Magazine article The Spectator

'No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine', by Steve Jones - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine', by Steve Jones - Review

Article excerpt

'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.' Philip Larkin's most famous line has appeared in the Spectator repeatedly, and there has even been a competition devoted to its refutation. Steve Jones, though, thinks it too coarse to be quoted in what he himself describes as a popular science book. This is just one of many indications of the way in which this book is haunted by C.P. Snow's two cultures.

I was a bit shocked to see Jones describe his book as popular science because I had been under the impression that he thought it was, in part at least, a history book. As a popular science book, it's quite good. As history, not.

Jones begins by looking out over Paris from the Eiffel Tower and identifying places where important science was done. Every chapter, more or less, has an 18th-century start, but they wander happily into 21st-century science. There's no attempt, at any point, to grapple with the possibility that there might be some fundamental discontinuities between our science and Enlightenment science.

Thus Lavoisier's 'discovery' of oxygen is told in the most old-fashioned heroic terms. There's no sympathy for Joseph Priestley, who consistently opposed Lavoisier, and no sense of the limits of Lavoisier's understanding. On the contrary, Jones thinks Lavoisier 'demolished' Priestley's work 'with a simple experiment'. 'Soon the whole of chemistry began to fall into place.' Well, more than 50 years ago Thomas Kuhn himself demolished this sort of account of Lavoisier's work in a short, classic article which Jones evidently hasn't read.

The truth is, Jones doesn't have much interest in history. Every chapter begins with a quotation from Carlyle's French Revolution (1837). He only mentions two other books on the Revolution: Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Simon Schama's Citizens (1989). That's it. He doesn't mention a single work on the history of science. Not one single one. There are no notes, bibliography or suggestions for further reading. So one has to use a search engine. A quotation from Galileo isn't from Galileo. A quotation about Haussmann's Paris is from the Wikipedia article. We are told there were 3,000 'factories' in Paris in 1801. I can't trace the source, but it must have been referring to workshops or manufactories, not factories, of which, by any sensible definition, there can't have been 3,000 in the world in 1801. We are told that 'within a couple of decades of the Revolution' Paris became 'a sordid, ugly town... the atmosphere is a blend of railway tunnel, hospital ward, gasworks and open sewer'. 'This is in fact,' says Jones disarmingly, 'a 19th-century description of St Helens in Lancashire, but just the same, if not worse, could be said of contemporary Paris.' Except this is a description of St Helens in 1899, and as far as the reader can tell we are discussing Paris in the 1810s; the first Parisian gasometer was built in 1823, the first railway in Paris dates to 1837; within a couple of decades of the Revolution Paris might have been described as having the atmosphere of a hospital ward or an open sewer, but not of a railway tunnel or a gasworks. As for the city in 1899, it was de-industrialising, and nothing like St Helens.

After making points like these, historians of science routinely complain that scientists should not be allowed to write about history. (I'm really not exaggerating here; and I don't think they are right.) But it seems to me we can't just blame the scientists; the historians have their responsibility too. …

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