Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society - Bill Bryson (2010)
13. PHILIP BALL
MAKING STUFF: FROM BACON TO BAKELITE
Philip Ball is a science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a consultant editor. He is author of numerous non-fiction works including Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind, The Devil’s Doctor, Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry and Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another.His latest books form a trilogy - Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, individually titled Shapes, Flow and Branches.
FRANCIS BACON’S VISION OF A SCIENCE DRIVEN BY THE URGE FOR ‘THE EFFECTING OF ALL THINGS POSSIBLE’ HAS BEEN ASTONISHINGLY PRODUCTIVE FOR NEARLY FOUR HUNDRED YEARS. ARE WE GRATEFUL? ASKS PHILIP BALL. ANSWER: YES AND NO. THE REASONS FOR THIS TAKE A BIT OF TEASING OUT.
C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture is remembered as a critique of the cultural divide then perceived between the scientific and the literary worlds. But there were more than two cultures identified in his discussion. ‘I think it is fair to say’, he wrote, ‘that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are.’
It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists … wouldn’t recognise that many of the problems [of engineering] were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful. Their instinct … was to take it for granted that applied science was an occupation for second-rate minds.
Snow wasn’t alone in this perception. Writing at much the same time, the English biologist Peter Medawar spoke of Francis Bacon’s division of experimental science in the seventeenth century into ‘Experiments of Use’ and ‘Experiments of Light and Discovery’. Bacon’s distinction, said Medawar, ‘is between research that increases our power over nature and research that increases our understanding of nature, and he is telling us that the power comes from the understanding’ - Bacon’s famous maxim that ‘knowledge is power’. But, Medawar went on:
Unhappily, Bacon’s distinction is not the one we now make when we differentiate between the basic and applied sciences. The notion of purity has somehow been superimposed upon it, and in a new usage that connotes a conscious and inexplicably self-righteous disengagement from the pressures of necessity and use. The distinction is not now between the empirically founded sciences and those whose axioms were supposedly known a priori; rather it is between polite and rude learning, between the laudably useless and the vulgarly applied, the free and the intellectually compromised, the poetic and the mundane.
‘All this’, he added, ‘is terribly, terribly English.’
I believe that this situation can’t be ignored when looking at the development of the applied sciences over the past several centuries. When several rather austere-sounding books from the post-war years, with titles such as Metals [or Plastics] in the Service of Man, served up to lay audiences a triumphalist celebration of materials technologies, they rather took it for granted that the general public felt indebted to these wondrous advances. But as Snow and Medawar intimated, not even scientists themselves had yet found an accommodation between scientific discovery and its applications. This is scarcely surprising, however, since such ambivalence towards what the Greeks called techne - the art of making things - can be discerned throughout history, and pervades not just science and technology but culture in the broad sense.
Many scientists, for instance, will agree with biologist Lewis Wolpert that ‘technology is not science’. Science, says Wolpert, ‘originated only once in history, in Greece’ - although he acknowledges that ‘those who equate science with technology would argue differently’. Indeed they do.
The notion that science is distinct from technology would have sat comfortably with the ancient Greek philosophers, most of whom displayed a reluctance to get their hands dirty. Both Plato and Aristotle elected for a top-down approach to understanding the world, launched from the kind of a priori axioms that Medawar mentions. Aristotle, it is true, advocated close observation of nature, and in the Middle Ages Aristotelian natural philosophers such as Roger Bacon and his mentor Robert Grosseteste instigated a methodology in which experiment played a central role. But one must be careful when speaking of ‘experimental science’ before the Enlightenment, for it often meant demonstrating what one already knew to be the case - and if experiment seemed to contradict axiomatic reason, so much the worse for experiment. In any event, Aristotelianism became rigid dogma in the medieval universities, and Bacon’s advocacy of a new, ‘experimental philosophy’ was a reaction to it: a call for a reformation in how science was conducted.
Meanwhile, what we might now call applied sciences and technologies were commonly conducted by artisans who had no formal university training: metallurgists and alchemists, miners, dye-makers, brewers and bakers, textile makers, barber-surgeons. Their trades were systematically excluded from the academies, where they were often derided as ignorant labourers and recipe-followers (sometimes, it must be said, with good reason).
