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Scientists' Nightstand: Lorraine Daston

Anna Lena Phillips

Lorraine Daston is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany, and Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She has published on a wide range of topics in the history of science, including probability and statistics, evidence, wonder and curiosity, the moral authority of nature, anthropomorphism, and scientific images. Her most recent book, coauthored with Peter Galison, is Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a historian of science and, like most people in that happily undisciplined discipline, I had a zigzag trajectory into the field. I started out being equally interested in astronomy, philosophy, history, linguistics and much else. Since nothing human (or natural) is foreign to the history of science, it is a haven for people like me who could never make up their mind as to whether the sciences or the humanities beckoned more enticingly. Nor could I decide where I belonged geographically: I am an American living and working in Germany but drawn by research interests to France and Britain—and I’ve taught in all of those places. My favorite places to be are rare books rooms; my greatest aversion, meetings. When I’m not tending to work or family, I observe the cycle of the seasons in our garden and read poetry.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Next month I’ll be traveling to India for the first time, so the bulk of my recent reading has been about South Asia. Kapil Raj’s Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) has cured me forever of notions of “the diffusion of knowledge” on the model of a central light source radiating outward. Instead, Raj shows how knowledge travels back and forth between East and West, changing along with the travelers who cultivate and convey it. The relationships are not symmetric: The balance of commercial, political and military power usually lay with the Europeans. But asymmetric is not synonymous with one-sided, as Raj’s vivid accounts of medical botany, cartography, jurisprudence, orientalism, science education and surveying make abundantly clear. David Shulman, an Israeli Indologist, has kept a diary of his months learning Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, full of exquisitely observed scenes of the sacred (the annual feast of a river goddess) and the profane (ants invading his computer): Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative Narrative (The Penguin Press, 2009) is witty, learned, and full of lightbulb insights about the affinities among humans, gods and animals in this riotously rich religious tradition. She writes in a style that combines hardheaded common sense (where could horses graze in India?) and imaginative interpretation (why were horses sacrificed in ancient Vedic religions?). It’s a long book but reads like a locomotive.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

When I’m reading for work (morning, noon and night), I’m usually at my desk, pen in hand, taking notes in old-fashioned little notebooks. My reading for pleasure is done mostly on trains, planes and subways; I actually look forward to long flights, one of the very few places where one can still read without interruptions. Poetry and novels are bedtime reading, a few pages at a time.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

The James brothers, Henry and William, amuse, enlighten, and astonish—in Henry’s novels, in William’s essays, and in their compulsively readable correspondence to one another. If their letters had not survived, no one would believe that they grew up in the same household: William’s style is as bright and bold as Henry’s is delicate and elliptical. And yet both amaze—in the root sense of the word of leading the reader into (in Henry’s case) or out of (in William’s) a labyrinth of mazy convolution. The fraternal bond that unites them despite differences of proclivity and style is a relentless empiricism: Nothing is as strange as the facts of the matter, if they are confronted just as they are—a kind of zealous open-mindedness. I read lots of poetry, both old and new, and delight in almost all of it. But if I had to name an absolute favorite, it would be the 17th-century English poet George Herbert, for his artful, ardent verses.

What are the three best books you’ve ever read? Explain.

This is an impossible question: There are so many marvelous books; it would be churlish to choose just three. Here are three that I turn to over and over again, for inspiration, consolation and diversion. Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton University Press, 1977) is a compact masterpiece of elegant historical explanation. No matter how often I read and teach Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620), I always find something weird and wonderful to ponder in its vision of a new kind of science upon which to build a new kind of society. And the world would be a glummer place without P. G. Wodehouse’s uproarious Bertie Wooster novels. But if you asked me this same question next week, I’d probably name a different three books, equally praiseworthy.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Another impossible question, but certainly one of the books that has influenced me greatly as a historian of science is Ian Hacking’s The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1975), which introduced me to the endlessly fascinating (because so improbable) history of probability theory and also provided a model for a new way of doing history, at once deeply historical and deeply philosophical.

Name three books you want to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

Again, only three? David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (Norton, 2006); John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, 2nd edition (Princeton University Press, 1947); and almost any novel published after 1995.

What books would you recommend to young readers?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure (Henry Holt, 1998), illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner, would entice even the most math-phobic child. Old but still engaging are the Mr. Tompkins books by George Gamow, published 1944–1967 and still available in print as The New World of Mr. Tompkins (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

What history of science book recommendations do you have for those outside the field?

When history of science is written for nonspecialists (including scientists), it is all too often in the form of biographies of individuals working in splendid solitude. Two remarkable recent books situate science within collectives of friends and family. The second volume of Janet Browne’s sensitive, wry biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), is a portrait of science as a way of life in Victorian Britain, full of insights about the obsessions of naturalists and the tribulations (and contributions) of their families. In Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Deborah R. Coen traces the Austrian scientific dynasty of the Exners, whose lives interwove science, politics, and an enduring commitment to the value of uncertainty. Both books are beautifully written, evocative of lost intellectual and emotional worlds that have left deep traces in the ways we have thought about nature and society ever since.

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