the recent intemperate disputes. I think we have every reason to be hopeful about the prospects for historical studies of the sciences, provided we keep an open mind about how to meet the expectations of our prospective audiences.
Narrative is a fundamental element of historians’ work, but historical narratives are not a professional monopoly. Whenever we articulate the meaning of the past in relation to the present, we do so through the vehicle of historical narrative. Telling and following stories about the past is the way in which humans understand their experience of time as something more than simple "seriality"—the proverbial "one damned thing after another." From this point of view, narrative is not an option for historians; it is not a stylistic choice, or a dispensable element of historical writing, or something that can be replaced by analysis or exposition or quantitative data. We are always embedded in narrative, whether we recognize it or not, and whatever choices we make of methods or styles. Whether we relate episodes or depict scenes, whether we shape our accounts as tragedies or comedies, whatever metaphors we use to specify causation or to bring to bear the testimony of evidence, even if we strive for the objectivity promised by quantitative history, we are involved in the making of narrative insofar as we strive to give the temporal succession of events a meaningful form. Historians’ narrative responsibility can be discharged in a variety of stylistic modes, as Hayden White showed for the great nineteenth-century writers in his monumental Metahistory. Other scholars, including Hans Kellner and Dominick LaCapra, have explored how historical narrative emerged from—yet remains engaged with—other forms of discourse. Jacques Le Goff and Walter Ong have discussed how the narrative forms of written history contrast with those characteristic of oral cultures, while nonetheless preserving vestiges of the arts of memory. Michel de Certeau has related this to the confrontations between literate and non-literate cultures created by European expansion into the New World. Michael McKeon and others have teased out connections between the narratives that gave historical self-understanding to European societies in their era of expansion and those aimed at private readers, especially the novel.
Because historical narratives are embedded in so many domains of culture and experience, they can be highly politicized when the self-understanding of nations is at stake. In the United States, arguments about how national history is being written and read have erupted periodically in recent years, sometimes unsettling the professional historians who have found themselves drawn into public disputes. Some commentators have seen, on the one hand, the works of postmodern philosophers and literary critics, and, on the other, the demands of women and ethnic minorities for their own historical voices, as converging assaults on traditional national histories. Robert F. Berkhofer, for example, in Beyond the Great Story, describes how "multiculturalism and postmodernism repudiated the unified and usually omniscient viewpoint of traditional history-telling." Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob situate their essay in historiographical reappraisal, Telling the Truth About History, in relation to a similar convergence of postmodern theory and American multiculturalism.
Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob also weave an account of the history of science into their general picture, arguing that changing images of science have an important bearing on models of historical method and concepts of modernity. They suggest how central the "great story" of the history of science has been to the historical consciousness of Western culture since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when histories were first written that recounted the development of scientific knowledge as part of a wider vision of cultural and social progress. In these narratives, readers were encouraged to see the history of science as a drama in which they were both audience and participants. Joseph Priestley told his readers about the "sublime" spectacle presented by the history of natural philosophy, a saga more morally uplifting than the confused and contingent one of human ("civil") history. Edward Gibbon exempted the rise of knowledge and the practical arts from his generally sardonic conclusions about the decline of the Roman Empire. In the early nineteenth century, William Whewell introduced his History of the Inductive Sciences with the remark that, "In our history, it is the progress of knowledge only which we have to attend to. This is the main action of our drama." The triumphant spectacle survived Darwin’s challenge to teleological thinking, emerging at the end of the nineteenth century still enthroned in the social and human sciences in which evolution meant progress. W. E. H. Lecky, for example, set the development of scientific ideas within a narrative framework of progressive secularization, claiming, "As men advance from an imperfect to a higher civilisation, … they sooner or later reduce all their opinions into conformity with the moral and intellectual standards which the new civilisation produces."