So it is interesting that, for Wolpert, one of the people confused about the relation between science and technology was Francis Bacon himself. That claim warrants a little examination - for isn’t Bacon often credited with the germinal vision of a body of scientific savants like the Royal Society? What was it, exactly, that Bacon would have such an organisation do - science, or something else?
BROTHERHOODS OF SCIENCE
The blueprint for this new philosophy was laid out in Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (The Great Instauration) of 1620. This was a mere fragment, the introductory episode of an unrealised dream to summarise all of human knowledge and to explain how it should be extended and applied. The Latin noun instauratio means a renewal or restoration. It has a Biblical connotation, referring to a rebuilding of the House of the Lord like that accomplished in the renovation of Solomon’s Temple.
As an addendum to the same volume, Bacon published Novum Organum (The New Organon), which explains the shortcomings of earlier natural philosophy. Bacon decries both the sterility of academic Aristotelianism, which he compares with spiders weaving tenuous philosophical webs, and the blind fumblings of uninformed practical technologies, which are like the mindless tasks of ants. True scientists, he said, should be like bees, which extract the goodness from nature and use it to make useful things.
Seven years later, Bacon offered a vision of how this new experimental philosophy might unfold. In The New Atlantis he presented a utopian fable in which a group of travellers in the Pacific Ocean encounters a land called Bensalem, run by a sect of scholar-priests in an institution called Salomon’s House. Here were Bacon’s scientist-bees, engaged in ‘the production of wonderful operations’. This is evidently not a scientific body that is content to sit and ponder. It creates marvellous devices and structures: artificial lakes, furnaces, engines, caves where alchemy mimics the natural production of metals. Nature is not merely observed, classified and understood in the manner of some Aristotelian taxonomist - it is dominated, modified, ‘improved’. According to the scholars of Salomon’s House:
We make, by art … trees and flowers to come earlier or later than their seasons; and to come up and bear more speedily than by their natural course they do. We make them also by art greater much than their nature; and their fruit greater and sweeter and of differing taste, smell, colour and figure, from their nature … We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials … We also try all poisons and other medicines upon them … By art likewise we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise dwarf them and stay their growth. We make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and not generative. And we also make them differ in colour, shape, activity, many ways. We find means to make commixtures and copulations of different kinds, which have produced many new kinds, and them not barren, as the general opinion is.
Bacon’s programme was championed in England during the stormy 1640s by the Prussian exile Samuel Hartlib, one of a clutch of progressive thinkers that included the mathematician William Petty, the chymist Robert Boyle and the Bermudan alchemist George Starkey. During the English Civil War and its aftermath, such ambitions were politically charged: the ‘new philosophy’ had a distinctly Puritan slant that challenged the traditionalism of the Royalists. But Cromwell’s Protectorate was wary of anything that smelled of the utopian, and it was not until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that permission was granted for Boyle, Petty and colleagues to found what became, by royal charter two years later, the Royal Society.
Bacon’s thinking infused this project. The poet Abraham Cowley, whose pamphlet The Advancement of Experimental Philosophy in 1661 was of a distinctly Baconian flavour, wrote an ode to the Royal Society in 1667 in which he hailed Bacon as the liberator who, like Moses, ‘led us forth at last’ to a ‘Promis’d Land’. In fact, in its early days the members of the Royal Society seemed to take so closely to heart Bacon’s advocacy of Experiments of Use that its early historian Thomas Sprat complained in 1667 that ‘we are not able to inculcate into the minds of many men, the necessity of that distinction of my Lord Bacon’s, that there ought to be Experiments of Light, as well as of Fruit’. It was as though they were all intent on creating without delay the technological miracles of a New Atlantis.
The aims of the scholars of Salomon’s House, Bacon wrote, are ‘the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. We are now rather familiar with the former as goals of scientific inquiry. What caused the universe, and what now is causing the ‘secret motion’ of its accelerating expansion? What are the fundamental forces, and how are they related? How did life begin, and what agencies have governed its trajectory? What are the secret motions of the human mind?
