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2021 Patrick Suppes Prize in the History of Science

The recipient of the American Philosophical Society’s 2021 Patrick Suppes Prize in the History of Science is Jessica Riskin, Professor of History at Stanford University, in recognition of her book The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

In this ambitious and elegant book, Jessica Riskin argues that although the dominant understanding of mechanism is passive (even a clock must be wound up in order to tick), there is also a competing view of mechanism as active, enspirited, having its source of motion within it—to borrow a term from Liebniz, a “restless clock.” Mechanistic thinkers could empty nature of agency because God had set it all in motion. Yet the rise of naturalistic science left no place for divinity. Riskin traces the centuries-long struggle to banish agency from scientific explanation in favor of a passive view of nature’s machinery, while showing how this effort remained both incomplete and futile. In doing so, she boldly recasts the old vitalist-mechanist debate as a contradiction that grew out of the successive revolutionary ideas of the Reformation and Enlightenment. These were not mere abstractions; Riskin shows how the paradox became materialized, in automata, cells, robots, eggs, AI, and epigenetics. She makes a persuasive case that the early scientific attributions of action and purpose to God still haunt naturalistic explanations. No matter how rigorous and naturalistic, scientists still find the language of biological agency useful, even indispensable. In the end, as Riskin makes clear, the old tension between mechanism and purpose remains with us, and that is not a bad thing for science.

The Patrick Suppes Prize honors accomplishments in three deeply significant scholarly fields, with the prize rotating each year between philosophy of science, psychology or neuroscience, and history of science. The history of science prize is awarded for an outstanding book in history of science appearing within the preceding six years.  The works considered for the prize are restricted to works that emphasize detailed analysis of important systematic findings in any branch of science, ancient or modern, using quantitative and mathematical methods.

The selection committee was Ruth Schwartz Cowan (chair), Janice and Julian Bers Professor Emerita, History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania; Babak Ashrafi, President, Chief Executive Officer, Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine; Mahzarin R. Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Angela N. H. Creager, Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science, Chair, Department of History, Princeton University; Noel M. Swerdlow, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics and of History, University of Chicago, Visiting Professor, California Institute of Technology; Susan Wolf, Edna J. Koury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Harriet Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology Emerita, Columbia University; and the committee was put together by Richard Shiffrin, Distinguished Professor, Luther Dana Waterman Professor, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Indiana University.