Science and industry

Issue: 131

Amy Gilligan

David Knight, The Making of Modern Science (Polity, 2009), £17.99

There prevails in society the notion that the practice of science is somehow objective and neutral. However, when we look at the way funding is allocated and what research is undertaken it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. By looking at the history of science we can see this is not a new development.

David Knight’s book The Making of Modern Science provides an interesting and thorough overview of the development of science between 1789 and 1914. The French Revolution saw the development of a salaried body of scientists in the Académie du Sciences in Paris, the École Polytechnique, and something that could be termed a “career” in science. Through the 19th century state support for research, predominantly in universities became more common. Change came to England later than other places in Europe (including Scotland); science persisted as “a hobby chiefly for inquisitive if dotty professors, gentlemen of leisure and country parsons”, and grants were only awarded to universities in 1889.

The differences between England and other countries must be seen in the context of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. Britain had already advanced rapidly industrially, was the dominant naval power in the world at that time, and had a significant number of colonies, providing a market and a source of raw materials. This meant that, in order to compete, there was pressure on France and Germany to develop scientific education to inform industry, which led to commercial success in many fields.

Things in Britain eventually began to change. The Great Exhibition in 1851 was a huge display of scientific and industrial development in Britain and the empire. Coming so soon after the revolutions of 1848, it seems likely that part of the motivation for the exhibition was to generate national pride and a sense that things were going well. However, for many scientists there was a realisation that Britain had a lot to learn from other countries in terms of mass production, standardisation, higher education and design. Wars in the US, France and Prussia also served to highlight how power, influence and progress depended on science and technology.

Changes to the kind of scientific enquiry taking place saw science move from the homes of wealthy individuals to large laboratories. Laboratories were increasingly necessary for experimental physics, and in the biological sciences for dissection and microscope work. This led to further changes, as laboratory environments made it possible to undertake experiments under controlled conditions to test theories. There are parallels between changes in the locus of scientific enquiry with those in other forms of manufacturing, with scientists increasingly being employed for a wage.

One of the most interesting aspects of 19th century science, and a significant theme running through The Making of Modern Science, is how scientific developments interacted with wider society. The theory of evolution by natural selection, developed simultaneously by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, was, of course, hugely scientifically significant in its own right. But it was also important in strengthening the developing materialist conception of the world. In the late 18th and early 19th century, materialism within science was often shunned, in part because the ruling class saw it was being intimately connected with the French Revolution. Joseph Priestley, a scientist who attempted to reconcile religion with materialism, was forced to flee Britain for Pennsylvania after a mob burned down his house and church.

Science at the start of the 19th century in Britain was to a large extent the preserve of a wealthy elite, or of those who could find a patron, as there were no other ways of being able to buy the necessary equipment and to support oneself. Science begins to open up in this period as the ruling class realise that scientific research is crucial in the drive for profit. The language used in science, however, means that it can often seem no less elitist; the increasing role of mathematics in science developed in the 19th century, making science, at times, seem quite remote for many people.

The Making of Modern Science is a useful source for linking the development of science to social changes occurring through the 19th century, although at times some of these links could be a little more explicit. By looking at how research was conducted during the period it forces the reader to examine why particular research is conducted today, a key question that must be asked when seeking to understand the impact science has on
our lives.