But ‘the effecting of all things possible’? You do not have to be one of Snow’s anti-scientific snobs to feel a shiver of apprehension at the ‘wonders’ of Salomon’s House, or at the prospect of such subjugation of nature. Today is it painfully evident that we lack much ability to ‘control’ nature, but possess in abundance a capacity to foul it up. Yes, like Bensalem’s scientists we can make ‘instruments of war’ and ‘new mixtures and compositions of gun-powder, wild-fires burning in water, and unquenchable’. We ‘make divers imitations of taste, so that they will deceive any man’s taste’. We have ‘houses of deceits of the senses’, ‘false apparitions, impostures and illusions’. We do not seem to be any the better off for it.
The debate about where one locates the blame for the excesses and destructiveness of a technological age is an important one, but is certainly not going to be resolved here. I want instead to look at just a few areas of Baconian applied science, to examine where Bacon’s vision has in fact taken us and why and how it has acquired the tarnish that Medawar and Snow discerned, whereby engineering becomes simultaneously drab and dangerous to the public view while tolerated by scientists as a somewhat dim and vulgar relation.
We have large and deep caves … for the producing also of new artificial metals.
Mining and metallurgy are the first things that the scholars of Salomon’s House mention; imagine that! Here is a list, not unlike that attempted in this book, of the great things that science has achieved, and what comes at the top? Cosmology? Genetics? Evolutionary theory? No - metals. That’s because Bacon understood the foundations on which his world was built. Political power in the age of the Stuarts depended on metals: on the ability to equip an army and to produce muskets and cannons, and on the control of coinage and bullion. Wealth was measured out in silver, as the Fugger family of Augsburg discovered when it supplied kings and emperors with canny loans from its banking empire in order to gain control of the German silver mines. The foremost technological treatise of the Renaissance was Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica (1556), a summary of mining techniques that remained the standard text for two centuries. It contained woodcuts in which massive machines wrest nature’s bounty from the Earth, a truly Baconian picture that foreshadowed the ruthless manufacturing and despoliation of the Industrial Revolution.
But Agricola’s book included a staunch defence of mining which reveals a lot about the ambivalent views of his contemporaries. Mining has always been a dirty business - the mines of Rio Tinto in Spain have degraded the environment since the times of Roman occupation. Agricola tells us that people were not blind to this in the late Middle Ages. ‘The strongest argument of the detractors’, he says, ‘is that the fields are devastated by mining operations … Also they argue that the woods and groves are cut down … then are exterminated the beasts and birds … Further, when the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away.’ And he notes that mining is considered to be a profession unsuited to respectable people, a ‘degrading and dishonourable’ affair once fit only for slaves. In the first century BC the Roman writer Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Egyptian gold mines in the Nubian deserts were manned by ‘notorious criminals, captives taken in war, persons against whom the King is incensed’, who were worked until ‘they drop down dead in the midst of their insufferable labours’. Metals were much prized, but extracting and refining them was a lowly, even despicable task.
That was to change. During the Industrial Revolution, the high price of steel meant that many large engineering projects were carried out that used instead cast iron, which is brittle and prone to failure. The Dee Bridge disaster of 1847 was one such: Robert Stephenson’s structure in Chester collapsed as a train passed over it, killing five people. This was why Henry Bessemer’s new process for making steel was greeted with jubilation: the details, announced at a meeting of the British Association in 1856, were published in full in The Times. Bessemer himself was lauded not just as an engineer but as a scientist, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1879.
Bessemer’s process controlled the amount of carbon mixed with iron to make steel. That the proportion of carbon governs the hardness was first noted in 1774 by the Swedish metallurgist Torbern Bergmann, who was by any standards a scientist, teaching chemistry, physics and mathematics at Uppsala. Bergmann made an extensive study of the propensity of different chemical elements to combine with one another - a property known as elective affinity, central to the eighteenth-century notion of chemical reactivity. He was a mentor and sponsor of Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the greatest Swedish chemist of the age and a co-discoverer of oxygen.
Oxygen, as a component of air, was the key to the Bessemer process. It offered a way of removing impurities from pig iron and adjusting its carbon content during conversion to steel. A blast of air through the molten metal turned impurities such as silicon into light silica slag, and removed carbon in the form of volatile carbon dioxide. Pig iron contains as much as 4 per cent carbon; steels have only around 0.3-2 per cent. Meanwhile, the heat produced in these reactions with oxygen kept the iron molten without the need for extra fuel (coke was expensive). Basically the same process was invented in Kentucky in the late 1840s by an American inventor, William Kelly, but he had no commercial success with it and went bankrupt in 1857, in the process losing his patent claims to Bessemer.
