“An ordinary man, very down to earth, sympathetic and without any airs”

Raf de Bont inspired by professor Steven Shapin


A large grey moustache, genial, commonsensical, a facile pen and the worldwide authority in the field of the History of Science. Professor Steven Shapin, 71 years old and a professor at Harvard, is the great example for Raf de Bont, assistant professor of the History of Science at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and since recently a member of the Young Academy of KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences).

“I read his books during my studies in Leuven,” says Raf de Bont (37). “Steven Shapin had a tremendous influence on the development of my discipline, the History of Science. In the nineteen-eighties he brought about a huge change. He referred to the interaction between science and culture, how the history of science is linked to broader cultural and social developments. In his famous book Leviathan and the Air-Pump from 1985, which he published together with Simon Schaffer, he writes about the emergence of experiments in science in seventeenth-century England. This had everything to do with the civil war that had just ended. People wanted knowledge that would not bring about conflict. Using experiments – accessible to everyone and in the presence of people of stature who could check that everything went as it should – seemed to be the solution. Researchers thus hoped to increase trust in their work. This trust also appears in Shapin’s work about the twentieth century. ” De Bont himself is very interested in how scientists create their own identities in this century: “I do research into the role of ecologists in international nature conservancy organisations. How do they shape their own role? On the one hand, they are activists, politically involved. On the other hand, they are ‘neutral’ researchers. Of course there is tension between the two.”

De Bont realises that Shapin is a big name in a small circuit. He has met him once. “I was doing a postdoc in Leuven and together with a group read one of his books. We discovered that he would be in London, so we invited him for a workshop and a lecture. He agreed to come if we paid for his train ticket and a night in a hotel.” Laughing: “Beforehand I imagined a man who would speak with great wisdom - after all, he was someone I admired – but he was an ordinary man, very down to earth, sympathetic and without any airs. Fifty people came to the lecture, not a lot, but it is a small field.”

He is not difficult to follow, his writing is very accessible and clear, says De Bont. “He writes for a broader audience, believing that society should be able to understand what he is doing. He writes about bigger themes, such as in his book The Scientific Revolution.” He has broad interests, De Bont concludes. “ He has published on the history of nutrition. During his two-day visit to Leuven he was very interested in pubs and restaurants. Not so much because of the drinks and the food, but more because of the Belgian nightlife.”


This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

“An ordinary man, very down to earth, sympathetic and without any airs”
Author: Riki Janssen
Photo: Joey Roberts, Illustration: Simone Golob
Tags: hero

Add Response

Click here for our privacy statement.

Since January 2022, Observant only publishes comments of people whose name is known to the editors.