Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Open History of Science - ScienceOnline2010 (#scio10)

My co-presenter at ScienceOnline2010, Eric Michael Johnson, has already put his part of our show up on his blog, The Primate Diaries. Here is mine. We went in chronological order, which meant I went first.
There weren't very many books during the Middle Ages. We all learned in our high school Western Civ that there wasn't very much literacy then, but what's lees often mentioned is that there wasn't very much to read. The best educated people in Europe could go their entire lives without ever seeing a copy of some of the basic books of their intellectual canon. They knew some of the books only by reputation. For example, there was not a single copy of Ptolemy's Geography in all of Europe until around 1400.

Several events changed this situation. The first was contact with Byzantine and Islamic culture. During the Crusades and after, travelers brought back documents that had been lost to Europe--acquired through honest intellectual contact and wholesale looting--and they brought back new ideas and information that had been discovered by the scientists of Islam. These documents and ideas were given broad distribution by the introduction of paper around 1400 and the invention of the printing press fifty years later. The recovery of lost works of antiquity led many many European thinkers to view their times as a rebirth, or Renaissance, of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome.

Immediately following these developments, Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa, demonstrating that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were connected and that direct contact with Asia was possible, and Columbus ran into the New World while attempting to reach Asia from the other direction. While the political world was dazzled by the commercial possibilities of these discoveries, the intellectual world was stunned by the fact that there was more world than they had ever suspected--more cultures, more species of plants and animals, unknown lands. As some English guy put it:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

This new knowledge had a subversive effect. It meant that the ancient authorities--Aristotle, Galen, Pliny, and the Bible--hadn't known everything. More importantly, it dramatically increased the prestige and importance of leaving the books, going into the field, and looking at things, poking them with sticks, doing experiments, and generating new knowledge. This flood of new knowledge required new means of communication.

Even with paper and the offset printing press, books were still expensive to produce. There were no publishing houses in the sense that we think of them. There were printers and they wanted be paid up front for their work. Experimenters and explorers needed rich patrons or to be rich themselves to share their knowledge in book form. Some intellectuals could afford to have cheap pamphlets printed, but the main means of disseminating knowledge was letters. Letters, of course, are as old as writing, but thinkers in the late Renaissance turned letter writing into a means of knowledge distribution unlike anything that had ever existed. an international community, dedicated to the free knowledge grew up that called itself the Republic of Letters. Members of the Republic were expected to share information without regard for politics or religion, to contribute to a discussion, and to pass it on.

An extreme example of membership in the Republic of Letters is Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc who wrote around 14,000 letters in his lifetime and formed something of a central clearing house for new ideas on all topics. To put that in perspective, 14,000 letters means a letter a day for the entire forty years of his productive adult life. These were not short notes of the "Dear Grandma, thank you for the dollar on my birthday, having a wonderful time in Paris and making new friends, love, Nicky." These were meaty letters, multiple pages, dealing with substantial topics.

By the mid 1600s, this model of knowledge distribution had matured. In places like London, Paris, Florence, and Amsterdam enough intellectuals lived to create informal societies with regular meetings. The logical next step was to bundle their letters into small books that they called "journals", to distinguish them from "gazettes"--local news-sheets--and "mercuries"--news and shipping reports from abroad. The Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society, still one of the most prestigious scientific journals in Europe, began publication in 1665. Because books were mostly printed in small runs of only a few hundred at a time, an important function of journals was to write reviews, which were more like abstracts than critiques. It was only later in the century that reports on experiments and research began to fill the majority of the pages of journals. The early journals also featured theology and speculation about systems of the universe. Again, it wasn't until the end of the century that fully scientific societies with scientific journals evolved from their generalized predecessors.

Entry into the early journals was, in a way, much easier than now. The barriers between the individual scientific disciplines had not solidified nor had the fields become professionalized. Though the class system presented some barriers, there was nothing like the credentialism that exists today. Virtually any literate person could participate by mail in any discussion. As late as the early nineteenth century, the most prestigious journals regularly printed letters from landowners about their experiments in animal breeding or some natural oddity they had discovered on their property. In those days before public libraries and easily accessible university libraries, the gentlemen who received letters, pamphlets, and journals were almost honor bound to pass them around and let others read them.

The free and open exchange of ideas envisioned by the Republic of Letters and the first journals was an ideal that was not always attained in practice. Then as now, many researchers would jealously guard their work in hopes of producing an irrefutable synthesis before unveiling it to the world. Then as now, the powers that be were made uneasy by new ideas. The majority of powers had no problem suppressing any ideas that they didn't understand. The inquisition, though not as powerful as it had been two centuries earlier, was still in business and could order all copies of a book destroyed and compel an author to make a humiliation public recantation of his ideas. Following the rule of unintended consequences, they feared that all new ideas had the potential to undermine the established order. With Church and monarchy poised to come down on their heads, experimenters often practiced self-censorship. The same "better safe than sorry" attitude practiced by the powers was practiced by the thinkers. with a two tier stratification into members and correspondents.

The nineteenth century brought an increased professional to the sciences that created new barriers. Credentials in a particular field, while recognizing a persons proficiency in that field, could also be viewed as excluding them from other fields. Professionalism, credentialism, and the rise of a popular scientific press separate from the professional press turned most of the growing educated classes into mere spectators to science. The era of the polymath, gentleman experimenter were numbered and were clearly over by World War One. Rather than self-funded, science came to be paid for by industry, government, or by universities that were themselves paid for primarily by industry or government. These entities had their own motivations for restricting participation in and access to the results of science.

Eric's part was very professionally done with slides matching his narration. Mine was a more old fashioned, history professor presentation with me staying in one place, lecturing (I had an attack of tremors and was trying to steady myself by keeping one hand on the lectern. It didn't work).

About a minute into my presentation I looked out on the audience and could see that they were united by a single thought, "why is the nervous guy talking about the Renaissance?" I like to think that later I saw a few lights go on as they began thinking, "so that's where that came from" and "I never thought of it that way." I think Eric's presentation the importance of an open society for scientific progress and the pressures of twentieth century governments to monopolize and classify information made some of my historical background make better sense.

Dr. Free-Ride (AKA Janet Stemwedel) live-tweeted the session and picked up some of the points from the discussion.

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