It was long known that steel can be improved with a spice of other elements. A dash of the metal manganese helps to remove oxygen and sulphur from the iron, and most of the manganese currently produced globally is used for this purpose. Manganese also makes steel stronger, while nickel and chromium improve its hardness. And chromium is the key additive in stainless steel - in a proportion of more than about 11 per cent, it makes the metal rust-resistant. Most modern steels are therefore alloys blended to give the desired properties.
But is this science? Some of the early innovations in steel alloys were chance discoveries, often due to impurities incorporated by accident. In this respect, metallurgy has long retained the air of an artisan craft, akin to the trial-and-error explorations of dyers, glassmakers and potters. But the reason for this empiricism is not that the science of metallurgy is trivial; it is because it is so difficult. According to Rodney Cotterill, a remarkable British physicist whose expertise stretched from the sciences of materials to that of the brain, ‘metallurgy is one of our most ancient arts, but is often referred to as one of the youngest sciences’.
One of the principal difficulties in understanding the behaviour of materials such as steel is that this depends on its structure over a wide range of length scales, from the packing of individual atoms to the size and shape of grains micrometres or even millimetres in size. Science has trouble dealing with such a span of scales. One might regard this difficulty as akin to that in the social sciences, where social behaviour is governed by how individuals behave but also how we interact on the scale of families and neighbourhoods, within entire cities, and at a national level. (That’s why the social sciences are arguably among the hardest of sciences too.)
The mechanical properties of metals depend on how flaws in the crystal structure, called defects, move and interact. These defects are produced by almost inevitable imperfections in the regular stacking of atoms in the crystalline material. The most common type of stacking fault is called a dislocation. Metals bend, rather than shattering like porcelain, because dislocations can shift around and accommodate the deformation. But if dislocations accumulate and get entangled, restricting their ability to move, the metal becomes brittle. This is what happens after repeated deformation, causing the cracking known as metal fatigue. Dislocations can also get trapped at the boundaries between the fine, microscopic grains that divide a metal into mosaics of crystallites. The arrest of dislocations at grain edges means that metals may be made harder by reducing the size of their grains, a useful trick for modifying their mechanical behaviour.
To understand all of this, one needs a variety of microscopic techniques for investigating metal structure at different levels of magnification. It has also now become possible to simulate the behaviour of vast numbers of atoms on a computer, allowing researchers to relate the properties of dislocations and grains containing thousands or millions of atoms to the packing of constituent particles at the atomic scale.
This sort of insight is making it possible to design metal alloys from the drawing board - figuring out what combinations of elements and arrangements of atoms will supply particular properties, and then attempting to make them. That’s true not just for mechanical properties such as strength and hardness but also for electrical and magnetic properties, paving the way for new batteries and super-strong magnets. No one can question that this is hard science, demanding the skills of physics and chemistry as well as the expertise and experience of materials scientists. Among the remarkable metals that have emerged from such research are alloys that can remember shapes, regaining them when bent and then gently warmed; metals that change shape when placed in magnetic fields; metals that don’t expand when they get warm (essential for finely engineered devices such as watches); and metals that turn heat into electricity, offering new possibilities in refrigeration. Yet as with so much applied science, the truly ‘scientific’ aspects of metal engineering tend to be overlooked by the time these substances reach the marketplace: they are just ‘stuff’, products of a kind of industrial alchemy that passes unquestioned because it is deemed simultaneously prosaic and utterly mysterious.
We have also divers mechanical arts … and stuffs made by them; as papers, linen, silks, tissues …
Bacon’s New Atlantis is a favourite hunting ground for those who like to find predictions of tomorrow’s technologies. With a little imaginative licence, you can find within it intimations of submarines, loudspeakers, even lasers. But even Bacon’s fertile mind fails to anticipate that entirely new classes of materials might be invented. He does, however, recognise the transformative value of the textile fabrics of everyday life, and it is not hard to imagine him grasping in an instant the idea that approximations to silk might be made from oil, or the genuine article obtained without the aid of spiders and silkworms.
