Ian Hacking on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition

1334755548An excerpt from Ian Hacking's introduction to the new edition of Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in the LA Review of Books:

ONE THING IS NOT SAID often enough: Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, like all great books, is a work of passion, and a passionate desire to get things right. This is plain even from its modest first sentence: “History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.” Thomas Kuhn was out to change our understanding of the sciences — that is, of the activities that have enabled our species, for better or worse, to dominate the planet. He succeeded.


The present edition commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Nineteen sixty-two was a long time ago. The sciences themselves have radically changed. The queen of the sciences, then, was physics. Kuhn had been trained as a physicist. Few people knew much physics, but everybody knew that physics was where the action was. A cold war was in progress, so everyone knew about the Bomb. American schoolchildren had to practice cowering under their desks. At least once a year towns sounded an air raid siren, at which everyone had to take shelter. Those who protested against a nuclear weapon, by ostentatiously not taking shelter, could be arrested, and some were. Bob Dylan first performed “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” in September 1962; everyone assumed it was about nuclear fallout. In October 1962 there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come, after 1945, to nuclear war. Physics and its threat were on everyone's mind.

The Cold War is long over, and physics is no longer where the action is. Another event of 1962 was the awarding of Nobel prizes to Francis Crick and James Watson for the molecular biology of DNA and to Max Perutz and John Kendrew for the molecular biology of hemoglobin. That was the harbinger of change. Today, biotechnology rules. Kuhn took physical science and its history as his model. You will have to decide, after reading his book, about the extent to which what he said about the physical sciences holds true in the teeming, present world of biotechnology. Add in information science. Add in what the computer has done to the practice of science. Even experiment is not what it was, for it has been modified and to a certain extent replaced by computer simulation. And everyone knows that the computer has changed communication. In 1962 scientific results were announced at meetings, in special seminars, in preprints, and then in articles published in specialist journals. Today the primary mode of publication is in an electronic archive.

There is yet another fundamental difference between 2012 and 1962. It affects the heart of the book, fundamental physics. In 1962 there were competing cosmologies: steady state and big bang, two completely different pictures of the universe and its origin.