Science Book a Day Interviews Jon Agar


Special thanks to Jon Agar for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

I am a Professor of Science and Technology Studies. I write on contemporary technologies (mobile phones, ID cards) and the history of modern science and technology. I am the author of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond published by Polity Press. I am also editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. – Adapted from UCL Bio

Jon’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond?

There has been so much good, historical writing on twentieth century science in the last few decades. But much of this literature, including and perhaps especially the best analyses, were quite focused. Much of it was case studies, which are great for exploring an argument in detail, but are no enough alone to get an understanding of a topic. I had been teaching courses on the history of twentieth science at Manchester and Cambridge universities, and I was frustrated that there wasn’t an accessible book that I could point students to and say ‘Read that, and it will introduce the main events, themes and debates’. So when Polity Press sounded me out about the topic, asking about potential authors, I volunteered myself.

#2 – The task of covering science in the 20th century would seem to be a massive task. Where did you start? How did you decide to organise the book?

Yes, the topic and the book are both whoppers.

However, I would tell myself that other historians seemed to be quite capable of conceiving and writing histories of whole countries over hundreds of years – why should it seem impossible to write a history of twentieth-century science?

Of course there were reasons why it was a challenge: twentieth-century science is like an immense river delta, with specialties and disciplines spreading out, separating and recombining. Each discipline has its story. Furthermore, science in the twentieth century was both a global and highly localised phenomenon. How should this geography be captured and described? And finally, twentieth-century science is necessarily technical – its language is mathematical, full of acronyms and subject-specific definitions, while it often also depends on instruments and machines that have their own expert makers and operators.

I decided on a few ground rules. I’d make it broadly chronological, to help the reader. I’d try and avoid telling the stories of disciplines, such as the history of astronomy or the history of biology, 1900-2000. Why? Well, on reason is that some of these exist. But another, more important reason is that there were common themes across the sciences that were best explored by organising the book in a different way. The twentieth century stands out as a period of intense conflict, military and ideological. A big question, it was obvious, was to ask how did science development in such a world. With those decisions, the organisation of the book fell in place quite quickly.

In terms of my own analysis, the insight that much of twentieth-century science could be understood in terms of what I call ‘working worlds’, arenas of human activity that raise problems with which science engages, came very late in the day.

The first draft of the book was twice as big!

I wrote a huge amount on the nineteenth century – because it seemed essential to talk about the world, and its sciences, within which the twentieth century was born – before I had the courage to cut it.

I also wrote a semi-fictionalised account of science circa 1900, imagined as a balloon ride that starts in Paris and then proceeds, in Jules Verne fashion, to travel around the globe. I had my protagonist surveying and gossiping about scientists at work at the turn of the century. It was fun. It also had one, rather good, Karl Marx joke. But I cut it.

Some would say the book could be edited down further. But I am happy with it. Its a big subject, and tries tell a synthetic story drawing on much excellent scholarship by others.

#3 – Of the many branches of science there are, how have their importance ebbed and flowed over the course of the century?

The main branches entered and left the twentieth century as important: physics, chemistry, biology. But that hides much of importance. Important specialties formed at intersections, almost like a child’s combination game: radio—astronomy, molecular—biology, even computer—science. This pattern had started in the late nineteenth-century with topics such as astro—physics. But they are distinctive feature of twentieth-century science, and behind their growth can usually be found a particular and distinctive patron. So there’s a link between the circulation of wealth and the re-imagination of categories of knowledge.

I wrestled with the question of whether there had been a swing, late in the twentieth century, from the physical to the life sciences in terms of flow of resources, exciting discoveries or public regard, and decided in the end that it was still an open question.

Very few branches of science ever disappear completely. Scientific entities – which are always theory-laden – have come and gone in the twentieth century. Eoliths and the ether are two examples. But branches of science seem more robust.

#4 – In your mind, what are the scientific breakthroughs that are often overlooked?

I think I’d agree with many people’s list of important twentieth-century breakthroughs, although I would add that deep connection between science and the ordinary, wider world is often obscured by such a metaphor. So take quantum theory as an example. There’s no doubt that its a breakthrough. But I say it’s just as important, for the historian, to know that Max Planck was working with data generated because the German electrical industries wanted problems solving.

One which many readers perhaps didn’t know about, but which I think is up there with the most significant breakthroughs, is Carl Woese’s discovery of Archaea in the 1970s. He compared ribosomal genetic sequences, painstakingly and by hand, of different organisms and found that among the microbes Archaea were as different from Bacteria as both were from Eukaryotes, the multi-cellular creatures that includes pine trees, tigers and us. It was the first time we had seen the main, true outline of the tree of life.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I like to alternate between types of books, between books for a broader readership (such as Constant Touch, my history of the mobile phone) and books which are perhaps more specialist. Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond was a synthetic book, necessarily dependent on interpreting and drawing links between others’ work. So the next will be all fresh, primary research of my own. At the moment it is a choice between two – one on extinction, and another on Margaret Thatcher, the chemist-turned-politician. I may well try and do both!

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