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Dear Prudence

Steven Shapin: Stephen Toulmin, 14 January 2002

Return to Reason 
by Stephen Toulmin.
Harvard, 243 pp., £16.95, June 2001, 0 674 00495 7
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... Every now and then philosophers discover the virtues of common sense. This surprises their friends and delights their enemies. The surprise arises from philosophy’s traditional commitment to identifying and repairing the cognitive errors of the vulgar: common-sense language in need of clarification; common-sense reason requiring rigorous replacement; common-sense judgments marked down for their superficiality, incoherence and unstable foundations ...

When Men Started Doing It

Steven Shapin: At the Grill Station, 17 August 2006

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany 
by Bill Buford.
Cape, 318 pp., £17.99, July 2006, 9780224071840
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... What’s all this fuss about cooks and chefs? The how-to-cook sections of bookshops are as big as the how-to-be-successful-in-life sections; it’s no longer clear where one ends and the other begins. Many of the books sell themselves not so much as sources of practical information – how to make a wild mushroom risotto – but as windows onto both the skills and the emotional life of a celebrity cook ...

Possessed by the Idols

Steven Shapin: Does Medicine Work?, 30 November 2006

Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates 
by David Wootton.
Oxford, 304 pp., £16.99, June 2006, 0 19 280355 7
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... Historical progress is back, even if it was only in some genres of academic history that it ever went away. It’s been some time, certainly, since historians of art saw painting as a triumphal progress from Titian to Tracey Emin, or historians of music celebrated a linear ascent in compositional quality from Bach to Birtwistle. It was, perhaps, in political history that historians first recognised their job to be something like interpreting the past in its own terms, warning themselves against the tendency to award points to past actors insofar as their thinking anticipated the present ...

Talking with Alfred

Steven Shapin: Mr Loomis’s Obsession, 15 April 2004

Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War Two 
by Jennet Conant.
Simon and Schuster, 330 pp., £9.99, July 2003, 0 684 87288 9
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... Alfred Lee Loomis was well connected. Some of his most valuable connections flowed from the accident of a fortunate birth. On his father’s side, the family came to New England only a few ships after the Mayflower, and Loomis’s father was a wealthy Gilded Age New York physician who combined fashion, philanthropy and philandering in ways that could have made him a character in a Henry James novel ...

Good Housekeeping

Steven Shapin: William Petty, 20 January 2011

William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic 
by Ted McCormick.
Oxford, 347 pp., £63, September 2010, 978 0 19 954789 0
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... In 1667, the Royal Society’s first historian described the early Restoration as ‘this Age of Experiments’. He was advertising the society’s new scientific programme and he was making a joke. One of the society’s most prominent members had designed and built a new sort of ship – a ‘Double-Bottomed’ vessel, a kind of catamaran – intended to require less draught, to sail faster and with a smaller crew than anything then at sea ...

Guests in the President’s House

Steven Shapin: Science Inc., 18 October 2001

Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion 
by Daniel Greenberg.
Chicago, 530 pp., £22.50, October 2001, 0 226 30634 8
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... America loves science. It has always loved science. As long ago as the 1830s, Tocqueville remarked on America’s love of science, and present-day surveys establish not only that 85 per cent of Americans believe that science ‘makes the world a better place’ but that an astonishing 80 per cent endorse Government support for scientific research even when no material benefits are in view ...

At the Amsterdam

Steven Shapin: A Wakefull and Civill Drink, 20 April 2006

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee House 
by Brian Cowan.
Yale, 364 pp., £25, January 2006, 0 300 10666 1
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Coffee House: A Cultural History 
by Markman Ellis.
Phoenix, 304 pp., £8.99, November 2005, 0 7538 1898 1
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... I went to a coffee house this morning. I had a ‘grande’ latte. It cost me $3.20. Sometimes I carry the coffee with me to work in a cardboard cup; this time I sat in the coffee house and drank it while reading the newspaper. I went by myself and did not have a conversation with any of the other customers – several of whom I vaguely recognised but most of whom were strangers ...

Confusion of Tongues

Steven Shapin: Scientific Languages, 3 December 2015

Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English 
by Michael Gordin.
Profile, 432 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 78125 114 0
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... From​ God’s point of view, the problem with the Tower of Babel was an excess both of hubris and of technological power. God had designed human beings to recognise the limits of what they could achieve, and here they were building a ‘tower whose top is in the heavens’. Not in my backyard, God thought, and pondered both the cause of man’s vaulting ambition and how He might put a permanent check on it ...