In the twentieth century, such confident statements of the centrality of scientific advance to the progress of society and culture have become rarer. Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob give part of the reason for this, which I do not need to reiterate for this audience: the rise of new views of science, as heterogeneous and discontinuous in its development, as a social and cultural product rather than a force from outside history. The challenge from feminism and multiculturalism has been felt also in relation to the "great story" of the history of science. Not that expectations of scientific and technological progress have disappeared, but they have been largely detached from comprehensive historical visions. In the last decade of the century, at least in the United States, we have been awash in technical and scientific boosterism; but the prophecies of the "information age" or the "new world order" have not been anchored in any deep understanding of history. Contemporary narratives of globalization and technological revolution do not depend on any detailed account of the past, which is generally collapsed into a homogeneous prelude to the present, which in turn is merely a springboard for a wholly different and far more exciting future. The message that we are living in a time of revolutionary change, reinforced as it is by many powerful voices, licenses—even encourages—a neglect of history. Ironically, one of the lessons of recent historical studies of science, the notion that revolutionary breaks have fractured the continuum of history, has been applied to justify turning away from a past now seen as irrelevant to future progress. Francis Fukuyama’s prophecy of "the end of history" in the early 1990s was rightly ridiculed by historians, but the suspicion remains that it is the historians’ history that has ended, at least as regards its perceived bearing upon many people’s present lives and future expectations.
Let me draw back from this apocalyptic conclusion, which does not in fact represent the picture as I see it. Notwithstanding the evidence of indifference to history, manifested among other things in declining numbers of students studying history at college, some scholars have argued that historical consciousness is nonetheless abundant and flourishing outside the academic world, in forms such as heritage sites, living museums, restored buildings, and even battle reenactments. Raphael Samuel and David Lowenthal, among others, have argued that these phenomena demonstrate a pervasive historical consciousness that shows no signs of dying out, and may in fact be a reaction to people’s experience of being torn from the past by rapid social change. They suggest that professional historians would do well to study such developments sympathetically rather than scorning them. My proposal is that historians of science, similarly, can find expressions of a historical consciousness concerning science in our culture at large that are worthy of study and perhaps of emulation. Complex and engaging narratives of the development of science are to be found in a variety of places outside the works of professional historians. They provide a counterweight to the historical indifference of the futurists; and they suggest possibilities for cultivating more sophisticated attitudes to the past and its bearing on the present. If the classical "great story" of the history of science has come to look like an implausibly "tall tale," then we can nonetheless find ways to tell "short stories" that will convey our claims about the importance of history and its contemporary pertinence.
For one thing, we might reconsider how historians’ accounts relate to scientific practitioners’ own histories of their fields. As Joseph Rouse has put it, "Scientists are situated differently from the historian because they see themselves as agents within an unfolding story," a story oriented toward the present and the fulfillment of current projects in the near future. The two perspectives are unlikely to be identical, but the tensions between them might inspire productive communication rather than hostility. Some scientists recount the history of their disciplines to locate themselves in a continuous relationship to the past, presenting themselves as the outcome of a teleological process; but others see themselves as resuscitating a line of development that has been submerged by the dominant tradition. The latter group is more likely to harbor a view of history as contingent and discontinuous, rather than one in which the past leads smoothly into the present. In his provocative series of interviews, The End of Science, the journalist John Horgan found several prominent contemporary scientists who exemplified an ironic or "postmodern" attitude to the history and prospects of their fields. An awareness of the complexities and discontinuities of history made them hesitant to predict the future, reluctant to prophesy the emergence of a single final truth, and conscious that—in the long term—present ideas would pass away. Horgan named this sophisticated historical consciousness, "the anxiety of scientific influence," tying it to other aspects of the intellectual culture of our fin-de-siècle. Taking a slightly different approach, the contributors to the most recent volume of Osiris have shown how occasions of commemoration among scientists mobilize a wide variety of historical narratives. They suggest that the historical consciousness of scientific communities and institutions is more complex than historians of science have often assumed. Commemorative practices may propose quite subtle relations between a version of the past and a wished-for or resisted present; they may explore the roots of scientific achievements in political and social conditions; they may employ irony, humor, and other literary techniques to memorialize predecessors. Historians can use such occasions for reflection on their own social role, even as they participate in them to find audiences for their narratives.
