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The complex formula of modern science

Project intends to discuss the torturous ways in the specialization of scientific knowledge

On the table of a long ago “scientist”, besides the scientific discoveries, there were poems, music and magical charms. One beautiful day a decision was made to clean the desk and only leave on it science, which consequently left its mark: the specialization of knowledge. Those “curious people” of the past (Romans, Greeks and Arabs) gave way to professionals in a particular field of scientific knowledge. Did we gain or lose with it?

The issue, somewhat complex, is being discussed by a group of researchers linked to the Simão Mathias Center for Studies in the History of Science (Cesima), of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), in the project The Complex Transformations of Matter: between the Composition of Ancient Knowledge and Modern Specialization , coordinated by Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb, with financial support from FAPESP.

The first fruit of the study has just been published, inaugurating a series of publications that could reach twelve books by the end of the project: O Laboratório, a Oficina e o Ateliê: a Arte de Fazer o Artificial [The Laboratory, the Workshop and the Studio: The Art of Making the Artificial] (Educ/Fapesp, 256 pages, R$ 26,00), consisting of a series of articles that discuss how – and where – the laboratory, the reproduction of the natural world and mankind’s desire to overcome it came to be the moving forces of contemporary science.

Although a tendency right from the Renaissance technical texts, from the 18th century on this desire to reproduce the natural world in the laboratory and scientific specialization became mixed up. Therefore, the vision of the world based on an understanding by joining analogies was put aside, a composite that turned to several pieces of knowledge (cosmology, mineralogy, alchemy etc.) in order to arrive at a greater depth of knowledge. Without analogies that held them together, the “new” scientists – specialists – could at last separate out raw and living phenomena and, once capable of reproducing the natural from the artificial, they could overcome nature. The world became afraid.

“We lived for a long time under the Aristotelian philosophy that the natural thing is always better than any artificial substitute. There is the celebrated example of the tree and the table made from the wood extracted from the tree”, observes Ana Maria Goldfarb.

“Since the table does not possess the natural cycle of the tree, it was not sensitive to change and shortly it became something imperfect. Until the 18th century this was the eternal theme of debates”, she says. Specialization allowed the scientists to put an end to this restriction, gave permission to interfere in nature and to assume that something artificial could be equally as good. “This specialization was not preconceived, but the fruit of fortuity and of necessity. What we know is that it was rapidly incorporated and transformed itself into the mark of new science.”

For better or for worse? “For the transformation of scientific knowledge, this change was fundamental, but the movement ended up debilitating and mutilating science to a certain degree, since it lost the feeling of totality, of humanistic science.”, she adds. “After all, science feeds on the arts and vice-versa. The mere pragmatic knowledge of the specialist is not always sufficient and what we lacking are scientific poets, musicians, writers, etc.” Hence, in the publication, there is the study of the alchemists laboratories and the studios of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, in which “the practice of the decorative arts and the elaboration of knowledge about material, kept close relationships”.

However, pragmatism with which the natural-artificial divide was accepted (in part because of the needs of industry) brought with it an undesirable fame to science, among them the eternal popular fear of the scientist “who wants to be God”. “Free of restrictions, man has seen that he was ready to interfere in all spheres and this caused fear – and still gives cause for concern – to those who ignore the development of scientific knowledge”, the researcher analyzes. After the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear era, scientists themselves understood that they had to take their responsibilities seriously.

“There is no denial that science has to be free, but it was realized that the researcher was no better a man than others, but someone subject to the same vices and virtues.They became aware of the power that they had and that this needed to be regulated.” Ana cites the organization named Pugwash as the concrete act of scientists’ desire to regulate their recently discovered power. The stimulus for the setting up of the institution’s first conference in 1957 came from the manifesto of 1955 signed by, among others, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, who were concerned with the new atomic race, fruit of the military use of laboratory ideas.

The mistrust with the new state of things is not easily overcome. Therefore, in what form will society and science once again come together? “Scientific education is fundamental. People are short on basic information about science and we need a plan to re-educate them in this area”, she advises. Curiously enough, we talk and think about science much more than before. However, not always are the best sources of information available. “In a study that we did, we discovered a building doorman who had a subscription to two popular scientific magazines, in spite of his meager salary. Thus, in spite of his notable desire for knowledge, for understanding, on the other hand he had been receiving information of dubious quality. This is a terrible waste”, she notes.

Worse problems
Nevertheless, in Brazil there are worse problems than just the mediation of inexact details in the media between scientific ideas and the general public. “Our science has serious specificity. In general there is a tendency towards the pure and simple importation of foreign models that have little chance of working in this country”, she explains. The professor recalls the problems evolving from the use of a British model during tests for the conversion of iron ore into iron here in Brazil. “The British cycle was adapted to their poorer iron ore and here it produced nothing. Consequently iron left here at the price of bananas and returned in the form of British bridges for which we paid the price of diamonds”, she points out.

For Ana Goldfarb a good model is the Genome Program. “We’re working hand in hand with foreign researchers under conditions of equality. This is the path to be followed in the future”, the researcher believes. Another fine initiative is the professor’s center itself, Cesima. Founded in 1994, the organ gained the support of FAPESP during 1995 for the creation of the Multimedia Documentation Sector, in which an appropriate method (and as an ideal cost) was developed for the necessary digitalizing of documents. “Cemisa brought about a desirable concentration of researchers in the history of science with ramifications in Brazilian universities and those abroad”, the professor explains.

One of the central problems for Brazilian studies was exactly the access to rare and ancient documents and texts. The center’s new thematic project is looking to resolve part of this shortage with the amplification of its virtual library which, by the end of the research, should have close to fifty thousand documents. “We’re about to close an agreement with a large company that will allow us to create the Cesima Platform, with digital material that will be available online to researchers throughout the world”, professor Ana revealed. Cesima is also recovering national archives spread from centers such as the National Library, to smaller libraries such as that of the Agronomy Institute of Campinas. In the latter cases the project could be salvaging material that, without this help, would be lost for ever.

The project
The Complex Transformations of Material: Between the Boundary of the Ancient Wiseman and the Modern Specialist (nº 99/12791-3); Modality
Thematic project; Coordinator Professor Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb – PUC-SP; Investment R$ 557,956.77