The Forbidden Bookshelf

by | Aug 1, 2021 | Philosophy, Science

My science classes hid so much from me.

Sixteen years ago, I learned that a million Earths could fit inside the sun. Amazed by this fact, I decided that I wanted to be an astronomer or astrophysicist. I loved how science was a systematic method of revealing the truth about the universe. To me, it was also an escape, a platonic endeavor insulated from earthly squabbles. I was wrong.

In school, I only learned about Science the Method and Science the Body of Knowledge. Later, I learned that this was a narrow and sanitized view. Hidden from me was a forbidden shelf of history books where science was anything but platonic, objective, or apolitical. In those books, science is not just a method or a body of knowledge. It is a powerful social institution that is not insulated from but deeply embroiled in “earthly squabbles.” This idea, of Science the Social Institution, was a revelation to me. It changed me and my views of the world.

Three years ago, my image of neutral science first shattered when I learned about how, in World War I, chemist Fritz Haber developed poison gas weapons in the name of German patriotism. In the next world war, the Manhattan Project’s nuclear weapons showed how physicists translated math equations to mass destruction. This semester, my STS class taught me about how eugenicists used flimsy biology to justify the institutionalization, sterilization, and murder of “biologically inferior humans.” Of course, the current pandemic is also a daily reminder that science has immediate impacts on society.

In his autobiography, American microbiologist Jonathan Beckwith tells the story of how the history shelf was also hidden from him until he was already a graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry:

It was not until the early 1970s that I came across a book that opened my eyes to this history. I read a book review in Science entitled “A Tormented History.” … I borrowed the book from the Harvard Medical School library; fascinated by this hidden history, I read through it within a couple of days. I learned of the behavior of scientists during the genetic movement and how scientific ideas from genetics were converted into social policy. Reading Ludmerer’s book and other writings on eugenics has had an enormous influence on me. Much of what I have done since as an activist within science I attribute to my own recapture of this history. (Making Genes, Making Waves; p. 100)

Like Beckwith, learning history changed my relationship with science. I felt like I was lied to: Why did my teachers not tell me about all this? Why did I not learn this sooner? Now, I do not just use science to ask questions about the universe. I also ask questions about science itself. How are its methods used? How does it wield power or how is it complicit in systems of power? Whom do its products benefit? Sadly, this is not yet a mainstream view in the scientific community. How else was the history shelf hidden in the first place?

As a science communicator, I want to bring this forbidden shelf out into the open. In my talks, I highlight the wonders of the universe along with the history untold in textbooks. In this post-truth era, this is difficult. I cannot ask people to trust science and then tell them about when it failed horribly. From experience, I found that the key is in carefully communicating the self-correcting nature of science. But this correction must happen sooner than later before any damage is done. This is only possible through the efforts of critical scientists–ideally, all scientists–who can foresee when science is headed in the wrong direction.

Now, I read more about STS, history, philosophy, and sociology so I can be a more powerful science communicator and a more critical scientist. Someday, I hope to write textbooks where the curiosities of the cosmos are told along with the human stories of science. Science is both a self-correcting source of knowledge and a fallible institution; and we must not hide this dual fact. This is the truth–one that belongs in textbooks, not in forbidden bookshelves. ▉


[This is a slightly modified version of the essay which helped me get the Burchard Scholarship at MIT. This was a response to the following prompt: “Great ideas change the world.” In your essay, personalize the SHASS motto by addressing the following question: How have one or two “great ideas” changed you and your views of “the world”?]