In the previous post, Yann showed how our scientific myths are invoked or sentenced in the present crisis context. Another interesting setting where history of science canons, not to say mythical figures, are put forward is the debate surrounding the current reform of French universities. In some intellectuals’ attempts to ward off the govermental threats to scientific integrity, independance, or survival, the thinest pieces of scientific history emerge, often just a name, a theory and date, sometimes an anecdote.
Against the proposal of increasing the teaching load of researcher who do not publish enough (with the alleged implicit notion that older researchers get less productive),writer and university teacher Pierre Jourde bluntly reminds that Pasteur discovered the rabies virus at 63, Plank the quantas at 41, that Foucault published La Volonté de Savoir at 50 and the fashionable Darwin An Origin of Species at 50. When the profitability of fundamental research is questioned, you find a blogger defending researchers’ independance by pointing that for the “discovery of DNA double-helix, Crick and Watson were not part of a full-time subsidized lab, they had chosen this subject out of passion (as told in Crick’s autobiography)” (comment to a post by French writer and journalist Pierre Assouline ) or C.H. Llewellyn Smith, former Director-General of CERN, arguing that it is difficult to predict the spin-offs of foundamental research in those terms:
“If Rutherford, who discovered the nucleus, could not foresee nuclear power, could a government committee do better? Who could have foreseen warm superconductors, fullerenes, or the World Wide Web? Earlier I suggested that Faraday might have foreseen the applications of electricity but in 1867, nine years after Faraday’s death, a meeting of British scientists pronounced that “Although we cannot say what remains to be invented, we can say that there seems to be no reason to believe that electricity will be used as a practical mode of power“. In a similar vein, it is well known that Thomas Watson, the creator of IBM, said in 1947 that a single computer “could solve all the important scientific problems of the world involving scientific calculations” but that he did not foresee other uses for computers. »
These thin (or rather popular, or what?) historical reminders being often published on intellectual’s blogs hosted by newpapers websites, they have no pretense to scientific truth (except for Llewellyn’s). Their briefs appeals to the collective memory of their community is nevertheless significant, if only because those articles seem circulated and referenced.
I found little discussion of the University reform on popular economic blogs, and no mention of glorious ancestors to defend such and such organisation of research.
NB: Whether the persons I quote are active researchers, teachers, public intellectual, academics-journalists , phd students, or else, the interpretation of what I read change radically. But there I face two problems:
(1) Identities are often blurred, bloggers and surfers often hold several status. How do you face this?
(2)Trying to assess the origin, context, status and popularity of this kind of web content is terribly time consuming, and ghoogle rank/delicious/wikio and other tools do not always give good results. What tools do you use?