Historians' Books

Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Jon Agar |

Back in the late 1980s I was a mathematician, but much as I loved the subject, I found the best debates to be had were with other students studying the history and philosophy of science. The fierce debates over whether scientific knowledge was truth or whether social forces shaped science seemed to me to address fundamental issues in surprising and sometimes infuriating ways. I read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, now half a century old but still the prime text of this intellectual movement. From then on I was a convert; here was a subject that asked big questions while maintaining the essential role of crunchy, historical case studies. So I started a PhD on the history of radio astronomy, and later branched out into the post-Second World War history of science and technology. I was lucky to join a burgeoning field; the history of modern, and especially twentieth century science has seen an extraordinary growth in high-quality scholarship in recent decades.

But the case study approach that Kuhn had encouraged, focusing on specific people and events in narrowly defined periods and places, was ultimately limiting, as my teaching experience revealed. I have been fortunate to be able to teach the history of modern science at the universities of Manchester, Cambridge, Harvard and University College London. Yet at each institution, as my own ideas became clearer, I also felt the pedagogical strain of encouraging students to make sense of specific case studies in the absence of a broad, synthetic overview of the history of modern science. So when Polity Press asked me whether there was a need for a survey of the subject, I emphatically said yes, and leapt at the chance to do the job myself.

Easy, I thought. I will write up my lecture notes and I’ll finish the book by the summer. That was many summers ago. In hindsight I probably should have anticipated what happened next. Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond is indeed a synthetic survey drawing on the wave of good scholarship. But the commitment to paint a big picture also raised significant and thorny intellectual issues that needed articulation, confrontation and solution. First there was the question of ‘what is science?’ Science could shade at its edges into technology, medical practice or wider sets of knowledge and practice. What is taken to be science, and who should count as a scientist, has been jealously guarded and acquisitively claimed through the twentieth century. I wanted to write about both the physical and the life sciences (including the human sciences). But what about social science? Disciplines such as economics and sociology have borrowed the language, methods and authority of the natural sciences. They deserved their place in a fully integrative history of twentieth century science, though in the end I felt I had barely scratched the surface of this subject. Second, there was the question of ‘where is science?’ I was determined to write a global history of science. But the historical gaze is uneven, with some national stories well integrated into narratives of change, while others were much less so. National stories, moreover, are not the best vehicles for the historiography of science. Nevertheless an unmistakeable phenomenon of twentieth-century science has been the rise of the United States as a scientific superpower. And then there was the, arguably alternative, science of that other twentieth-century experiment, the Soviet Union. Finally, there was the issue of structure. I wanted to avoid breaking the topic down into disciplines, because most of the interesting historical observations were to be made on interdisciplinarity or via cross- disciplinary comparisons. I wanted to avoid national stories, except where they themselves were the historical phenomenon. In the end I kept a broadly chronological structure but used themes, territories and other organising principles promiscuously in a way I felt the subject justified. Much more intellectual work than I expected was needed to draw the whole together and to make sense of it.

The result is Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. It’s longer and later than I hoped, but better for it. It tells the story of science as it pulled and pushed a century of extraordinary change and conflict. I can now say from experience that histories that commit to paint a big picture can force the historian to find and explain themes that are not easily captured by case study historiography. In particular, I was led to make two substantial conclusions and to recognise one inevitable failure. The first conclusion is that twentieth- century science makes sense in relation to what I call 'working worlds'. Working worlds are arenas of human projects that generate problems. The four foremost working worlds were the building of technological systems, the maintenance of the human body in sickness and in health, the civil administration of populations and things, and last, but certainly not least, the preparation and mobilisation of fighting forces. Indeed it was the military working world of the Cold War that articulated the problems, provided the funding and gave us the language and tools of much contemporary science. The policy implication of this argument is that we need to help working worlds – or at least the working worlds we want – to better articulate its problems in a way science can recognise and respond to.

The second conclusion was that explaining the rise of American science to such prominence remains the biggest open question of the historiography of science in the twentieth century. Drill down in the literature and you will find many explanations this predominance, but often only posed half-consciously and often specific to instances. I call attention to the question and offer ways of answering it. But it is also a lesson that only when you paint a big picture do some questions become unavoidable. Finally, there is still so much we don’t know. Science is the modern world’s royal road to truth, and as such it is contested and claimed by many. It is deeply implicated in how many societies organise power and authority. It is immensely valuable natural knowledge, a view from nowhere, valued (almost) everywhere. It solves problems, where it can, that make our world work. We need to know this history. The inevitable failure is to know that the history will remain incomplete.

About Us

H&P is an expanding Partnership based at King's College London and the University of Cambridge, and additionally supported by the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, the Open University, and the University of Sheffield.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More