Species-Mongers

Steven Shapin: Joseph Hooker and the Dead Foreign Weeds, 20 November 2008

Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science 
by Jim Endersby.
Chicago, 429 pp., £18, May 2008, 978 0 226 20791 9
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... In the great adventures of botanical discovery from the 17th to the 19th century, expertise about plants was often supplementary cargo in voyages whose main purpose was to find, chart and conquer new lands. You planted the flag and then you named the plants. Making an inventory of the world’s plants, learning where they grew (and where they could be made to grow), and figuring out what they were good for, were activities hugely dependent on the navies, armies and trading companies of the big imperial powers ...

The Superhuman Upgrade

Steven Shapin: The Book That Explains It All, 13 July 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow 
by Yuval Noah Harari.
Vintage, 528 pp., £9.99, March 2017, 978 1 78470 393 6
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... Hedda Gabler​ ’s husband, Jørgen Tesman, is an academic historian – diligent, if a little plodding. He is researching a book which he hopes will make a splash, secure him a coveted professorship and support his wife’s taste for life in Oslo high society. When Tesman’s aunt asks him what the book will be about, he says it will deal with the domestic industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages ...

Pretence for Prattle

Steven Shapin: Tea, 30 July 2015

Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World 
by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger.
Reaktion, 326 pp., £25, May 2015, 978 1 78023 440 3
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... During​ the four centuries of its presence in British life, tea has made the transition from the exotically novel to the domestically ordinary, from a drug with possibly potent psychoactive powers to the mere ‘cup that cheers’, from a focus of social ritual to a casually taken and often solitary drink, from control by a quasi-state monopoly to a series of branded products largely dominated by multinational firms, from an artisanal to an industrial product ...

Bare Bones

Steven Shapin: Rhinoceros v. Megatherium, 8 March 2018

The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History 
by Juan Pimentel, translated by Peter Mason.
Harvard, 356 pp., £21.95, January 2017, 978 0 674 73712 9
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... What does​ a rhinoceros look like? If you are fortunate enough to have seen one in the flesh, you can can summon up an image from memory. If you haven’t seen one, you will have to conjure a mental image from pictures seen in books or in nature documentaries. There’s at least a chance that in forming this image your imagination will have tapped into a picture that is more than five hundred years old – Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of the outlandish pachyderm, made in 1515 ...

Hedonistic Fruit Bombs

Steven Shapin: How good is Château Pavie?, 3 February 2005

Bordeaux 
by Robert Parker.
Dorling Kindersley, 1244 pp., £45, December 2003, 1 4053 0566 5
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The Wine Buyer’s Guide 
by Robert Parker and Pierre-Antoine Rovani.
Dorling Kindersley, two volumes, £50, December 2002, 0 7513 4979 8
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Mondovino 
directed by Jonathan Nossiter.
November 2004
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... Sancho Panza fancied himself a wine connoisseur of rare ability. Challenged on his claim to have a ‘great natural instinct in judging wines’, he assured a sceptic that you ‘have only to let me smell one and I can tell positively its country, its kind, its flavour and soundness, the changes it will undergo and everything that appertains to a wine ...

How worried should we be?

Steven Shapin: How Not to Handle Nukes, 23 January 2014

Command and Control 
by Eric Schlosser.
Penguin, 632 pp., £25, September 2013, 978 1 84614 148 5
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... Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’ That’s known as Murphy’s Law. It’s invoked in all sorts of settings, but its natural modern home is in engineering, where it is generally attributed to a remark made around 1950 by an aeronautical engineer called Ed Murphy, who was working on the design of rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in California ...

Libel on the Human Race

Steven Shapin: Malthus, 5 June 2014

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet 
by Robert Mayhew.
Harvard, 284 pp., £20, April 2014, 978 0 674 72871 4
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... The​ Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus liked to look on the bright side. True, that hasn’t been the usual assessment: his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was intended to drench the parade of Enlightenment optimism about human possibility. The Radical writer Richard Price reckoned that an expanding population was a good thing, and that it would follow inevitably from more virtuous forms of government ...

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