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Cover of The Art and Politics of Science

The Art and Politics of Science


New York: W.W. Norton & Company; .
ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06128-4


This small book owes its existence in large part to Jean Strouse. Late in 2003, when she was still the freshly appointed director of The New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, Jean asked me to give a series of three lectures the following fall, an annual event sponsored by W. W. Norton & Company, hoping that I would speak about some aspects of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. This notion was inspired, in part, by her long-range goal of using her new position to promote a greater interest in and knowledge about science among her colleagues in the humanities. I was asked because she knew that I had studied literature in earlier years and continue to read widely in realms beyond the science that I practice.

At first, she suggested that I revisit the concept of two cultures, which is generally traced to the 1959 Rede Lecture delivered by C. P. Snow, who had achieved prominence as a scientist, a novelist, and a government official. Snow’s description of the two cultures, the arts and the sciences, separated by a gulf of language and thought, met with both hearty acclaim and strident criticism, and the subsequent debates attracted enormous attention. (I recall an evening given over to an American version of the debate at a fraternity house at Amherst College in 1960, when I was an undergraduate there.)

But on rereading both the original lecture and Snow’s responses to his critics, I found (and Jean did too) that the idea of two cultures now appeared too simplistic, however accurate, to bear a lengthy reexamination. So, after a series of lunches and email exchanges, we agreed that I would endeavor to explain what it means to be a scientist—or, anyhow, what it has meant for me to be a scientist. That seemed to be a way to fulfill at least part of her original purpose, since I came to science through an education in the humanities, and my career as a scientist has included significant forays into politics, administration, publishing, and international issues. By defining my purpose in this manner, I hoped to make some aspects of the life and thoughts of one scientist intelligible and possibly interesting to even the most entrenched members of the “other” culture.

To do this, I intended to use my three lectures to describe three things: first, how I became a scientist; then, something about the work my colleagues and I have done and its significance for the control of cancer; and, finally, examples of my experience in government and policy-making, to offer a view of a scientist in a larger world that includes politics and the arts. The assignment encouraged me to think more than I would otherwise have done about the shape of my career, which revealed to me how meandering and unexpected it has been. This theme—with implicit course changes and serendipities—became a dominant one in the lectures and even more so in this volume.


Copyright © 2009 by Harold Varmus.
Bookshelf ID: NBK190622PMID: 24696889


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