Talk on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Partnergroup
of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences
of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Jürgen Renn
held on 4. September 2001

Ge wei laibin, zaoshang hao! Suiran wo dui Zhongguo wenhua hen gan xingqu, danshi qing yuanliang, wo bu neng yong zhongwen yanjiang.

Dear Prof. Liu Dun, dear colleagues and friends,

I am grateful for the honor of speaking to you on this extraordinary occasion. The Institute for the History of Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, which I have the pleasure of representing, have jointly founded a Partnergroup which we are today inaugurating officially. It is the first Max Planck Partnergroup in the humanities.

How dynamic an enterprise this Partnergroup actually is becomes evident from the fact that it has not waited for this official inauguration to take up its work but is already heavily involved in scientific research. I would therefore first of all emphasize how pleased I am that such a competent and enterprising young scholar as is Prof. Zhang Baichun could be identified as its leader. This Partnergroup is an ambitious joint venture, and Prof. Zhang needs and merits all our support in order to make it successful.

Ji yu yu yong qi bing cun. (Lucky occasions and courage go together. The courage of Zhang Baichun is our luck.)

Although the Partnergroup is thus already a young adult and no longer a child in its infancy, we should nevertheless not forget to also mention the parents, relatives, and ancestors to which it owes its existance and which it will continue to need in the future. The Partnergroup could, in particular, only be realized because a good cooperation between the two institutes for the history of science is already ongoing and also because leading scholars from all over the world have been willing to joint its scientific advisory board. I would therefore like to thank the director, Prof. Liu Dun, and the members of the Institute for the history of natural sciences of the Chinese Academy, but also the members of the scientific advisory board for their trust and their willingness to join this ambitious endeavour and create this extraordinary opportunity for a new generation of Chinese historians of science.

Zunjing zhang bei! (Honor the elders because you may need them if you are in trouble!)

We should also not forget how much this initiative owes to the mother organizations of our two institutes, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the German Max Planck Society. As surprising as the rapid process of setting up a partner group since our first visit in Bejing in 1998 may appear from the outside, it becomes indeed less surprising when taking into account the long tradition of cooperation between these two major organizations of basic science, a tradition that remained essentially unaffected by political changes in our two countries.

But since large institutions can only be just as good as the persons who represent them, I would like to take the occasion of explicitly thanking the pioneers of Sino-German scientific collaboration, Prof. Lüst and Prof. Schwarz, as well as the highest representatives of our mother organizations, Prof. Lu, Prof. Markl, and Dr. Bludau, for their personal engagement in keeping this cooperation alive. There are, however, three more persons to whom I am especially indebted both on a professional and on a personal level because they have not only helped to establish this partnergroup but they have more than anybody else contributed to foster my understanding and love for China and its science, Dr. Chen Lesheng, Dr. Barbara Spielmann, and Matthias Schemmel.

Xiong huai zuguo, fang yan shijie. (Have the welfare of your country in mind and have a global outlook at the same time!)

While it is not surprising under the given circumstances that this Partnergroup could be set up so quickly, it is, after all, surprising that it is a joint venture in the history of science which has now emerged out of the cooperation of two major research organizations which tend to concentrate on basic natural science. Why is this so?

I believe there is a growing realization, both in China and in the West, that the history of science has the potential of playing a new role in the culture of science. We no longer need the history of science just as an account of the heroic achievements of the past, as a glorification of science. We also no longer need it as a weapon in ideological struggles, for instance, in order to demonstrate the supposed superiority of Christianity by claiming the superiority of Western science. But the history of science is, according to my conviction, urgently needed as a critical dialogue partner in the ongoing transformation process of our common science- and technology-based civilization.

There can be no progress without checking whether one has actually chosen the right street.

Du shi shi ren mingzhi. (Reading history makes wise.)

In fact, science today is facing great challenges:

It is becoming ever more clear that the problems of human society for the solution of which we urgently need science, the problem of famine, the problems of social diseases, the problems of economic development, or environmental problems such as that of global warming cannot be successfully addressed by specialists with perspectives and languages determined by a single discipline.

Similarly, the new potentials emerging from recent scientific and technological developments such as genetic technology or the World Wide Web confront us with problems for the solution of which we cannot simply rely on the established mechanisms of the control of science by quality selection based on peer review, economic feed-back, and political steering by means of creating and maintaining a scientific infrastructure.

The scientific and technological problems of today urgently require to accompany science by a public and informed reflection about its past and its future. For evidence, consider issues such as the following:
Which cultural responsibilities do we want to assume in engineering the biological nature on which we depend – including that of our own human physis – by genetic technology?

Which culture of science is best suited in order to define, select, and successfully address the problems on which we should concentrate our resources?

How should we use the potential of information technology in shaping the culture of science?
Which part of science may be exploited commercially and which part of science must be protected from commercialization?

For answers to such questions we cannot rely just on pragmatic maximes. There can be no question that the most important thing about a cat is that it is able to catch the mice, as Deng Xiaoping said, but, at least in the case of science, one also has to be careful not to substitute a plague of cats for a plague of mice.

Chai dong qiang, bu xi qiang. (Tear down the east wall to repair the west wall.)

The development of science faces today true alternatives the decision among which can neither be left to ideologies nor to the brute forces of economic development. Thinking about these questions is a matter of defining the culture of science and thus a task for science as a whole. Contributing to this definition by exploring the past of science in the light of the pressing questions of today is an outstanding challenge for a history of science that merits to be taken seriously by science itself a critical dialogue partner.

I believe that the hope to address such burning questions constitutes one of the reasons why our cooperation has been looked at with so much favor by our two mother institutions, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Society.

But what can a relatively modest Partnergroup, consisting of a few junior scientists, contribute to addressing such major issues?

While it may appear that the issues I have mentioned are primarily matters of the political and economic context of science and of science organization, they actually also represent issues of basic research for the history of science. Consider the following questions which may illustrate that understanding the developmental conditions of past science may actually represent a potential for reflecting on present and future developments:

How did cultural differences between China and the West affect the development of shared domains of scientific and technological knowledge such as that of mechanics?

How did cultural differences affect the exchange of scientific knowledge between the different civilizations?
Which role did specific cultural conditions such as language, writing system, level of technological development, or the social status of knowledge play for the emergence of different pathways of scientific development?
The fact that, apart from the European tradition, China represents the only surviving ancient civilization with its own scientific tradition provides extraordinary conditions for pursuing such questions in the context of a novel approach in the history of science that one may call a comparative historical epistemology. A history of science without epistemology is blind, an epistemology without history is empty.

Xue er bu si ze wang, si er bu xue ze dai. (Lerning without thinking is deception, thinking without lerning is dangerous.)

The decision to dedicate the research program of the Partnergroup specifically to the subject of mechanics does therefore not represent a retreat to a narrow-minded specialization. On the contrary, it is rather guided by the ambitious goal to pursue such theoretical questions not just on the level of general philosophical reflection but to combine epistemological reflection with a detailed, empirical analysis of the historical sources.

That we, as a Chinese-German team of historians of science, are willing to contribute to a general culture of science also beyond our engagement in specific subjects of basic research may be illustrated by the film that we are showing you in conclusion of this ceremony. It was produced as a spin-off of our research and does perhaps not represent an outstanding cineastic achievement. But it certainly shows that our colloboration has been and probably will be accompanied also in the future by a lot of fun.

Junzi bu zhong, ze bu wei. Junzi bu qing, ze ren bu zhi. (It is true, if the scientist does not do serious work, he will not be taken serious. But without popularisation, his work will remain unknown.)