Let me suggest other places we can look for the same purpose. Consider two recent dramatizations of the history of science, both of them probably familiar to many of you. John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet, which the author calls a "scientific speculation," is a fictional conversation about artificial intelligence by a group of real historical individuals. Casti’s credentials as a postmodern scientist must be as good as anyone’s; he has worked as a mathematician on chaos theory and complexity and as a scientific popularizer, and is based at the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical University of Vienna. The Cambridge Quintet assembles a cast of five historical figures—Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. B. S. Haldane, Erwin Shrödinger, and C. P. Snow—and follows their conversation in the course of a lavish dinner at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the late 1940s. The occasion is fictional, but the author has tried to represent the recorded views of the participants on the subject at hand and to predict how a discussion between them would have unfolded. He takes certain liberties, for example putting John Searle’s "Chinese room" argument in Wittgenstein’s mouth, and Noam Chomsky’s ideas of language acquisition in Turing’s. But the book works well as a didactic tool and it suggests historical reflections also. The effect of setting the discussion in 1949 is to bracket historically the dreams of machines that would think like human beings. Fantasies of computer intelligence come to seem historically dated, as we reflect on their failure to rise to expectations in the intervening half century. The book reminds us that nothing dates faster than predictions of the future. Casti’s "scientific speculation" is also a work of historical resonance. It prompts us to reflect on the asymmetry between always unsure predictions of the future and the greater degree of certainty attainable by historical retrospection. It shines the light of history on current aspirations for the future, suggesting they will shade into the past as characteristics of our present situation. It is a lesson that might be learned with profit by today’s technological enthusiasts.
Casti’s work is a philosophical dialogue rather than a drama; it covers its subject systematically rather than moving toward a climax. More complex historical messages can be conveyed by genuine drama, such as Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, performed to considerable acclaim in London and now the winner of three Tony Awards in New York. The subject of Frayn’s work is the incident of Werner Heisenberg’s visit to Niels Bohr in German-occupied Denmark in 1941. Rather than presenting a single version of the event, the drama explores various possibilities for what happened and what Heisenberg’s motivations were for paying a call on Bohr, once his mentor but now on the opposite side in the war. Three characters, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, discuss various possible scenarios for the episode in a vaguely delineated setting after their earthly lives have ended. Frayn uses Heisenberg’s own "uncertainty principle" as a metaphor for the obscurities surrounding this enigmatic event and what it might reveal about Heisenberg’s role in the atomic weapons project in Nazi Germany. Notwithstanding the artful staging, paralleling the motions of the actors to those of subatomic particles, the play is not primarily about the uncertainties of scientific knowledge but about those concerning history. The metaphors from physics function to draw attention to the difficulties of historical interpretation, to the elusiveness of certainty concerning events and individuals’ motives.
It is this dimension of the play that has given rise to controversy. The dynamic of the action derives from the multiple interpretive possibilities, the widely differing accounts given of what Heisenberg was up to. Was he, as he himself claimed after the war, seeking moral advice from Bohr as to whether scientists should work on atomic weapons? Was he actually working toward a German bomb and probing Bohr for information about the Allies’ work along the same lines? Was he hoping to get Bohr to agree to persuade the Allies to halt work on their project, so that the Germans would not feel obliged to go ahead? Or did neither man think a bomb was possible because of technical misunderstandings of what was required, particularly the critical mass of fissile material that would be needed? Frayn’s characters work through all of these options and more, and, though the narrative drift of the play leads to some scenarios being superseded by others, none is decisively settled upon.