Today, the very notion of ‘synthetic’ in materials is almost synonymous with plastics: that’s to say, with the Protean substances made of long, chainlike polymer molecules with backbones of carbon. Nature’s structural fabrics - silk, hair, muscle, horn, wood and so forth - are also essentially carbon-based polymer materials. But whereas they are composed almost entirely of just two classes of molecule - proteins and polysaccharides - synthetic plastics have a dazzling diversity of composition.
Plastics open the most revealing window on our relationship with human-made materials and their associated technologies. In many ways, they serve in this regard as a proxy for engineering technologies in general, tracing a complex path between excitement, opportunity, disenchantment, distrust, environmental concerns and even fetishism. Roland Barthes understood this: plastics, he said, are the ultimate representation of technologists’ abilities to transform matter: ‘the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels.’ Plastics offer ‘the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through Nature’ - a poetic description of Bacon’s technological utopianism, if ever there was one.
The earliest plastics, invented in the nineteenth century, were semi-natural materials regarded as substitutes for wholly natural ones. Celluloid is made from the cellulose fibres of plants: Christian Schönbein, a Swiss-German chemist who also pioneered the fuel cell and discovered ozone, found in 1832 that cotton fibres could be dissolved in nitric acid to form a glutinous material, cellulose nitrate, that could be moulded and hardened. John and Isaiah Hyatt, two American brothers, discovered three decades later that castor oil or camphor made this material more malleable and workable, and they marketed it in the 1860s as a kind of imitation ivory, used in billiard balls and false teeth. But it was highly inflammable, even explosive - one form of cellulose nitrate, called gun cotton, was used as an artillery propellant, while celluloid in photographic movie film led to many a reel (and sometimes a cinema) going up in smoke.
A role for polymers as cheap mimics of expensive natural materials was furthered by the serendipitous invention of Bakelite in 1905: this dark resin aped the texture of mahogany. And rayon, another polymer derived from cellulose and marketed from the 1880s, was regarded as a kind of artificial silk - an epithet also attached to nylon, which the American company DuPont sold first for toothbrush bristles and then more lucratively in women’s stockings from the late 1930s. Nylon has the better claim: the chemical constitution of its polymer chains is somewhat similar to that of the protein molecules that make up real silk.
So the initial promise of polymers was to provide ‘luxury for all’: materials resembling those only the wealthy had previously been able to afford. They were egalitarian materials: as Barthes put it, ‘they aimed at reproducing cheaply the rarest substances, diamonds, silk, feathers, furs, silver, all the luxurious brilliance of the world’. What’s more, the raw ingredients came from cheap oil or, in the case of Bakelite, from a waste product of turning coal into coke. Thus they offered wonders ‘for free’, and in this sense were a part of the utopian vision that science seemed to promise in the inter-war years. Henry Ford even experimented with an all-plastic car made from extracts of soya beans.
But this vision palled after the Second World War, partly because of shoddy manufacturing. PVC (polyvinylchloride) raincoats had an unpleasant texture and gave off smelly vapours when wet. Polystyrene products were brittle in ways that wood and metal never were. Plastics no longer seemed like cheap luxury, but merely cheap. ‘Plastic has climbed down, it is a household material’, Barthes announced in the mid-1950s. ‘It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.’
And so the plastics industry made that instead its selling point. No longer imitating luxury goods, plastic openly advertised its synthetic nature in garish colours that always looked factory-fresh. These materials were cheap, disposable and convenient: for housewives, much was made of plastics’ wipe-clean character, transferable to just about any surface thanks to rolls of adhesive sheeting. The virtue of domestic convenience was exemplified by Teflon, the substance discovered (again serendipitously) at DuPont in the 1930s and later used in ‘non-stick’ kitchenware.
