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Postmodern Postmortem

Robert Seidel

Science in the Twentieth Century. John Krige and Dominique Pestre, eds. xxxv + 941 pp. Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997. $120.

As the 19th century drew to a close, John Theodore Merz undertook his monumental A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century, a 2,732-page work that surveyed scientific and philosophical thought in Germany, France and Britain.

The volume under review differs from its predecessor in many ways. It was written by 49 authors and includes 46 chapters on topics ranging from images of science, science and the social fabric, research dynamics, and regional and national institutions. Although Merz's perspective was modern, that of the editors of this volume is postmodern. The nine views of nature described by Merz—the astronomical, atomic, mechanical, physical, morphological, genetic, vitalistic, psycho-physical and statistical-mathematical—are replaced by the systems approach, knowledge-producing institutions, and material and instrumental practices in an attempt to reconsider the "dynamics of the fabrication of knowledge in all their contradictory aspects: between center and periphery, between international developments and the protection of national interests, between interest of states and economic and cognitive interests."

Scientific truth, the book argues, "is distributed among the mass of actors who are the subjects of science one day, its objects the next. Behind the word, and depending on where we are, it is we who confirm the boundaries, who specify the definitions and the principles which we take to be crucial. None of us is at the center of the world, none of us grasps the essence of things (perhaps because there is no essence to be grasped), and all we can hope for is to establish connections between those activities which we deem to be relevant."

The authors, mostly historians, remain faithful to their professional canons of historical writing, as opposed to literary tropes. Most articles are accessible, readable, informative and representative of the latest historical scholarship. Many are summaries of arguments the authors have made elsewhere in scholarly monographs, rendering the volume something like a Reader's Digest condensed book. As an introduction to the history of 20th-century science, one could do far worse than this volume.

Most essays take war as an important environment for the evolution of science this century. Discussions of these wars occupy more than 100 pages, 22 of which consist of Everett Mendelsohn's survey of the relations between science, scientists and the military. He finds World War II was a conversion experience for the military who were tutored by operations research, alerted by radar and propelled by the explosion of the atomic bomb to embrace science, which they showered with gifts in hopes of future favors of the same kind. The "deep inter-penetration" between the military and sciences that resulted created modes of work and thought that remain intact even as the sciences form new liaisons with medicine and biotechnology, leaving the sciences only the "illusion of autonomy," in Mendelsohn's view. One might wonder how much autonomy the military enjoys in this marriage of convenience.

The mutual embrace of science and industry has been less exciting, if more lasting. Bernard Carlson assesses the evolution of science in corporate settings in America from the heroic inventors who served as "hired guns" for the fast-growing electrical and communications industries in the last third of the 19th century to the recent decline of basic research in industry. He suggests that by balancing creativity and practicality, researchers and managers have "converted technological innovation to a reliable component of corporate strategy."

With all the hype surrounding the development of the computer, not to mention the vast number of books and articles devoted to entrepreneurs and inventors in the computer industry, I was pleasantly surprised by Michael S. Mahoney's interpretation of computer science as a search for a mathematical theory. By viewing the computer as an "inherently mathematical object," he shows how computer science has failed to live up to its promise and has remained a mix of theory, engineering and skill. Mahoney's article is illustrated with a map of the intellectual agendas of computer science of which Merz would be proud.—Robert W. Seidel, History of Computing, University of Minnesota

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