Review | Scientific Babel – Michael Gordin

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This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.

Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.

Michael Gordin opens Scientific Babel by explaining his aims and his intellectual limits. This is important because part of talking about the history of science is talking about how we understand history itself. What we think about history, and what we see as part of history, is affected by what languages we can use to access historical information. Gordin explains that he can’t honestly write about information he can’t read for himself. Because of this, Scientific Babel is a European history of science and language, not a worldwide history.

Gordin has used his knowledge of 7 languages (English, French, German, Latin, Esperanto, Ido, and Russian), to personally translate almost every quote featured within the book. While his DIY approach means that these translations will not be perfect, he has chosen it for a good reason. This approach lets the book demonstrate why simply translating articles into other languages can’t solve every issue: even excellent-quality translations will contain slight errors or tonal differences which will change the meaning or significance of a text.

After a broad introductory chapter on the history and the decline of Latin, the story fully begins in 1850s Russia. Chapter 2 describes how Dmitri Mendeleev and Oscar Meyer bitterly fought over which of them developed the periodic table. The culprit was a single mistranslated word; a translator’s assistant didn’t understand that Mendeleev’s word for “periodic” was important, and swapped it out for “phased”. This mistake created fifty years of conflict within chemistry.

From here, Gordin continues from the 1850s to the present day. He explains how technological advancements, both World Wars and the Cold War all changed which languages were commonly used and which were trustworthy. Three chapters are dedicated to the history of constructed languages, and the rationale behind them. In these chapters, Gordin tells the story of Esperanto and Ido, which features a surprising amount of mystery and betrayal. I enjoyed reading his detailed discussion of constructed languages, which took their principles seriously rather than writing them off as zealous idealism. Also, I appreciated finding out that constructed langauges were specifically celebrated as a way for international scientists to communicate. (Yet as a sci-comm enthusiast interested in languages, I’m a little annoyed about missing this connection!)

Later, Gordin explains how English grew from an ignored language to the dominant language within just 300 years, and talks about the factors which might keep it in first place. Is speaking just English bad for science? Will “Scientific English” eventually become a separate dialect? Scientific Babel ends with an interesting speculative chapter about how our understanding of language might change in the future due to communication projects like purely symbol-based languages or the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This chapter is unfortunately but necessarily brief.

Scientific Babel has been developed from years of deep research. Its highly academic nature is reinforced by Gordin’s writing style, which relies on lots of passive voicing and multi-clause sentences. The book conveys a sense of “if you can’t keep up, I’m not holding your hand”. It also assumes that readers are well-educated and familiar with loan phrases like “primus inter pares” and “plus ca change”, which are casually dropped into sentences. (They mean “first among equals” and “the more things change”, respectively).

 

 “As the pages of his own journal attested, there were plenty of active researchers generating original findings in both experimental and theoretical chemistry, and they were eager to publish. It was simply that, when given a choice in the 1860’s about where to do so, Russian scientists overwhemingy chose to publish in German. And not just in any journal, but overwhelmingly in one relatively marginal chemical journal that we have already encountered: the Zeitschrift fur Chemie.”

 

Some chapters are adapted from published papers, while other chapters have been developed purely for the book. (To clarify, this is normal for books written by scientists, and not any kind of self-plagiarism). So there are slight shifts in tone between the more formal adapted chapters and the more engaging new chapters.

 

“Ostwald was familiar with the several languages necessary for his chemical research but he did not care for linguistics. He declared, for example, that grammar study ‘does not cultivate, but actually impairs the power of logical and original thinking’. He wanted an auxillary because it would save energy; he wanted a constructed [language] because he thought the problem with language learning was not the rules, but the exceptions.”

 

The text occasionally jumps into strings of numerical comparisons, such as describing percentages of language uptake or publication change over time. In these sections, one or two carefully-placed graphs could have done the work of a few paragraphs of text. People may find it hard to assemble those percentages in relation to each other, so the context of those percentages may easily be lost.

 

“As late as 1570, the percentage of German printed books in Latin was 70%, and German-language books first outnumbered Latin in 1681, and then permanently eclipsed it after 1692. In 1754 Latin production was still at a healthy 25%, but by the eve of the French Revolution in 1787 had dwindled to a tenth.”

 

Scientific Babel is an unabashedly obsessive and painstakingly researched study of how language and science have changed each other. Gordin’s detailed scholarship, and his intensive study of multiple languages, is impressive.

Like many authors, Gordin barely discusses non-European science and history. This is disappointing given that they are so often overlooked. But his reasoning for spending so little time away from Europe is sensible, and his desire for complete accuracy and correctness is admirable.

Your enjoyment of the Scientific Babel will depend on just how much you want to know about language and science. If you want an introduction to the history of science, or some general principles of how language and science are connected, this book may be too verbose and intricate. But if you are already interested in these topics, and you want a deeper and more detailed understanding of scientific history and language, Scientific Babel offers a sound scholarly resource as well as a detailed bibliography for further research.

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