Historians’ responses to the play have expressed admiration for its ingenuity but some doubts about its accuracy in relation to the historical record. David C. Cassidy and Paul Lawrence Rose have both written about how the play stands in the light of their own scholarship on Heisenberg and the German bomb project. Neither is inclined to give very much credence to what seem like self-serving postwar explanations by Heisenberg; neither accepts that there is any evidence that he was seriously troubled by moral concerns about possible atomic weapons in 1941. It is thought more likely that Heisenberg was trying to extract information from Bohr about Allied bomb research, and perhaps that he thought he could persuade the Dane to try to call a halt to it. Heisenberg’s suggestion that German and Allied projects could be equated in their moral standing, together with his grossly insensitive remarks about German military successes in Europe, seem to have led Bohr to break off the conversation abruptly and not to have wanted to talk about it after the war.
Nonetheless, the historians have to admit that much about the episode and its meaning remains uncertain. Cassidy used the word Uncertainty as the title of his own biography of Heisenberg, and among the issues that remain unclear to him is exactly what the German physicist thought the prospects of atomic weapons were in 1941. On the one hand, some attempts to calculate the required critical mass of the uranium-235 isotope suggested a bomb would require an impossibly large quantity of fissile material. On the other hand, the prospect was also opening up at this time that a working reactor might produce a sufficient quantity of plutonium to fuel a bomb. Rose asserts that one reason for Heisenberg’s going to talk to Bohr was to have the Danish physicist confirm, "that the critical mass of uranium 235 required for a true atomic bomb would be on the order of tons, thus ruling out any possibility of its being built." Heisenberg had made this erroneous calculation, Rose claims, in 1940, and his belief that it was correct had a significant influence in dissuading the Germans from investing resources in the bomb project. Rose’s own reconstruction of events, however, in which the purported erroneous calculation assumes a critical role in halting German efforts toward building atomic weapons, has not won universal acceptance among other specialists. Cathryn Carson, in a review of Rose’s book Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project in Isis, concluded that, "In the end it is not clear what the real story is, except that it is more ambiguous than Rose suggests." This sounds like an endorsement of the general claims of Frayn’s drama.
It is easy, of course, for scholars to say that Frayn’s play should have contained more detailed treatment of certain matters, like the critical mass calculations, or should have presented the episode of the Copenhagen visit in a broader historical context. These are things that can be done in scholarly writing more readily than in drama. On the other hand, it does not seem to me that Frayn has falsified the degree of uncertainty that can plausibly be said still to surround the 1941 event, at least not if one considers the range of different interpretations advanced by different historians. Some scholars have been inclined to marshal the evidence to support one particular account, but a drama works by representing different points of view, and placing them in some degree of tension. Rose, in particular, sometimes seems to ignore Copenhagen’s status as a drama. He attributes assertions to Frayn himself that are actually voiced by one or other of his characters, and are subsequently contradicted by other statements. He ends his review of the play with a quite unjustified comparison to David Irving’s works of Holocaust denial. "Copenhagen is more destructive than Irving’s self-evidently ridiculous assertions," Rose claims. This kind of overwrought reaction makes the historian sound like a seventeenth-century Puritan, attacking the theaters for creating uncertainties in the minds of their audiences, as if the most dangerous propaganda was that which creates doubt.
Rose frames his critique with a denunciation of what he characterizes as the play’s fashionable "postmodernism" and its relativism about historical truth. This seems like a way to bring the play into connection with arguments about history, but it evades the issues about its status as a work of dramatic fiction. To say that historical interpretation is fraught with uncertainties, that sure knowledge of motivations or even events is liable to elude us, does not seem to me wrong in principle. It might, on the contrary, be a path to a kind of moral education in certain circumstances. Whether the lesson is an appropriate one to draw from this incident seems to me a question the play leaves to its audience to determine. The closing dialogue raises questions about the deadly consequences of Bohr’s role in the Los Alamos project, after he escaped from Denmark. Rose sees this as Heisenberg achieving what he calls a "spurious absolution." For Rose, Heisenberg has been weighed against Bohr in the scales of moral judgment, and this is far too generous an appraisal for a man who was irredeemably tainted by his compromises with the Nazi regime. But, the dialogue actually has Bohr himself voicing the doubts about his own role, in comparison with Heisenberg’s, and being reassured by Heisenberg and especially by Margrethe that he had done nothing wrong. It is Bohr, in other words, who is represented as a man of scrupulous conscience, and the moral comparison with Heisenberg can be read as strongly in his favor—exactly the evaluation Rose endorses.
