Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Critical Second Look: Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985)

Overinflated? The second (2011) edition of LAP
There are many books that polarise their readership, causing some readers to swoon and others to spew (so to speak). There are not many books that polarise individual readers, causing them to swoon and spew simultaneously. I place Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (LAP), the classic 1985 work on the history of science by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, in the latter category. When I read this book for the first time, as a Masters student in History and Philosophy of Science, I was doubly impressed—firstly by the scope and subtlety of the argument, secondly by the conviction that said argument was seriously flawed. Time has not dulled these impressions, as I discovered when I reread the book a few months ago. The latest number of Isis carries ten essays on the book, none of which mention the deep problems that account for the negative part of my reaction—a reaction I have not just to this book but to many of the works that have been, and continue to be, influenced by it. Expand post.


  1. This book provides a unique perspective on the important physics concept of double refraction. A highly useful resource that must be appreciated by all those who use it.

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  3. I am going to add a sixth point to your list; SS didn't understand the science involved in Boyle's and Huygens' experiments. I refer you to A T J Hayward's letter to Nature, Vol 225, January 24th 1970, pp 376-77 "Mechanical Pump with a Suction Lift of 17 Metres". Since Berthelot (1850) it had been known that liquids like water have a tensile strength. The difficulty with measuring this was nucleation which Huygens had eliminated by purging the water in the receiver of the air pump (SS p 241) before transferring it to his barometer. The result was his anomalous suspension.

    I have to give credit here to the late R V Jones who, showing typical kindness to a young scientist when I wrote to him in 1972, sent me a copy of Hayward's letter in Nature along with other information. Had SS taken the trouble to consult scientists who were skilled in the field (and we know of at least two from Jones' correspondence) then they would not have made the serious mistake that they did.

    As it happened, I first became aware of SS's error when reading David Wootton's "The Invention of Science" (p 351) and was able to pass on to him the information I had received from Professor Jones.

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