Historian Jeffrey Meikle of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that plastics thus introduced a ‘democratisation of things’ in the post-war economic expansion that made a dizzying variety and quantity of goods available to everyone. But this ultimately spawned a backlash against the ‘miracle materials’, which became emblematic of all that was superficial and wasteful in modern society. And hazardous too: it began with children being suffocated by plastic bags, but during the 1960s and 1970s the dangers started to look far more insidious. The molecular building blocks of PVC were linked to liver cancers among workers in the manufacturing plants, while some of the ingredients used as so-called plasticisers to soften plastics have been implicated as carcinogens and hormone mimics, which disrupt the human endocrine system.
Meanwhile, it became increasingly hard to see a link between these mass products and genuine science. In the World Fairs of the inter-war years, plastics were brought to the public by men in white coats, gazing into test tubes. But could a polymer scientist really belong to the same lofty caste as a geneticist or a particle physicist?
Yet once again, from a scientific and engineering point of view there is an awful lot of complexity to polymer science. These chainlike molecules can get entangled and flow in unusual ways while they are fluid. Engineering specific properties in polymers is a matter of controlling the microstructure, just as it is for metals: modifying the way the chains line up in a more or less orderly manner, say, or controlling their branching. As chemists gradually deduced how to regulate such things, they became capable of synthesising remarkable engineered polymers such as Kevlar, which is strong and tough enough to deflect bullets and tether oil rigs.
In nature this sort of structural tuning is exquisitely managed in protein-based polymers such as silk, a complex collage of tiny crystal-like regions in a disorderly, flexible matrix that creates a material stronger, weight for weight, than steel. Scientists have been attempting to make artificial silk for decades - one of the latest tricks is to produce the silk protein in the milk of genetically engineered goats, a Baconian vision for sure. But a persistent obstacle here is that the superior properties of silk thread arise not just from its chemical composition but from the way the polymer molecules are marshalled, aligned and organised as the threads get spun.
From the utopianism of the 1930s to the bland consumerism of the 1960s and the sleek monochrome minimalism of the 1980s, the mood of the developed world can be gauged from its polymer consumables. Today our bulk plastics are struggling towards a more environmentally friendly image, being biodegradable, made from non-oil-based ingredients, or more easily recycled. Meanwhile, high-tech plastics infiltrate the information technology once monopolised by silicon. Electronic circuits are being written with plastic, manufactured with cheap printing technology instead of demanding expensive high-vacuum conditions. Glowing television screens can be created from all-plastic light-emitting diodes on sheets as thin and flexible as paper.
Even paper itself is being reinvented, partly in plastic, for the information age. It is one of those fabrics that are hard to improve: its cheapness, durability, portability and readability (thanks to the high brightness contrast with ink, whether in bright or dim light) have secured the survival of the book and the newspaper in the digital age. But now the benefits of information technology are being combined with those of paper in a material commonly called e-paper or (to turn the idea on its head) e-ink: a plastic sheet with the lightness and appearance of paper on which the ink can be rearranged electronically. A sheet of the stuff, connected to a microchip loaded with data, is an entire library. These heady possibilities should come with a warning, however, for Bacon was right to say that power stems from knowledge and not mere information.
We have also means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds; and likewise to make divers new plants, differing from the vulgar; and to make one tree or plant turn into another. We have also parks and enclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds … By art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is; and contrariwise dwarf them, and stay their growth: we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is; and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also we make them differ in colour, shape, activity, many ways … Neither do we this by chance, but we know beforehand, of what matter and commixture what kind of those creatures will arise.
Of all the ‘marvels’ in Bensalem, these are surely the most chilling, not least because of the apparent nonchalance with which the priests of Salomon’s House tamper with living nature. Here most of all Bacon’s treatise takes on a Faustian cast, and it is an easy matter to trace the path from New Atlantis to Mary Shelley, whose fantastic fable of life remade tapped into centuries of apprehension about the consequences of scientific hubris.