Michael Frayn has given us one of the most engaging and challenging narratives of the history of science in recent years. Copenhagen is problematic and important because of its willingness to cross the line between the genres of fiction and history. It is a play (as one feels inclined to emphasize when reading some of the scholarly critiques) but it isn’t just a play (because its historical reference is so direct, even though it is not realist in style and its setting is unspecified in time and place). Precisely because it is a fiction, it can explore the issues of morality and interpretation with a freedom usually denied to historians; it can even use scientific metaphors such as "uncertainty" to provide a vocabulary for the debate. The characters nonetheless correspond to real people, and the drama deals with episodes of great and lasting significance in modern history. Because of this, questions of its faithfulness to historical evidence are pertinent, even if such evidence cannot be used in drama in the way it would be in scholarly writing. A dramatic representation of a historical figure like Heisenberg can legitimately be measured against the testimony of other sources. The decision to raise issues of the uncertainties of historical knowledge is a weighty one when it impinges on the appraisal of a controversial historical figure. But, since the denouement of the play does not present a conventional resolution of dramatic tension, but rather a further reiteration of unresolved possibilities, it would be wrong to insist that only one judgment is being rendered. The value of the work lies in the tensions between its status as a product of creative imagination and the philosophical and moral claims that it makes in relation to historical reality. It is not possible to exclude either dramatic or historical dimensions from an analysis; each cuts across the other. To extend the metaphors from physics still further, one might say that the fictional and historical aspects of the work are "complementary" variables, not specifiable independently of one another. The uncertainty they generate is the measure of the productivity of what Clifford Geertz called "blurred genres"—not, that is to say, the elimination of distinctions between history and creative fiction but the bleeding of elements of style and content across the boundary between them.
The particle that spectacularly evades precise measurement of its position and momentum is, of course, Heisenberg himself. At least within the play, he remains a genuine conundrum. In his postscript to the text, however, Frayn allows himself at least a probabilistic specification of his subject’s motives: "In my view it’s more likely that he had kept the knowledge of how fast the reaction would go in pure [uranium] 235, and therefore of how little of it would be needed, not to himself but from himself." The suggestion is that historical circumstances bore deeply upon Heisenberg’s psychology—that he deceived himself as much as he deceived his Nazi superiors. Frayn apparently realizes that his play was not the vehicle to substantiate such a claim. It is, rather, the kind of assertion that might be advanced within the genre of biography, and it would not be an outlandish claim for a biographer to make, though there might not be conclusive evidence for it in this particular case. Biography adheres to its own set of generic constraints; it requires adherence to an evidential basis, but it also provides scope for—indeed demands—the deployment of a range of literary techniques. Because the narrative form of biography is so widely recognized and so deeply entrenched, it offers opportunities to convey the results of historical scholarship to a broad readership. It seems likely to remain one of the most important kinds of stories we tell about the sciences.
The problem of scientific biography is to find ways to represent the bearing of an individual’s circumstances on his or her intellectual work. Classically, as Steven Shapin has shown, biographical accounts of intellectuals stressed their mental existence as something apart from a bodily or social life. Indeed, a long literary tradition told the stories of thinkers in terms of their detachment from the claims of the body (through asceticism and suppression of the passions) and detachment from society (through withdrawal to private places of contemplation). To narrate the life of a scientist as it was lived in a particular body and in specific social circumstances is to reverse this tradition; it is to write of the bodily and social life in the mind—a narrative choice that carries a significant moral charge. Jeremy Bernstein, responding to Andrew Hodges’ magnificent biography of Alan Turing, wrote that his response to learning about the intimate life of a scientist was "a feeling of distaste," "a sense of betrayal," as if a "trade secret" had been exposed. Recent biographers have nonetheless courted this kind of reaction. As Adam Phillips has noted, in his suggestive recent volume on "life stories and death stories," Darwin’s Worms, "for both [Darwin and Freud] a life is synonymous with a body"—and this is surely no less true for those who live and write in their wake.
