AAHPSSS Ian Langham Prizes
The Association maintains a bursary fund in memory of Ian Langham (1942-1984), one of the pioneers of the academic study of HPS in Australia.
The following éloge was delivered at Ian Langham’s funeral, on August 2, 1984, by Peter Cochrane, then a lecturer (and now Honorary Associate) in Australian History at the University of Sydney. This written version is reproduced, with the permission of the author, from pp. 70-72 of the inaugural volume of Metascience (Volume 1/2, 1984) – a volume dedicated to Ian Langham’s memory.
Eloge: Ian Langham, 1942-1984
After a distinguished undergraduate career at Melbourne University and a tutorship there in 1968-69, Ian was awarded a fellowship in the History of Science at Princetone [sic] University in the United States from 1969 to 1973. There he completed a Master of Arts and researched a Doctorate in the History of Science which was to be published in 1981, released in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, and regarded by leading anthropologists in the world as a milestone. The book was called The Building of British Social Anthropology1. Ian had returned to Australia in 1974 and took up the post of full-time lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. For the next ten years he taught mostly science students, and continued research into a wide range of topics. In that time he was also, briefly, a research fellow at Sussex University in the United Kingdom (1979-80) and at the Australian National University (1983).
His intellectual energy and devotion were extraordinary. [He undertook an] unusually heavy teaching load, but he was also an active participant in a large number of conferences, seminars and symposia throughout Australia. In these, he ranged across not only his own, as he put it, ‘specialised research interests’, but also a wide range of other topics. Ian’s second book, jointly edited with David Oldroyd from the University of New South Wales, reflected the breadth of his interests. The book was called The Wider Domain of Evolutionary Thought and it drew attention to the impact of Darwinian thought, not so much in the sciences where the impact is well known, but in neglected areas outside the science [sic] – in literature, education and philosophy, for example. That book was published in 19832.
The breadth of Ian’s interests defies summary, but there is another way to talk about them. For there was, I think, a common, unifying thread in his teaching and his many works on the history of science: for centuries science has been projected as a rational, open minded project of discovery and classification which served humanity; a project proceeding methodically through controlled experimentation and seeking objectively for the truth. But evidence has been accumulating to suggest it is far more complicated than this. A handful of important thinkers, Ian amongst them, were in the vanguard of this critical revision. They suggest that this idea of responsible scientific endeavour, if not a huge illusion, had at least to be strongly qualified. The history of science was infinitely more complicated and the lessons to be learnt were ambiguous to say the least.
Not even the greats – such as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton – were impervious to this reappraisal. in it, the nature of scientific work and specifically of the process of discovery, was drastically recast, and we were left with new images of scientists at work. Thery were decidedly less flattering. One of these, for example, pictured scientists trapped in the agreed framework of rules and theories of their age, highly competent puzzle solvers who dotted scientific i’s and crossed scientific t’s, but rarely pressed out towards the frontiers of knowledge. There was no real adventure here. Another, equally important new image showed the history of science to be a story of fallible people, of inter-personal rivalries, of luck and labour; a story where inspiration is less evident sometimes than ambition, and reason less obvious than intuition. Some of the greatest past breakthroughs were now explained in terms of scientists stumbling from one comic mishap to the next, until eventually they guessed the magic riddle correctly. Scientists, as Arthur Koestler so aptly put it, were ‘sleepwalkers’.
Ian was concerned about ‘sleep-walking’ in science from two stand-points: firstly he believed scientists must no longer fall victim to their own public image; they must know better what they are doing; they must know their limitations and be aware of the highly subjective motivating factors in all human pursuits. And secondly they must be aware of the political implications of their work. He believed strongly that science was a major force behind the distribution of power and the exercise of social control in our society and in the third world. And perhaps this was the key to his dedication – for he recognised that science had an equal capacity to end freedoms to people or to be employed to deny them freedom; to spread power through society, or to concentrate it further in the hands of a few. Ian worried that humanity was already well down the wrong road, and thought much redress was necessary. So he was cautious about the idea of scientific progress: I recall him telling some of my students that traffic now travels more slowly through New York than it did in 1911. And I also remember the joy he got from his favourite novel, Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance. ‘You really must read it’ he said. So I did, and discovered that his joy came from the simple, direct, uncomplicated human relations that it celebrated, and the critique of our over-specialised, consumer society that it posed.
Ian believed there was a distortion in human priorities that could be identified in some realms of science. And to redress this distortion he dedicated his teaching to helping students – the scientists of the future – to break out of the cocoon called specialisation. To be a finely tuned mind, acutely aware in one narrow field of expertise but quite uninformed in related matters of social and political awareness was, for Ian, a dangerous state of existence.
Being a good ‘technician’, someone who knew the scientific ropes, was just the starting point. It was not a worthy goal on its own. For worthiness would spring from the application of scientific work to human society; from its effects. For Ian it would be judged by one thing – whether or not it gave people more real control overtheir conditions of work and of existence in general; whether it created new freedoms, or undercut established ones.
Ian’s final, major study remains unpublished. When it is published it will prove to be his most important contribution. This final study concerns the famous Piltdown forgery, possibly the longest running deception in modern scientific history. Ian thought professional historians had paid too little attention to frauds in science – although there have been many of them. He argued that the study of these frauds probably revealed much more about legitimate science than we might imagine. For the fact was that the Piltdown fraud went undetected for more than 30 years; that the material of that fraud was raked over again and again, by renowned scientists, yet they never saw it. So Ian concluded that the routine methods and practices of normal, legitimate science had not only failed, but had perpetuated the cover-up. And how could that be so? It was such an important question that he raised. Again the universal thread in his work shines out, amidst the intricate, brilliant reinterpretation of specific events: we are reminded that there can be rich rewards of fame, esteem and intellectual leadership, perhaps too of political power, in the field of science. These rewards have tempted some men to take the short cut to glory. The Piltdown study tells us not only that scientists may be vulnerable to such temptations, but also that science as a profession is vulnerable. It can be hoodwinked and it can hoodwink itself. From the study of quite an exceptional event, of an action must scientists would utterly deplore, Ian still drew sobering lessons for science as a whole.
So what might we say in conclusion? From Brecht, a short poem:
May you now guard Science’s light
Kindle it and use it right
Lest it be a flame to fall
Downward to consume us all
(Brecht, The Life of Galileo)
Ian was one of the Guardians of science. In contributing to the drastic reappraisal of its mechanisms and its public image, he sought not to bring it down, but on the contrary, to give it that special strength that comes from self-truth. Yet he was always understated, cautious, modest, almost shy in this project. Perhaps, given its importance and nobility, he could have been more forceful, but that was not his way. He was a quiet, delicate persuader. His style was an integral part of his message3.