Of course, we cannot read Bacon’s comments now without thinking of biotechnology and genetic engineering, which permit the ‘commixture’ of creatures: spider genes in goats, plants loaded with the genetic defensive armoury of quite different (even animal) species. We can hollow out animal eggs and load them up with human genomes, and then grow them into embryos. And this is just the beginning. It is probably a matter of a few years before new species are designed on the blackboard and manufactured with genomes synthesised in the laboratory, collections of genes handpicked more fastidiously than anything selective breeding can achieve. These genomes might be transferred into emptied cells, or simply allowed to override the existing genetic instruction manuals of ordinary bacteria. This ‘synthetic biology’ will represent a new origin of life, after a fashion: the first organisms outside the great chain of being that began almost four billion years ago. And tellingly, such efforts are now framed in terms that relate more to an information age than to the molecular biology of Crick and Watson: organisms, we are told, are being ‘reprogrammed’ with new ‘software’, and then ‘rebooted’ to get them running. The redesign of life ‘from scratch’ will be accompanied by well-motivated concerns about safety and ethics, but it will also confront us with deeper questions that we have previously preferred to keep at arm’s length: What is life? When does it begin? What is ‘natural’?
These questions that weigh so heavily for us now might have been regarded as far less burdensome within the uncompromisingly mechanistic worldview of Francis Bacon. Like his contemporaries René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, he considered all phenomena, whether the workings of the human body or of the stars, to have rational, material causes. Everything was so many atoms, colliding in insensate profusion. Moreover, Bacon’s outlook (which accords with that of most scientists and engineers throughout the ages) is essentially optimistic, guided by a belief that the human lot can be improved by technical means. He was eager to free the sciences from religious shackles, to abandon the hierarchy of the Earth and heavens and a reliance on teleological explanations.
By and large, those aspirations still underpin efforts to engineer biology. Some of biotechnology’s earliest successes stemmed from an image of living cells, primarily bacteria, as microscopic factories for manufacturing sorely needed drugs. The development in the 1970s of recombinant DNA technology, which enabled genes to be sliced out of the genome of one organism and spliced into that of another, using natural enzymes that conduct such cutting and pasting, enabled human insulin to be derived by fermentation of genetically modified Escherichia coli bacteria. Sights are now set not just on pharmaceuticals but on cleaner fuels, greener manufacturing of materials, biological clean-up of environmental contaminants, even ‘wet nano-robots’ that engage hand-to-hand with disease agents.
There was, as we can see, nothing new in the materialistic conception of life that enabled biotechnologists to view it as amenable to principles of construction and design. And indeed the reception of this ‘cut-and-paste’ approach to the living world was, all things considered, relatively muted: so long as it declines to re-engineer human beings (and perhaps other higher organisms), biotechnology tends to be seen as just another industrial process, more akin to brewing than to vivisection. While opponents of genetic modification have played on philosophically suspect notions of the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, most of the resistance to its introduction has been motivated by concerns about commercial ownership and responsibility, and about public health: issues that might reasonably be raised (and often are) for any new technology. As far as the ‘sanctity of life’ is concerned, public opinion often shows a solipsistic parochialism. Yet if there is one lesson to be drawn from the controversy in Europe about genetically modified organisms (apart from a reminder of the unwelcome influence of mass media), it is that technologies are less likely to gain easy acceptance until they can demonstrate tangible benefits to potential consumers.
All the same, scientists have been revealingly eager to exploit public sympathy, or at least tolerance, towards ‘pure’ science in the promotion of biotechnological initiatives with decidedly applied goals. The Human Genome Project was in truth something of a mixture of both, to the extent that the distinction is meaningful at all; but the rhetoric with which the project advertised itself was concerned with uncovering the secrets - in the deeply misleading metaphor, ‘reading the book’ - of life. The project was entirely dependent on technical advances, and it gave rise to no new theories but rather to an impressive and immensely useful (but only patchily understood) data bank. The frequent comparisons with the Moon landings were more apt than perhaps intended, since both were feats of technical prowess more than they were voyages into the scientific unknown.
Strikingly, then, the extension of engineering ideas to biology has so far been regarded with scarcely more distaste or disdain than is reserved for engineering more generally, and the complaints are often of much the same nature. Few even perceive the philosophical boldness of a word such as ‘bioengineering’, which is commonly accepted with the indifference one might expect to see accorded to a branch of automotive engineering. Perhaps we are more the heirs to Bacon’s vision than we realise. Even concerns about the prospect of the de novo creation of life are so far voiced only by rather minor pressure groups, and they too tend to focus on safety issues. Battle lines are only really drawn when biological technologies impinge on human life, as in the cases of stem-cell technology, embryo research and assisted conception. Only here have certain traditional belief systems deemed it necessary to impose assumptions about what life consists in.
