Steven Shapin is visiting the UK. For those unfamiliar with the history and sociology of science, he is one of the giants of the field. From the 1970s he has been in the thick of the action: a protagonist in the making and affirmation of the Edinburgh School; making the study of place and practice central features of the concerns and efforts of historians of science. He has always been ahead, leading, shaping (pardon the pun).
Yesterday he visited my department, History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where he has friends and collaborators. In our seminar room 2, our largest, the last room in the depths of the basement, we heard him speak about taste and judgment, and how historians of science need to work towards ethnographies of taste. The talk was great. His voice carried the room. And the argument was interesting, claiming subjectivity not as the evil twin of objectivity but as a focus of enquiry and exploration in scientific judgment. But what impressed me most was not Shapin, although impressed I was.
What was most remarkable was to sit in a filled room, chairs hulled in last minute, two squares of tables, plus seating against the walls, and the inner section of the first square of tables occupied, packed! Yesterday, we were having one of those, very english, 24 hour indian summers, it was hot and humid and heavy. It wasn't pleasant to be in the room. And no one moved. Not a gulp. Not a movement of a chair, many as they were. Arns that were crossed remained crossed, no one daring to ruffle a shirt. A frozen, sweating, audience listening intently at Shapin.
What kept everyone so quiet and attentive? There are plenty of superstars in academe and I have been in the room with some, and they don't attract this kind of attention. Perhaps because most academic stars are extinct volcanoes and we cherish them for what they have done, and we listened to them hearing what they said before. What makes Shapin so remarkable is that as a leader of his community he keeps pushing on, and on everyone's tacit agreement, the field follows him. So his next utterance, by self fulfilling prophecy and its merits, will become the mainstream in a few years time. Shapin is the performative scholar.