A history of science at its intricate best: Ivan Pavlov’s story of Marxism, digestion, excitation and terror

E4104584-7d50-11e5_1187907kStephen Lovell at the Times Literary Supplement:

The twists and turns of Pavlov’s biography were matched by the tensions in his personality. Although himself a convinced atheist, in 1881 he married a devout fellow provincial who had come to St Petersburg to study on the recently established pedagogical courses for women. In the days of their courtship, he had to reckon with her enthusiasm for the messianic Fyodor Dostoevsky, swapping impressions of The Brothers Karamazov as it first came out. Much later, after more than twenty years of impeccably patriarchal family life, he formed a romantic attachment that would last the rest of his days. Pavlov’s lover and confidante after 1912 was Maria Petrova, by then only nominally the wife of the celebrity priest Grigory Petrov, who had thrown herself into a medical career in her late twenties and became Pavlov’s most devoted lab worker. Although Pavlov adhered to a strict daily routine, professed the value of self-discipline, and envisaged his labs as the domain of dispassionate rationality, he was possessed of a volcanic temper and regularly browbeat assistants who had the temerity to disagree with him or to follow their own hunches. Pavlov’s near fanatical pursuit of orderliness in his domestic and professional lives was evidently a way of taming his tempestuous nature and of minimizing the effects of the “random events” (sluchainosti) that he identified as the source of much human unhappiness.

More interesting still is the extent to which these tensions were also present in Pavlov’s thinking. Like most other scientists of his generation, he professed the absolute authority of the “fact”. The task of the scientist was to accumulate a large amount of data from rigorously controlled and meticulously conducted experiments. The conclusions would then take care of themselves.

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