Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Matthew Stanley's "Practical Mystic"

Matthew Stanley is Assistant Professor in the Lyman Briggs College of Science and Department of History at Michigan State University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Practical Mystic functions as a nice microcosm for the major themes of the book. The situation being described – access to scientific journals during and after World War I – might seem mundane and straightforward. But once you scratch the surface, you find a deeply complicated story that questions many of our assumptions about how science works.

The scientific community normally prides itself on being transnational and above politics. After all, the pursuit of truth has nothing to do with lines on a map. But very soon after the outbreak of World War I, British scientists decided that their German colleagues must be held responsible for the actions of their government, and severed all scientific communication. Astronomical observations, experimental results, mathematical calculations – all the very lifeblood of science – were stopped at the trench lines. Scientists on each side declared that they could never work with their enemies again. Indeed, after the war the international scientific community restructured itself to explicitly exclude scientists from Germany and its allies. Access to journals, as the material instantiation of both scientific knowledge and the scientific community, became a clear symbol of the influence of nationalism on science.

The story I tell in Practical Mystic focuses on A.S. Eddington, a British astronomer and Quaker who was one of the few scientists willing to continue working with his German colleagues. This was extremely difficult and politically dangerous (Eddington nearly went to prison for his pacifism). But it was his Quaker-driven commitment to internationalism that drove him to push for an end to the wartime animosity within science, and on page 99 we see Eddington surreptitiously trying to send journals to former enemy countries. Eddington thought internationalism was not just essential to the functioning of science, but that is was also a commandment from God. Thus what might seem to be the most trivial of things – a subscription to a scientific journal – actually shows us both how science is definitely not above politics, and how religious values can overlap with scientific ones in interesting and productive ways.
Learn more about Practical Mystic at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue