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Sources of Innovation

Historian of Science Loren Graham on how society affects science and technology.

  • March 3, 2014

Although much has been said about how science and technology affect society, says Loren Graham, professor emeritus of the history of science at MIT, “you don’t hear much about how societies affect science and technology. But I think they do. Society influences the way we think.”

This theme has run through Graham’s work for more than 50 years — 36 of them spent at MIT — from “Naming Infinity,” his prize-winning treatise on the nature of infinity, to “The Face in the Rock,” his history of the Chippewa of Grand Island, Michigan.

“There’s a tendency to think of science and technology as something separate from social, political, and philosophical elements,” he says. “I disagree. The knowledge we get from the humanities, arts, and social sciences can make us understand science better.”

When Einstein realized Newtonian physics was breaking down, for example, he started reading the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and others. “He got ideas, inspiration, and motivations out of these writings that helped him go forward,” Graham says. “They were important to him at the moment of crisis. And that’s often true.”

Theology and set theory

“Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity” (Harvard University Press, 2009), which Graham wrote with Jean-Michel Kantor, examines just such a crisis that occurred in mathematics in the early 20th century. Three French mathematicians working on set theory, following the German Georg Cantor, began to suspect that there might be more than one kind of infinity — for example, kinds that can be counted (1, 2, 3, etc., to infinity) and those that cannot (the infinite number of points in a line segment).

“Once you start down that road, it turns out that there are many kinds of infinity, particularly the kinds of infinity that are expressed in mathematical functions,” Graham says. However, this idea clashed with the French rationalist worldview to such a degree that the three mathematicians found they could not move forward. The field was only able to advance, Graham found, thanks to the work of Russian scholars whose religious beliefs were accepting of the concept of multiple infinities.

“Now people use set theory all the time, right here at MIT in the mathematics department,” Graham says. “Do they think it has anything to do with religion? Of course not. But did religion play a role in breaking through and opening up that field? Of course. That’s my thesis.”

Different frames of mind are necessary for furthering innovation, Graham says. “You particularly need different frames of mind in crisis moments, when you don’t know how to go forward. Sometimes these are religious, sometimes philosophical; sometimes they are moral or ethical.”

Invention requires fertile ground

Graham’s most recent book, “Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete?” (MIT Press, 2013), illustrates this point by exploring why Russia’s impressive history of achievement in science and engineering has not translated into commercial success.

“Russia has great scientists and engineers, but it has been a desert for the commercialization of those ideas,” he says. Relating numerous stories of groundbreaking work — in railways, electricity, aviation, and lasers — Graham shows early Russian innovations falling flat repeatedly. “The reasons that these inventors failed were societal, not technical,” he says. “They ran into political, economic, and legal barriers that made it impossible for them to develop further their ideas in Russia.” Roadblocks ran the gamut from a lack of intellectual property protection to a general unwillingness to adopt new technology. A Russian pioneer in electric lighting, for example, could not get businesses to give up gas lanterns.

Today, however, Graham believes that Russia is in a far better position to create technological successes thanks to new research institutions, a national focus on nanotechnology, international collaborations, and the establishment of Skolkovo, a new “technology city.”

Continuing engagement at MIT

Graham retired from teaching at MIT in 1998, but he remains active both as a scholar and as a member of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), where he helped found HASTS, an interdisciplinary program that combines studies in history, anthropology, and STS. He gave his most recent talk at MIT — on “Lonely Ideas” — in February.

He also continues to foster academic contacts and exchanges between MIT scientists and engineers and those in Russia — a country he has lived and worked in, visited, and written about frequently since first traveling to the Soviet Union as an exchange student in 1960-1961. Graham earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University and a PhD in Russian Studies from Columbia.

Considered the leading scholar of Russian science outside that country — the Russian Academy of Sciences honored him last year for outstanding achievement in the history of science — Graham is also a scholar of Native American history. His book “The Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa” (University of California, 1995) focuses on the history of tribes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he and his wife, Patricia Albjerg Graham, former dean of the School of Education at Harvard, spend their summers.

Another of Graham’s books — one of six published since he “retired” — centers on his summer home, a lighthouse on an island in Lake Superior. Intrigued by a 1908 incident in which the resident lighthouse keeper and his assistant turned up dead under mysterious circumstances, Graham examines the facts — and the societal intrigue that followed — in “Death at the Lighthouse: A Grand Island Riddle” (Arbutus Press, 2013).

Having published two books just last year, Graham could argue he has earned a break from writing — but, at 80, he is already hard at work on his next project, a history of genetics and epigenetics in Russia. Of his ongoing creative and literary production, he says, “If I didn’t write another word, no one would reprimand me. I simply enjoy it.”

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