Experiencing scientific revolutions: the 1660s and the 2020s
Lessons from Robert Boyle's scientific desiderata
2023 is shaping up to be an important year in the history of science. And no, I'm not talking about the reputed room-temperature semiconductor LK-99, which seems increasingly likely to be a dud.
Instead, I'm talking about the discoveries you’ll find in Wikipedia's list of scientific advances for 2023. Here are some examples:
• February: A major breakthrough in quantum computing; announcement of a tiny robot that can clean blood vessels; more evidence for the ability of psychedelics to enhance neuroplasticity; major developments in biocomputers.
• May: Scientists use AI to translate brain activity into written words; promising results for a different Alzheimer’s drug; human pangenome sequenced (largely by a team of UCSC researchers — go Banana Slugs!); more good news about the potential of mRNA vaccines for fighting cancer.
And skipping ahead to just the past two weeks:
• nuclear fusion ignition with net energy gain was achieved for the second time
• a radical new approach to attacking cancer tumors entered Phase 1 trials in humans
• and — announced just as I was writing this on Tuesday, August 8 — one of the new crop of weight loss drugs was reported to cut rates of heart attack and stroke in high-risk individuals by 20% (!).
Also in January of 2023: the New York Times asked “What Happened to All of Science’s Big Breakthroughs?”
The headline refers to an article published in Nature which argues that there has been a steady drop in “disruptive” scientific and technological breakthroughs between the years of 1945 and 2010. Basically, it’s a restatement of the concept of a “Great Stagnation” which was proposed by the economist Tyler Cowen in 2011. Though the paper cites everyone from Cowen to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t cite a single historian of science or technology (unless Alexandre Koyré counts).
The fact that a widely-publicized paper about the history of science doesn’t cite any historians of science in its 80 footnotes arguably says as much about the failure of historians to make their field legible to outsiders as it does about anything else. But that’s not my focus here (though it is one of the reasons why I write for public audiences in the first place).
Naturally, as a historian of science and medicine, I think that there really are important things to learn from the history of science and medicine! And what I want to argue for the rest of this post boils down to two specific lessons from that history:
People living through scientific revolutions are usually unaware of them — and, if they are, they don’t think about them in the same way that later generations do.
An apparent slowdown in the rate of scientific innovation doesn’t always mean a slowdown in the impacts of science. The history of the first scientific revolution — the one that began in the famously terrible seventeenth century — suggests that the positive impacts of scientific innovation, in particular, are not always felt by the people living through the period of innovation. Periods when the pace of innovation appears to slow down may also be eras when society becomes more capable of benefitting from scientific advances by learning how to mitigate previously unforeseen risks.
1. Scientific revolutions are confusing
For point one, let’s look to a fascinating primary source from the height of the Scientific Revolution: the list of “desiderata,” or hoped-for future scientific advances, drawn up by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle in the 1660s.1
Here’s a sample from the actual document:
Below is the list itself. I’ve gone through and marked each item on it with a green, yellow, orange, or red circle to show how close they came to coming true:
🟢 means that the goal has been achieved
🟡 = “somewhat” or “sort of”
🟠 = “not really, but…”
🔴 = we’re basically no closer to the goal than we were in Boyle’s time.
“The Prolongation of Life.” 🟢 (life extension technologies)
“The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.” 🟢 (cosmetic surgery)
“The Art of Flying.” 🟢 (aviation)
“The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.” 🟢 (scuba diving)
“The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.” 🔴
“The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.” 🟠 (radiation therapy?)
“The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.” 🔴
“The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.” 🔴
“The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.” 🟢 (genetic engineering)
“The Transmutation of Metalls.” 🟢 (nuclear transmutation)
“The makeing of Glass Malleable.” 🟢 (foldable glass)
“The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.” 🟡 (genetic engineering)
“The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.” 🟠 (The Alkahest was a physically impossible “universal solvent,” but superacids get pretty close)
“The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.” 🟢 (Optical Lenses)
“The making Armor light and extremely hard.” 🟢 (Kevlar)
“The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.” 🟢 (GPS)
“The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.” 🟢 (Marine chronometer)
“Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.” 🟢 (psychedelics etc.)
