The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Science

Invisible Science

The Scientization of the Ordinary

Steven Shapin

In Orbit, 2013, by Tomás Saraceno, installation view, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf; courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Esther Schipper, Berlin; © photograph by Tomás Saraceno, 2013.

There’s a McDonald’s restaurant near where I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roughly equidistant from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and close to one of the beating hearts of modern science and technology, the restaurant sits across Massachusetts Avenue from a nondescript building full of entrepreneurial electronic gaming companies. Walk a little toward the MIT end of the avenue, and you pass major institutes for bioinformatics and cancer research, at least a dozen pharmaceutical and biotech companies, outposts of Microsoft and Google, the Frank Gehry−designed Stata Center, which houses much of MIT’s artificial intelligence and computer science activities (with an office for Noam Chomsky), and several “workbars” and “coworking spaces” for start-up high-tech companies. You might think that this McDonald’s is well placed to feed the neighborhood’s scientists and engineers, but few of them actually eat there, perhaps convinced by sound scientific evidence that Big Macs aren’t good for them. (Far more popular among the scientists and techies is an innovative vegetarian restaurant across the street—styled as a “food lab”—founded, appropriately enough, by an MIT materials science and Harvard Business School graduate.)

You might also assume that, while a lot of science happens at MIT and Harvard, and at the for-profit and nonprofit organizations clustered around the McDonald’s, the fast-food outlet itself has little or no significance for the place of science in late modern society. No scientists or engineers (that I know of) work there, and no scientific inquiry (that I am aware of) is going on there. And yet there is a sense in which such places are scientific sites, touching our lives in ways that bear comparison with the science that happens at places like Harvard and MIT.

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