High-tech fundamentals

Science, Technology and Society

October 27, 2006

They could have called this volume an encyclopaedia of the modern world, but "science, technology and society" is just a little more restricted in scope. The book's 120 or so A-Z essays range over specific areas of science and technology, with a leaning toward biomedicine, together with more abstract topics such as scientific representation, gender, race and class in science and more unexpected inclusions such as rainforests. The editor suggests that collectively the subjects illustrate "the mutual shaping of science, technology and society", which they do in impressive detail. I am rather doubtful that the academic summaries here will help high-school students, as he (or his publisher) hopes. This is a volume for professionals in the field and undergraduates. And very welcome it is, too.

The contributors are as varied as the topics, coming from a broad mix of disciplines, mostly US-based but with a sprinkling of pieces from Europe and farther afield. There is a good proportion of entries from people who more or less own the topic they write about. Generally, these work extremely well. For example, Harry Collins, on replication of experiments, and Brian Martin, on grassroots science, have worked impressively to distil their knowledge to just the right degree in the available space.

Contributions from less experienced authors vary in standard, but most are useful introductions. A few entries sound authoritative but offer slightly skewed coverage of their topic - Steve Fuller on public understanding of science is a case in point.

More substantially, there are two mega-entries, one 60-pager on science in history and a 40-page section on technology in history. Each has sub-entries covering all regions of the globe. I cannot think of another treatment of these that does so much in so little space. Together, they will be worth the price of admission for most librarians - Oxford University Press could do worse than to package them as a useful small book.

There are always things to quibble over in an encyclopaedia of finite size.

One cannot help wondering why there is a slender three-column entry on "The atomic age", when arguably less central topics such as "Media and medicine"

command six pages. Nor is it clear why a long and well-referenced entry on "Genetics and genetic engineering" is followed by a much shorter one on "Genetics and society", which offers no signposts to the literature at all.

And confining authors to a single citation of their own work would have produced more balanced bibliographies, even in some essays where the author is a key contributor to the literature.

More seriously, there are defects of detail that will hamper users. It is unhelpful, for instance, not to cross-reference "Science policy, development of" with "Government and science" and "Government and technology". The latter pair of adjoining entries are mutually but pointlessly referenced, but they have no link with the first, which is 380 pages away. The short essay on cloning has two references, one of which points to a dead web link.

The impression that the editorial board could have tried harder is reinforced by the trio of introductory pieces. Two excellent, brief conceptual reviews of science and society and technology and society are followed by a substantially longer essay on medicine and society that is a historical overview. Surely someone ought to have insisted on one or the other format at the outset? A shame. The whole compilation makes a rather good book. A bit more effort could have made it really excellent.

Jon Turney is a senior visiting fellow in science and technology studies, University College London.

Science, Technology and Society: An Encyclopedia

Editor - Sal Restivo
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 701
Price - £91.00
ISBN - 0 19 514193 8

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