stuart_firestein's picture
Professor and Chair, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University; Fellow, AAAS
The Scientist

It is said that Charles Darwin left on the Beagle as a Natural Philosopher and returned as a Scientist. Not because of anything he did while on the voyage, although he did plenty, but because in 1833 Cambridge professor and Master of Trinity College, the polymath William Whewell (pronounced “hewell”) invented the word scientist. It was not the only word he coined (he also came up with ion, cathode and anode for Michael Faraday), but it is perhaps the most influential. Until Whewell invented the word all those people we would today call scientists—beginning with Aristotle and including Newton, Galileo, Mendel, Galen—were known as Natural Philosophers. The distinction is revealing. Among the purposes of Natural Philosophers was to understand the mind of the creator through the study of the natural world. The study of science was an intellectual pursuit not distinct from theological examination. But that was changing.

Whewell’s suggestion of the term scientist was in response to a challenge from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge attending the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge. Coleridge, old and frail, had dragged himself to Cambridge and was determined to make his point. Coleridge stood and insisted that men of science in the modern day should not be referred to as philosophers since they were typically digging, observing, mixing or electrifying—that is, they were empirical men of experimentation and not philosophers of ideas. The remark was intended to be both a compliment and a slight. Science was everyday labor and philosophy was lofty thought. There was much grumbling among those in attendance, when Whewell masterfully suggested that in “analogy with artist we form scientist.” Curiously this almost perfect linguistic accommodation of workmanship and inspiration, of the artisanal and the contemplative, of the everyday and the universal –was not readily accepted. The term scientist came into popular use in America before it was generally adopted in England—and indeed for a time it was erroneously thought to have originated among those crass Americans then ruining the English language. It took some thirty years for it to come into general usage.

The root word science has now been regularly co-opted to mean the supposed rigorous practice of any area that used to be considered “just” scholarship. Thus we have library science, political science, linguistic science, etc., etc. Of course there’s nothing wrong with rigor per se, only that appending the word science doesn’t necessarily make it so. On the other hand, the word scientist, the person that stands behind the concept of science, has not been so coopted—yet. Thus the scientist is still recognizable as someone who does experiments, observes data, theorizes and does her best to explain phenomena. She is still someone who tries hard not to be fooled, knowing they are the easiest person to be fooled (paraphrase of R. Feyman). Most importantly she still knows that she knows far less than she doesn’t know.

The objections of so many 19th century scientists to the word scientist is instructive because we can now see that its coinage was the beginning of a revolution in scientific practice no less disruptive than the first scientific revolution had been. Those Natural Philosophers were wealthy men (with very few exceptions) who dabbled in scientific explorations because they were considered to be the highest form of intellectual pursuit. They were not workers or laborers and they would never have considered their scientific enterprise as something so pedestrian as a job. None were paid for their work, there were no grants, and no one would have thought to patent their work. But that was about to change. Science was indeed to become a career, a position in society and in the academy. At least in theory anyone could become a scientist with sufficient training and intellect. Science was professionalized and the scientist was a professional.

But how unfortunate is it that we have lost Whewell’s brilliant consilience (also a word he invented) between art and science—that “in analogy with artist we form scientist.” The professionalism of science has overtaken, in the public mind and the mindset of many scientific institutions, the importance of values like creativity, intuition, imagination and inspiration in the scientific process. Too often believing there is a simple recipe for producing cures and gadgets—the so called Scientific Method (invented by Whewell’s contemporary and sometime sparring partner, Francis Bacon), we are disappointed when scientists say that they are uncertain or that there are changing opinions, i.e., new ideas, about this or that supposedly settled fact.

Coleridge, the poet whose quarrels goaded Whewell into inventing the scientist, was actually quite attracted to science (claiming it provided him with some of his best metaphors) and was a close friend and confidant of the famed chemist and head of the Royal Institute, Humphry Davy. In an especially notable correspondence with Davy, Coleridge likened science to art because it was “…necessarily an activity performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.” Perhaps the modern scientist meme should be updated to include more of the hopeful poet than authoritarian demagogue.