In 1985 a book appeared that changed the way people thought about the history of science. Until that time, the history of science had usually meant biographies of scientists, or studies of the social contexts in which scientific discoveries were made. Scientific ideas were discussed, but the procedures and axioms of science itself were not in question. This changed with the publication of Leviathan and the Air Pump, subtitled Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, the book’s avowed purpose was – “to break down the aura of self-evidence surrounding the experimental way of producing knowledge.” This was a work, in other words, that wanted to treat something obvious and taken for granted – that matters of fact are ascertained by experiment – as if it were not at all obvious; that wanted to ask, how is it actually done and how do people come to agree that it has truly been done.
The authors of this pathbreaking book were two young historians, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, and both have gone on to distinguished careers in the field they helped to define, science studies. Steven Shapin will be featured later in this series, but How to Think About Science begins with a conversation with Simon Schaffer. David Cayley called on him recently in his office at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge where he teaches.