Distorted, dogmatic, and dangerous though such assumptions may sometimes be, buried within them are some genuine questions about the ethical responsibilities of the engineer. Opinions may differ on the boundaries of human dignity, but it is surely right that these boundaries feature in any consideration of what we might and might not make. And the desirability of a technological goal is not to be determined simply by a health-and-safety or cost-benefit analysis, but by a careful consideration of the difficult question of whether it seems likely in the long term, on balance, to serve human welfare and well-being. The disturbing aspect of Bacon’s utopian scientific writings is often not so much what they consider possible, but how readily he assumes that humankind has the wisdom to handle such power.
WHY ENGINEERING MATTERS
As I write, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest atom-smasher at CERN in Geneva, has switched on with almost unprecedented media jamboree*. Asked about the practical value of it all, Stephen Hawking has said that ‘modern society is based on advances in pure science that were not foreseen to lead to practical applications’. It’s a common claim, and it subtly reinforces the hierarchy that Medawar identified: technology and engineering are the humble offspring of pure science, the casual cast-offs of a more elevated pursuit.
I don’t believe that such pronouncements are intended to denigrate applied science as an intellectual activity; they merely speak into a culture in which that has already happened. Pure science undoubtedly does lead to applied spin-offs, but this is not the norm. Rather, most of our technology has come from explicit and painstaking efforts to develop it. And this is simply a part of the scientific enterprise. A dividing line between pure and applied science makes no sense at all, running as it does in a convoluted path through disciplines, departments, even individual scientific papers and careers. Research aimed at applications fills the pages of the leading journals in physics, chemistry and the life and Earth sciences; curiosity-driven research with no real practical value is abundant in the ‘applied’ literature of the materials, biotechnological and engineering sciences. The fact that ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science are useful and meaningful terms seduces us sometimes into thinking that they are real, absolute and distinct categories.
This isn’t merely a semantic issue. Concerns about a decline in university admissions for science and engineering are more or less universal among the various disciplines, but there is good reason to suspect that the sciences deemed to be more ‘pure’ retain a greater attraction for the brightest students among those who still gravitate in this direction - even though employment prospects for an engineer are better than for a string theorist (who in recent years has seemed likely to end up on Wall Street). In 1998 the President of the US National Academy of Engineering, William A. Wulf, stated: ‘We need to understand why in a society so dependent on technology, a society that benefits so richly from the results of engineering, a society that rewards engineers so well, engineering isn’t perceived as a desirable profession.’ Yet many of the most pressing global problems - clean energy generation, the management of water resources, securing nuclear non-proliferation, creating less waste and more efficient use of material resources - cry out for technological expertise.
There’s no simple formula for the rehabilitation of the engineering, synthetic and technological (in the oldest sense) aspects of science. Celebrating their achievements is all very well, although it remains a conundrum why, for example, the British people seem to hold Isambard Kingdom Brunel in such high esteem without showing much inclination to follow in his footsteps. But no amount of flag-waving can disguise the fact that the practical sciences, the craft sciences if you will, have always had and will always have a double-edged nature: along with life-saving drugs, safer transportation, more accessible information and solar power comes pollution, landfills and nuclear weapons. The conventional talk of ‘dual-use’ technology should rather acknowledge the reality of a thousand uses, guided by as many agendas. As US writer Richard Powers puts it in his 1998 novel Gain, an exploration of the social politics of industrial chemistry, ‘People want everything. That’s their problem.’
Science does itself no favours when it tries to skip away from such complex issues with talk of ‘pure knowledge’, untainted by the marketplace. That’s a privileged position enjoyed by a very few of its practitioners, who even then cannot be sure that their seemingly arcane ideas won’t end up guiding the fabrication and operation of some device or other. Science is about making stuff, just as much as it is about understanding stuff. The two go hand in hand, and always have done. Francis Bacon implied as much; but in the twenty-first century, disciplines such as nanotechnology, quantum information technology and synthetic biology are blurring as never before the false distinctions between thinking and doing. So what shall we make tomorrow?
* At the time of publication, the hiatus caused by the large Hadron Collider’s subsequent malfunction is almost at an end.