Darwin’s recent biographers have shown as much awareness of this as their subject himself. Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s acclaimed Darwin was most striking in its depiction of its subject as a social and embodied being. Darwin’s scientific studies and theories unfold against a background of social conflict, and they are reflected in the torments of a body wracked by persistent illness. It seems that the social tensions of the time are refracted through Darwin’s physical suffering. Readers of the biography will recall the characteristic scenes: Darwin feverishly scribbles about materialism as England descends into economic depression in 1838. The 1848 European revolutions coincide with a particularly bad bout of sickness as Darwin’s radical theory of evolution takes shape. The familiar vomiting and headaches return again as Darwin faces a critical reaction to publication of The Origin of Species. As reviewers have noted, the literary technique used here is a kind of cinematic montage: the narrative cuts rapidly from a scene in Darwin’s study, say, to conflict in the streets, of from Darwin’s theorizing to his wretched state of health. At one point, one can almost track the camera movement, as the attention passes from soldiers marching up Gower Street to the Darwin family preparing indoors for their imminent move out of the house. The cinematic technique is vivid and appealing to contemporary readers, but some critics have felt that it stands in the place of necessary argument about the historical connections being suggested. To what degree are the authors proposing that Darwin’s illness reflected external pressures upon him; and to what degree were those pressures associated with the social implications of his ideas? To borrow from the methods of the filmmaker to address these issues could well be justified, but it calls for some justification. Darwin himself mused, "I find the noddle & the stomach are antagonistic powers … What thought has to do with digesting roast beef, —I cannot say." It seems that Desmond and Moore can say, but they choose not to, offering no arguments for the causal relations they suggest by juxtaposition.
The case of Hodges’ biography of Turing is different, in at least two ways. First, reaction has been more polarized because the theme of embodiment is developed in connection with sex, specifically Turing’s unashamed homosexuality. Bernstein’s reaction was a strongly negative one; he charged Hodges with transgressing the limits of "what we should know, or need to know, about Alan Turing." The references to the subject’s sexuality were, he insisted, "both gratuitous and demeaning." Second, however, the relevance of the story of the body to the story of the mind is argued through in a much more satisfying way in Hodges’ book, and the author succeeds in establishing that the theme is a central one to achieving any proper understanding of Turing’s life and work. This is not just because Turing’s life ended in an apparent suicide after a shameful prosecution and compulsory hormone treatment for his homosexuality. That rough-hewed end shaped the whole biographical retrospective on his life. Understandably, Hugh Whitemore made the incident the central one in his play, Breaking the Code, which was based on Hodges’ book. But Hodges also shows how consistently the topic of relations between mind and body was present in Turing’s life and thought, from his invention of the "Turing machine" in the 1930s to his work on electronic computers in Manchester in the 1950s. Turing’s work moved from design of a model idealized machine to the building of an actual physical device. The biography, divided into two parts, "The Logical" and "The Physical," parallels this motion with the narrative of Turing’s maturation as an intellectual and physical being. In his early years, he is shown trying to free himself from the trammels of the body and the restrictive social environment in which he was enmeshed. He explores the ideal domain of pure mathematics and speculates about the possibility of spiritual immortality; he takes up running—the Cambridge mathematician’s traditional means of taming the body’s insurgent demands on the mind. Later in his life, however, Turing appears more comfortable in his sexuality and more reconciled to the material world in which his mathematical ideas will find physical embodiment in the form of an electronic computer. Narrating Turing’s biography in this way, Hodges makes clear how absolutely central to Turing’s life was his existence as a social and bodily being, and how critical to his work was the topic of the relations between the physical and the mental realms.
