What were some of those momentous events that had such an influence on his work?
At the beginning of the 20th century we had a radical overthrow in the way in which the world was conceived. Kant thought that we lived in a world of absolute space and time, that universal causality prevailed, that this was not just an interesting fact about the world but a precondition for thinking about it. People implicitly believed that.
Whereas what happened at the beginning of the 20th century was the overthrow of absolute space and time, and more important the overthrow of universal causality. These are really profound revolutions. They are not just changes in theory. They are changes in how the world is thought of as working—and I believe that those radical changes colored the way in which people thought about the sciences.
Both Kuhn and Popper [Karl Popper, the philosopher] were deeply influenced by these changes and then later moved on to the idea that they were extreme examples of something that would be happening quite commonly in the sciences. There was a tendency for them to generalize from these epoch-making changes in a way that is less appropriate today.
How are Kuhn's ideas perhaps less pertinent?
It's not so clear that there will be any more revolutions in physics. There will be a lot of surprises, but whether there will be revolutions is not at all clear. The stability of what's called the Standard Model of particle physics and its ability to make so many clever predictions with immense precision suggests that we may just be stuck with it, and there may never be an overthrow of that.
So the search for the Higgs boson is very much within the existing order of things?
It's obviously normal science in the Kuhnian sense. One of the things Kuhn said about normal science is that people "expect" things to be discovered. Today scientists expect to find the Higgs. Once we see some exact numbers around it, there will be all sorts of new things to do. But those things will simply be a stabilization or confirmation of what people already expect. It's just possible, though, that all the structure around the Higgs is all wrong, and that would refute my claim that there would no more revolutions.
How has the rise of biology changed the dynamics of doing science since Kuhn's time?
So much work in the contemporary life sciences is much less theory driven and much more technique driven than was the case for physics, which was Kuhn's science 50 years ago. Kuhn himself really thought that all of the action was in the theory. It's not to say that we don't have a million theories about, say, molecular biology but what has really mattered there are new techniques for intervening in the course of life.
Do you think different analytical methods are needed to describe what's going on today in biology?
There are already lots of different analytical blueprints available. And there will be more as people attend more and more closely to the recent history of molecular biology or genetic engineering. I think it's unfortunate when people say that there is just one true story of science. For one thing, there are many different sciences, and historians will tell different stories corresponding to different things.
Can you give an example of an alternative blueprint?
I'll give you one not more recent than Kuhn. The Hungarian philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, a follower of Popper, has this very powerful notion of a research program. He was strongly opposed to Kuhn because he thought Kuhn had made everything much too psychological. He had wonderful phrases like "according to Kuhn, science is just mob psychology." Okay, one doesn't have to take all of Lakatos's rants seriously. But I think that his picture of what he called a research program to which he gave a substantial structure is one of quite a few valuable ways of approaching development of a science.