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

When Science Went Modern

Lorraine Daston

The Forgotten Science by Marek Haiduk; courtesy of the artist.

In science as in city planning, modernity was always associated with a kind of violence.

The history of science is punctuated by not one, not two, but three modernities: the first, in the seventeenth century, known as “the Scientific Revolution”; the second, circa 1800, often referred to as “the second Scientific Revolution”; and the third, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when relativity theory and quantum mechanics not only overturned the achievements of Galileo and Newton but also challenged our deepest intuitions about space, time, and causation.

Each of these moments transformed science, both as a body of knowledge and as a social and political force. The first modernity of the seventeenth century displaced the Earth from the center of the cosmos, showered Europeans with new discoveries, from new continents to new planets, created new forms of inquiry such as field observation and the laboratory experiment, added prediction to explanation as an ideal toward which science should strive, and unified the physics of heaven and earth in Newton’s magisterial synthesis that served as the inspiration for the political reformers and revolutionaries of the Enlightenment. The second modernity of the early nineteenth century unified light, heat, electricity, magnetism, and gravitation into the single, fungible currency of energy, put that energy to work by creating the first science-based technologies to become gigantic industries (e.g., the manufacture of dyestuffs from coal tar derivatives), turned science into a salaried profession and allied it with state power in every realm, from combating epidemics to waging wars. The third modernity, of the early twentieth century, toppled the certainties of Newton and Kant, inspired the avant-garde in the arts, and paved the way for what were probably the two most politically consequential inventions of the last hundred years: the mass media and the atomic bomb.

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