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Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press).

Why history of science?

The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under the rubric of philosophy, but the more I delved the more it seemed that the best approach to understanding them might be through historical investigation. 

The power of good historical research, especially pronounced in the history of science, comes from a willful act of blindness: to try, as much as possible, to immerse yourself in the past debates and to turn off your knowledge of how it actually turned out. We know things today about oxygen and atomism that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chemists did not know, and in order to explain what they were thinking in historical terms, we cannot resort to later knowledge they had no access to. That radical move not only opens up new avenues of understanding, but it more properly resembles today’s scientific inquiry. After all, we don’t know the answers to our current questions either; today’s scientists are also groping along without the answer key. Taking that same approach to telling the history of science is simply engrossing.

Why this book? 

I’ve been fascinated by what one could call 'fringe science' movements since middle school, when I encountered books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster when I was reading my way through the science shelves at the local public library. I knew that these doctrines were different from the regular scientific fare, and I have always wanted to understand what made them different, and what motivated people to continue to advocate for them despite the omnipresent stigma. It is a topic I have returned to in many guises over the years.

This book grew out of one of those efforts: a class I have taught many times on the history of pseudoscience. We explore many of the usual suspects (creationism, eugenics, alchemy), but I also juxtaposed controversial mainstream science so the students could really grapple with the difficulties of demarcation. The class taught me a lot about the different ways of thinking about the fringe, and it seemed a fitting topic for a short book, which I first drafted in 2019. A lot has happened since then! As it turned out, the book is far more relevant to current events than I had anticipated.

What’s next?

I’m currently working on a rather different question: What happened to science when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991? Although this seems like an esoteric question (depending on where in the world you live), the end of the U.S.S.R. became part of a series of shockwaves that transformed the basic structures of how science is done all over the world. At its peak in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union had more scientists and engineers than any other country in the world, and in the few years surrounding 1991 that number shrank by almost two-thirds. Some of those individuals emigrated to many destinations around the world, but most just left their science posts and got jobs in the regular economy. 

What followed were strikingly divergent reforms across the former Soviet states, Eastern Europe, and most of the rest of the socialist world (Cuba, Vietnam — and China’s path was particularly distinctive). The stories range from the discovery of superheavy elements, to genomic research, to space stations, to the radical restructuring of the nuclear sector. So far, the research has been fascinating — although pandemic travel restrictions have made it even more challenging than it already was.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

For a historian of science with interests both in fringe science movements and global scientific infrastructure, we are living in an amazing moment. Both the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic present the planet with science-based crises that demand science-based solutions, but which are simultaneously questions of economic, social, and political organization. Simply following all the strands would be a full-time job if I didn’t already have one! Tackling these frightening challenges will require all our imagination, and the past is full of lessons that can help us think more clearly about the present and future.


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