Where are the “Old-Timers” of Science Today?

In the context of this week’s reading, air pumps and electrical machines represent progress and change. Governments and religious entities, in my opinion, can also be characterized as institutions. From another class I am taking, we have been talking about how the primary goal of an institution is for it to continue survive to exist. New developments, progress and a change in status quo tend to challenge the authority of such an institution. It all comes down to power and how those who have it, rarely like to give it up. “The fact that the coal measures were centered in northern England shifted the nation’s economic balance of power away from the prosperous rural estates of Sussex, Essex, and Kent.” [Steven Johnson]

 

I find it interesting that the prompt of “fearing air pumps and electrical machines” was assigned as the topic for this blog because I personally find the shift we saw in the type of people pursuing scientific knowledge far more interesting. As Steven Johnson says, “They [the scientists of old] were statesmen and political visionaries who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones.” Today, anyone pursuing a career in the sciences must be incredibly specialized and focused on only one specific discipline. So much so that it is almost unbelievable to me that a man such a Joseph Priestley was able to have such a profound effect on the development of modern science. The way in which I believe Johnson’s work speaks about the future of modern science is this lesson of Joseph Priestley’s method of anti specialization. I think we must be very aware of this going forward and interdisciplinary study is going to prove highly important in the coming future. While it is important to know things on a very deep and specialized level, I see an increase in holistic view-points on our horizon. This applies especially to the field of environmental research.

4 thoughts on “Where are the “Old-Timers” of Science Today?”

  1. I like how you compare religions and governments to institutions. It is interesting to think of them in such terms. The point you bring up about the main function of an institution is keeping themselves alive is intriguing and I would like to learn more about it. Did your class cover the main steps institutions will employ to keep themselves functioning? I like what you said about the need for a more holistic view of the sciences. It reminds me of a meme I saw the other day about scientists opinion of philosophy. One one side are all the great historical scientists saying they think a philosophical perspective is invaluable. On the other side it was the pop scientists of our time saying they think it is a waste of time. It makes me sad to think that people don’t consider questioning their surroundings important.

  2. I like your point about the importance of inter-disciplinary study in coming years. I think that if scientists (or doctors, engineers, psychologists, CEOs, historians, artists, etc) look beyond their field and consider what’s going on outside of their specialization, everyone benefits because that knowledge and those resources get spread to others and passed down to the next generation. I think maybe one of the reasons Priestly was so successful was because he wasn’t just a scientist or an engineer; he was also a theologian, philosopher, educator, and political theorist. But I suppose the argument “well where does it end?” could also be made. For example, is it better to have a specialized skill? Or to be a jack-of-all-trades? I wonder if Priestly had mastered all these topics which lead to his discoveries.

  3. While I don’t disagree that having interdisciplinary knowledge is important, I feel that there is more to Priestley than that. Priestley’s form of science was one that lead to the detection of anomalies. Such anomalies helped paint a bigger picture, and potentially showed issues with the current way of thinking. He most likely would not have made the discoveries he did without his interdisciplinary nature, but, I think it is also important to consider the tools he used for his science. He had access to cutting edge tools and the free time he needed to use them. Essentially, he happened to be the right man at the right place with the right tools and the right connections.

  4. I enjoyed how you described them as institutions, this is a very cohesive way to categorize them. This quote perfectly displays your idea and I could not agree more “From another class I am taking, we have been talking about how the primary goal of an institution is for it to continue survive to exist. New developments, progress and a change in status quo tend to challenge the authority of such an institution. It all comes down to power and how those who have it, rarely like to give it up.” I agree that institutions primary focus is to gain and maintain power.

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