Dr Brian Easlea – Obituary

Obituary by Erik Millstone, University of Sussex

Dr Brian Easlea – Obituary

Dr Brian Easlea, who died on 24 November 2012, was a highly influential contributor to the literature on and debates about science and society in the UK from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s.  He was appointed in 1963 to the faculty at the University of Sussex as a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics, by when he had already taught in Denmark and the USA.  He had a great a talent for theoretical physics, but his life and intellectual agenda were transformed by a visit to physics colleagues in Brazil.

While there Brian was profoundly shocked by the grotesque social and economic inequalities that he witnessed, and by the brutal repression of the Brazilian military regime. While the regime was enthusiastic about promoting science and technology, Brian was deeply troubled by the ways in which science and technology were being deployed by powerful incumbent interest.  Before he had even returned to Sussex his intellectual focus has been shifted to a concern with the ways in which science and technology were being directed and deployed.  He transferred from the Physics into History and Social Studies of Science.  His transformation from a scholar in physics to a scholar of the social studies of science was encouraged and supported by Prof Chris Freeman and colleagues in the Science Policy Research Unit.

Brian was a consummate scholar and a brilliant lecturer. Brian devoured vast quantities of literature in the history, philosophy, sociology and politics of science and technology.  He distilled many of his insights into an undergraduate course entitled ‘Principles and Perspectives of Science’ that was taken by undergraduate students in the science schools.  He encapsulated his analysis into a ground-breaking book entitled Liberation and the Aims of Science, which was published by the University of Sussex Press in 1973; it was subtitled ‘An essay on obstacle to the Building of a Beautiful World’.  That volume displayed not only his ethical agenda and scholarly rigour but also his ability to combine cynicism with optimism.  It was a key text in many teaching programmes in the UK and elsewhere.

His contributions to the history and sociology of science included a highly influential book entitled Witch hunting, magic and the new philosophy: an introduction to debates of the scientific revolution 1450-1750, published in 1980, closely followed by Science and Sexual Oppression: Patriarchy’s Confrontation with Woman and Nature, in 1981.  He then applied his analytical critique to developments in the 20th century in his seminal work Fathering the unthinkable: masculinity, scientists and the nuclear arms race, which was published in 1983.

Brian Easlea retired from the University of Sussex in the mid-1980s, but his unquenchable appetite for learning remained with him through his life, although it was tempered by his growing enthusiasm for ornithology, a characteristic that was also shared with Chris Freeman.

He is remembered with enormous affection and respect by the many students, colleagues and friends whose lives he enriched.