The story of Turing’s life offered an especially rich opportunity for a biographer to reflect on the relations between a scientist’s work and his bodily existence, though it took the talent and passion of Andrew Hodges to realize the potential of the story. Stephen Hawking’s life could perhaps convey a similar message. Hawking’s bodily experience has been unique among celebrated scientists; his physical disability has constrained him in an even more fundamental way than sexuality or gender. At the same time, a media cliché portrays him as a disembodied mind free to roam throughout the cosmos. Hélène Mialet has been examining Hawking’s work and the circumstances of a life lived in constant dependence on physical assistance from others. The relations between the two are complex indeed: Hawking acknowledges that the work he does in theoretical physics is partly determined by what it is possible for him to do. He appears to be conscious of his mythic or iconic status, even cultivating it, for example, by appearing in an episode of Star Trek. The cultivation of this image of Hawking has had the consequence of downplaying the importance of the support network that sustains him. On the other hand, gossip in the press about his personal relationships suggests a degree of public understanding that he does not in fact operate in a Platonic realm of pure ideas. A biographical study of him (when and if it becomes possible) could be an excellent vehicle for communicating how scientific work is rooted in the physical and social world.
In biography, then, there are signs of public interest in the material conditions of scientific life and thought. Biography can bring mental giants down to earth—even cosmic spirits like Hawking—by embedding them in the mundane world of routine work, personal relationships, sickness and health. Fictional and dramatic works like Casti’s and Frayn’s suggest also a willingness to call into question the whiggish assumptions of progress built into the "great story" of the history of science. François Jacob has called the classical narrative a "cold, sad story … organized to make logical what was scarcely so at the time"; elsewhere he described it as "history written backwards," shaped by "the teleology of reason." Fiction can help to break down the apparent inevitability of the traditional story, for example by exploring alternative possible scenarios or by dramatizing the situation of an individual facing an important choice. In these ways, fiction serves as a salutary corrective to the notion that history is predictable and hence dispensable in the race to the future.
On the broadest canvas, the classical "great story" connected the progressive revelation of the truths of nature with increasing technological power and its extension on a global scale. The apparent inevitability of this process has been called in question by new narratives of scientific knowledge in the context of exploration and colonialism. These histories confront the legacy of the Enlightenment division of the world into the modern "West" and the backward "Rest." In that fabled story, the West was accorded a privileged position in the race to modernity. The truths of nature were revealed first to early-modern Europeans, but, because science was taken to be inherently universal, the rest of the world could become modern by following the same road. Science, and the technology assumed to follow from it, appeared as a kind of providential destiny for mankind as a whole. In recent years, skepticism has set in about the narrative of science and modernization, partly because of sobering experiences of the problems of global development. The result has been a willingness to treat both scientific knowledge and technical artifacts as aspects of human history, and to trace that history without assuming it has taken a preordained course.
The master narrative of science and the advance of modernity has thus given way to a wide range of alternatives. On the one hand, we have more detailed analyses of the extension of scientific and technical systems as aspects of colonization and imperialism. The role of map-making in the British domination of India, for example, has been charted expertly by Matthew Edney. Others have recounted the construction of tropical medicine and epidemiology, of climatology and natural history, in colonial contexts from India to Ireland. Unlike the great story of science and modernization, these works do not assume that scientific knowledge travels without effort or resistance across a smooth terrain. Rather, they stress the immense labor involved in the extension of natural knowledge and its susceptibility to cultural variation. The extension of networks of knowledge and power is shown to have confronted countervailing forces of resistance. Other studies have been devoted specifically to these counter-forces. Some of them stress the stubborn localism of cultural formations, even among people who have been enrolled in internationally recognized scientific research, such as physicists in contemporary Japan or India. Some chart ingenious appropriations of Western science and technology to indigenous uses, or the involvement of non-European peoples in the co-production of knowledge. Others trace the migrations of individuals between different intellectual worlds: Matteo Ricci translating Euclid into Chinese in the seventeenth century, or the Indian mathematician Ramanujan working in England in the early twentieth. Still others describe unexpected reversals of traffic from the "periphery" to the "center" of scientific research, such as Richard Grove’s account of the forging of an environmental consciousness in the colonial outposts of the eighteenth-century British empire. The narratives of localism, appropriation, migration, and reverse colonialism demand a place in contemporary accounts of global science and technology; they complement histories that work from the imperial center outward. The global reach of Western science comes to appear, not as a result of its inherent universality, but as a patchy and insecure accomplishment, dependent on the circulation of artifacts and the reproduction of practices, challenged and resisted at many points.