“A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.” 🟡 (Nuclear-powered icebreakers?)
“Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.” 🟡 (stimulants… sort of?)
“Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.” 🟢 (close enough to psilocybin to count, IMO)
“Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.” 🟡 (anabolic steroids?)
“A perpetuall Light.” 🟠 (radium, sort of)
“Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing. 🟢 (scratch and sniff)
Now look back at Boyle’s list. By my count, 10 out of his 24 desiderata — over 40% — involve improving the human mind and body, sometimes in outlandish and almost mystical ways. Boyle was not hoping for the invention of steam engines, or telegraphs, or power looms, or many of the other famous breakthroughs of the age of industrialization that followed him. He was hoping for things like “the cure of wounds at a distance” and drugs that “exalt imagination.”
Boyle clearly knew he was living through a period of rapid change — as a leading member of the Royal Society of London, he was directly contributing to it. But we make a mistake if we assume that Boyle saw himself as a pioneering scientist (the word would not be invented until over a century after his death) and still less as a participant in a Scientific Revolution or inspiration for a looming machine age.
Throughout his career, Robert Boyle described himself as a natural philosopher or a naturalist; his frenemy Isaac Newton was an alchemist through and through. To truly understand them, we need to remember that they did not believe they were pioneering science, as such.
Instead, they believed — like most every other early modern intellectual — that they were reconstituting ancient wisdom by reading the divine book of nature.
When we quantify scientific innovation, then, it’s worth remembering that the ways we think about the science of the 2020s might seem as epistemologically foreign to people in the future as the self-conceptions of Boyle and Newton seem to people of today. In other words, even those at the very center of an ongoing scientific revolution are likely to understand their role and contributions in ways that make little sense to subsequent generations.
2. The Midgley Effect
Throughout the works of Boyle and other early scientists, hints of a brutal society beneath the surface jump out alarmingly. For instance, the pioneer of blood transfusion, a distinguished French doctor who was the personal physician to Louis XIV, was also responsible for abducting a mentally ill man and injecting him with lamb blood until he died.
Seen in this light, Boyle’s references to “Hystericall persons” and “Mad-Men” take on a different light: some of the scientific progress of the 1660s was, in a very real sense, built on their misery, just as it was funded by the buying and selling of human beings (the Royal Society was a major shareholder of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the British slave trade).
A methodology like that of the Nature article, which examined a dataset of published papers and patents, does not capture the social and ethical impacts of scientific innovation in any meaningful way — even though these impacts cannot, in the end, be disentangled from the science itself.
Which brings us to what we might call the Midgley Effect.
Thomas Midgley Jr. was an American engineer who, in the 1920s, developed both leaded gasoline and CFCs. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill memorably argued, he “had more adverse impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history.” But before Midgley was blamed for the 1970s crime wave or the hole in the ozone layer, he was a celebrated inventor.
It took decades to understand that Midgley’s work was scientifically innovative, but socially harmful. Do researchers of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s who demonstrated those harms “count” in the history of scientific progress in the same way that Midgley’s innovations did? Should they?
As we appear to be entering a new era of rapid scientific innovation in the 2020s, it is worth remembering that it often takes decades before the lasting social value of a technical innovation is understood — and decades more before we understand its downsides.
In the meantime, I’m pretty psyched about the cancer drugs.
• Oppenheimer on the man who taught him Sanskrit: “Tartly intolerant of humbug, laziness, stupidity and deceit, Ryder thought that ‘Any man who does a hard thing well is automatically respectable and worthy of respect.’” Wikipedia adds: “Ryder died on March 21, 1938, of a heart attack, while teaching an advanced class with only one student.”
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As always, I welcome comments. Thank you for reading!
As the historians Vera Keller and Anna Marie Roos have noted, Boyle’s list of “desiderata” was directly inspired by Francis Bacon, who used the same term in his writings on the future goals and achievements of natural philosophy. The works of both Keller and Roos, as well as Lawrence Principe and Michael Hunter, are highly recommended to anyone wanting to learn more.