When Science Went Modern

When Science Went Modern February 10, 2017

Writing in the Hedgehog Review (Fall 2016), Lorraine Daston identifies 1890-1914 as the “moment when science went modern” (20). Going modern here involves an acceleration in the pace of discovery and invention:

For the scientists, the realization that progress might have its dark side had been germinating since the mid-nineteenth century, when they noticed with consternation that their publications were no longer read after a decade or so and that it had become necessary to revise university curricula and textbooks several times a generation. Last year’s scientific truths, they noted with alarm, were becoming obsolete almost as rapidly as last year’s fashion in millinery. By the 1890s, the pell-mell accumulation of novelties on both the theoretical and empirical fronts threatened to bury the scientists like an avalanche and to undermine the foundations of even the most stable sciences, astronomy and physics” (20-1). Scientists had to rethink “the relationship of science to history in the broadest sense: not just the past, but also the present and the future (21).

Drawing on writings of scientists, historians and philosophers c. 1900, Daston assesses the effects of modernity on scientists. She observes that “scientists themselves seemed sickened by the speed of it, and to have lost their nerve.” Confidence in scientific progress waned; some turned cautious, some “ascetic,” some melancholy (25). They all had to face the “nightmare of scientific progress: The truths of today would become the falsehoods—or at least the errors—of tomorrow” (26). Scientists prided themselves on being heirs of “martyrs to truth” like Galileo; they had to settle for being “martyrs to progress” (26), an inglorious martyrdom.

Postmodern revulsion at modernity isn’t anti-modern. The revulsion was there at the creation.

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