An awareness of the uncertain path of modernization is a feature of our present age, whether we think of it as "late modernity" or "postmodernity," or say (with Bruno Latour) that "we have never been modern." Information and objects seem to spread rapidly in the extensive networks of commerce and exchange built up in the modern era, but they don’t necessarily carry much culture with them. As the anthropologist Nicholas Thomas has written, "Global economies do not control the meanings of the commodities that their profits turn upon, even if the appropriation of these goods … inevitably entangles receivers in wider relations that are not easily shrugged off." Expanding systems of communication and trade may extend in certain respects the power of central authorities, but they do not eliminate cultural heterogeneity. This is the message of the stories now being told about science and Western domination; and it also seems to chime with more widespread responses to the upheavals of the contemporary world. The global mobility of capital and the tearing down of barriers to trade have generated well-grounded anxiety and resistance, as recent protests in many places have confirmed. And, as Marshal Sahlins insists, in a chapter in Lorraine Daston’s new volume, Biographies of Scientific Objects, indigenous people and others understandably assert the integrity and persistence of their own cultural identities to provide resources for this resistance. They reject, in other words, the "sentimental pessimism" of those who deny that distinct local cultures can long survive in the modern world. According to Sahlins, indigenous people are right to persist in proclaiming their cultural identities, notwithstanding the pressures and dislocations to which they have been subjected. The conviction that cultural identity remains a distinctive possession, to be cherished rather than relinquished in the face of global economic integration, can be found in many other places in the contemporary world, in ugly as well as attractive manifestations. It suggests that people are likely to be receptive to historical narratives in which Western science and technology do not in fact steamroller all in their path, but in which diverse systems of local knowledge also play their part. Such narratives could point the way to a future in which the "West" might not triumph after all, in which history (far from ending) will continue to spring surprises, and in which the unpredictability of events will call for a new kind of response from historians.
The sentimental pessimism of those who bewail the disappearance of cultures is, in some respects, the opposite side of the Enlightenment narrative of global modernization. As Joseph Rouse has argued, the "narrative of modernity" had as its counterpart "antimodernist" narratives, which described the increased domination of mankind by instrumental rationality, the destruction of the environment, bureaucratized inhumanity, the death of the human spirit, and so on. Such laments, on Rouse’s reading, do no more than reiterate the outlines of the narrative of modernity, attaching a reversed valorization to the crucial elements in the tale. I have been arguing here for an alternative approach, namely the recognition of the diversity of the narratives circulating around us, which do not simply reverse the terms of the now defunct "tall tale" of the history of science but rather complement and subvert it as alternative "short stories." Some of them bring the realm of thought down to the level of the bodily and the material; others invest the material artifacts of scientific practice with multiple meanings. Some exhibit how knowledge is implicated with the relations of power, illuminating the connections of science and domination; others uncover contrary forces of subversion and resistance, and indicate the possibility of alternative histories.
I have also suggested the uses of fiction, drama, and even poetry in helping us to think about other versions of history. One of the traditional duties of fiction has been to license speculation about historical counterfactuals. Counterfactual suppositions, or "virtual history," are readily recognized as fiction in a work like Frayn’s Copenhagen. But all historical writing is "fictional," in the original sense that it is a thing that is made, though this does not in any way lessen its responsibility to represent the factual evidence. Reflecting on fictions and on the fictional in historical writing helps us to recognize that things could have happened differently, that there is not only one path to one truth about nature. To follow Auden, then, we should not mourn the death of the tall tale of the history of science but embrace the possibility of the "wonderful instead."