Nov 15 2009

The past is a foreign country

I’ve been hanging out with historians recently (both online and in real life), so it got me thinking about how scientists treat history. The 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species” is coming up too, so it seemed like a good time to write this post.

My impression is that historians are about the reading of contemporary material, and drawing conclusions from that material; a realisation I came to writing this is that historians seem to have the same sense of wonder and passion for historical minutiae as I have for nature and science. I remember talking to a historian of science who was working on an original manuscript of some important scientific work, it quickly become clear that this was much more exciting for her than me. To me the exciting thing was the theory presented in it’s modern form, I wasn’t very interested in the original.

In science it isn’t the original presentation that’s important: I haven’t read Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Maxwell’s A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, any of Einstein’s four “Annus Mirabilis” papers, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the list goes on…

And that’s not to mention the real contemporary material: correspondence, notes and labbooks. I have a sequence of about 20 labbooks in the loft from 15 years of research, supplemented by a hoard of files and e-mails stored on my computer, covering the same period. I’m not sure I even want to try to reconstruct what I was thinking over that period – let alone try it on someone else’s records! It’s not that I’m remiss as a scientist, we just don’t read original material.

The original presentation of an idea may not be the clearest, and it may well be that it makes more sense later to present it as part of a larger whole, and to be honest scientists can be a bit hit and miss: Newton’s physics is great but the alchemy was bonkers. Science comes in bits, these days the bits are the size of a journal article and it’s only when you’re doing active research at the cutting edge that you need to keep track of the bits.

Mathematical notation is an issue for original publications. For example, Maxwell’s equations, which describe electromagnetism (radio waves, electricity, light…) are a monster in his original presentation but can be squished down to four short lines in modern notation (actually a notation introduced not long after his original paper). There’s a rule of thumb that each equation in an article halves the number of readers, therefore I link you to Maxwell’s 1865 version on page 2 of this document with the modern version at the bottom of page 6…
impressive, no?

A bit of history is introduced into the teaching of science but it’s either anecdotal such as the apple falling on Newton’s head, Gallileo dropping things off towers, Sadi Carnot and his wacky exercises, or we might give a quick historical recap as we introduce a subject. But to be honest it’s really all window dressing, the function of this history is to provide a little colour and give students the opportunity to do some exercises which are tractible.

Are scientists losing out as a result of this historical blindness? History should certainly inform us of our place in society, and our future place in society (okay – I’m talking about cash here!). I’m less sure that it has something to teach us on the ‘craft’ of science, this is something that comes from professional training – perhaps it would help if we were not presented with such caricatures of our scientific heroes.

So that’s my view, how wrong can I be?


1 ping

  1. thegentlemanadministrator.wordpress.com

    Really interesting to see your perspective on this, thanks for sharing.

    I have become increasingly interested in the history of science, or at least natural philosophy as it was, in the 17th Century. This is essentially the birthplace of modern scientific method. I am fascinated, intrigued, awed by science but I am less interested in the 'science' as I am in what the pursuit of the scientific ideas tells us about shifts in society, about the change in the way people think.

    I plan to write more about this in future on my blog, but I'm a little pre-occupied with Charles II a the mo ;).

  2. bill hilton

    A good post.

    There could well be some value in extending the amount of history taught to undergrad scientists. For example, a quick overview of Bacon and the origins of scientific method could be useful; inductive vs. deductive reasoning, and so on.

    Equally useful could be a smattering of philosophy: thinkers from Plato to Popper have influenced the way science is done, and trainee scientists would probably bring a broader view to their subject if they knew a little of the background.

    I also think historians would benefit from a bit more scientific training, because the way they approach evidence is rather similar to the way scientists do. When I wrote my MA dissertation (which lay in the badlands between English lit and history) I included a fair bit of statistical and mapping material. It baffled one or two of my contemporaries and several departmental tutors: I was lucky to have a supervisor who not only understood what I was doing but, in the case of the stats, knew more about it than I did.

    The whole 'two cultures' thing is very damaging. The best people on the arts side are scientifically literate, but they are not in a majority.

  3. SomeBeans

    @gentlemanadmn – seeing the historians "at tweet" stimulated this. If you're interested in collaborative blogging via Wave on history of science then I'm game.

    @bill hilton – I think there's a lot to be said for clarifying that what you might think of history in an undergraduate science degree is no such thing. My (slightly stale) experience of teaching undergrads physics (and my own personal prejudice) is that you'd probably be better trying to integrate (or sneak in) more historical and philosophical ideas into current modules.

    I'm quite a consumer of scientific biography, but when I tried out a history of science book (culled from the OU reading list) I found it rather dull and didn't get very far. I managed "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and I think I benefited from some of the ideas but towards I got the feeling of an idea too widely applied. These days I get fractious when people bang on about paradigm shifts!

  4. Lucy Inglis

    Great post. I'm always amazed that people who take evidence so seriously (scientists) are prepared to spout anecdotes about Newton's cat-flap and so forth.

    I think Dava Sobel has written a lot of sense on this subject, and I think her books are an admirable amalgamation of both history and science. Her writing process is interesting and can be read about on her website if you have five minutes to spare.

  5. SomeBeans

    @LucyInglis – we're using history decoratively! Which is the best excuse I can come up with. To be fair though, I think Isaac Newton is the most encumbered with anecdotes.

    I've read a couple of Dava Sobel's books, and enjoyed them.

    (Thank you all for your kind remarks)

  6. CJR

    Making science completely ahistorical can have it's drawbacks, however. When all you learn about is the end-product, and not at least some of the history of an idea, the incremental improvements and gains in intellectual ground which eventually led to the formula or theory in your textbooks, then it's very hard to connect the scientific achievements of the past with what you, yourself, could possibly achieve as a scientist. I had to struggle a bit in my late teens with the impression that successful scientists seemingly pulled fundamental equations and theories out of thin air – and since this was something that I could never see myself doing, I wondered if despite my interest perhaps I shouldn't be pursuing science as a career. Humanising past (and present) scientists a little – showing that whilst of course they were clever, there was some struggle involved – can give encouragement to the scientists of the future.

  7. SomeBeans

    @CJR I'm in favour of introducing "better" history. Not sure whether this is best done as standalone modules or integrated into the rest of teaching.

    I don't think I ever shook off my appreciation of the magnitude of what earlier scientists achieved

  8. twaza (@wassabeee on twitter)

    I found your post really interesting — I have been wondering recently why different types of history interest different people.

    I find the history of events (who did what, when) boring. But, the history of characters and ideas I find fascinating.

    The problem with throwing a bit of history into science is that it tends to be about events: an apple fell on Newton's head on such a date and then he invented gravity.

    Interesting history brings Newton's character to life, and explains the questions that plagued him and how he tried to answer them.

    (Thanks to Dainty Ballerina for reminding me of this post!)

  9. twaza (@wassabeee on twitter)

    PS I got called away — just want to add that the snippet of information about Maxwell not having modern mathematical tools makes his achievements even more impressive. It is like climbing an intellectual Mount Everest on your own, without sherpas or bottled oxygen.

  10. SomeBeans

    @twaza I've been reading more history of science over the holiday. It turns out I prefer my history processed rather than raw. To me original material is too much of a slog.

    I think I look for the character of scientists when I read history, and also the structures in which they operated.

  1. L’Académie des Sciences | SomeBeans

    […] time. As I have remarked before much of the “history” taught to scientists comes in the form of Decorative Anecdotes of Famous Scientists, this is my attempt to go beyond that narrow […]

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