The place of science in history and history in science

As an historian of science working between two museum sites and with people researching or communicating both history and science, I often feel I’m a stuck-record, piggy-in-the-middle, harping on to the historians to pay attention to the science and the scientists to remember the history. Irritating, maybe, but it’s a theme that goes beyond my day-to-day work.

It strikes me as particularly odd that history can be taught or presented at school, universities and museums without giving thought to the scientific knowledge and ideas of the period. I managed to get through six years of school history and three years’ undergraduate without touching on science or having any idea that a discipline such as history of science might exist. Some schools include a little history of medicine, but sadly none of this came my way. Technology appeared – as, for example, the seed drill and power-loom, or Dreadnoughts and tanks – but these were simply factors to be taken into consideration in explaining political, social or military developments. So far as I remember, no thought was given to how the political, social or military environment influenced the development or production of such technology.

To be fair, the history curriculum also gave little room for considering the literature, art, music, architecture or philosophy of the period being studied. For me, this is a crying shame. Bringing in such elements is the best way to develop a feel for a temporally or geographically distant culture, and it also allows cross-fertilisation with other subjects being studied. It also makes no sense, as the monarchs, politicians, generals and populations did not act within a vacuum. They created and reacted to the ideas and material reality of their time.

As a history student, I was always most excited by elements in my courses that seemed to reach out into such areas. I remember an element of one course that introduced the cultural flourishing of the Carolingian Renaissance, another where medieval ideas and tales led to a geography and natural history that included one-footed or dog-headed people. Asked to think of dissertation topics, I reached for literature as an historical source or investigated the links between philosophy and politics. My Masters’ course, happily an interdisciplinary one, allowed me to dip into history of architecture, history of the book and, finally, history of science.

I may not have been a typical history student, but I believe strongly that at school and beyond it should be a matter of course that history curricula should find time to consider the culture of the time, and that this should, absolutely, include the science. Martin Robbins’ recent post on the representation of science on the BBC contained one phrase that made me nod. Why, he wonders, is science treated as something to be presented and packaged as a separate strand of programming, rather than as “a natural part of public discourse”. Quite so. And quite so, too, for our discussion of any past culture. [1]

While convinced that history teaching should remember the science, I have usually been less certain about the necessity of including history in science teaching. Science can be taught without knowing the long, complicated history behind any particular technique or idea, and when historical stories are brought into the classroom they are usually more about the folklore of science than its history. I do think that history could really help students understand “how science happens”, but I’m not sure that there are many science teachers with enough historical knowledge and training to do this successfully. Stories of heroes and discoveries are, emphatically, not about how science has actually happened and will not inform a student about how science is experienced by most working scientists today. I would prefer not to have the history there at all than that it should be a triumphalist bit of presentism.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps, also, I am too sanguine about how informed the history of science, art or literature taught by most history schoolteachers would be. Perhaps this would only work with much thought, new curricula, staff training, and if most students took both subjects and were encouraged to make each to reflect on the other. A nice thought!

Since finding my way to history of science, I have wondered whether I would have taken to school science better if it had included some history. Possibly, if it gave context and not just a colourful anecdote. A hint of science policy and ethics would have worked well for me, I think. In fact anything that might have made the stuff I was being taught seem less right/wrong, less finished, less routine and more integral to the business of living and working.

I was, though, recently reminded of one early experience of history of science that led me to a brief moment of genuine excitement and enthusiasm for science. This came about as a result of visiting the Leonardo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. I was in my early teens, but was entirely captured by this rather erudite exhibition. As these images on the website of the exhibition’s designers show, there were some large-scale models, but it was all about the manuscripts. As it was very busy, I had to move slowly along in line before each case and I barely noticed the exhibition design add-ons. I was delighted by the combination of artist, inventor and scientist but it was the science that, on this occasion, most interested me. The studies of fluid dynamics and anatomy, ideas for machines and, above all, exploring the concept of perpetual motion.

My sister (who did become a scientist) and I returned home talking about it. We began sketching ideas, imagined building models and, because our ‘solution’ to perpetual motion involved magnets, went off to buy books on magnetism. I think we knew that it was impossible, but there was something about seeing Leonardo’s notebooks and the sense, there, that this problem was unsolved and worth tinkering with – that the science we were coming across was not neatly packaged and completed before being passed on to us – gave us the licence to think up our own experiments. It was much, much more fun than repeating experiments at school, when you not only knew what the result would be before starting but also that thousands of other children had done exactly the same thing before you.

So, at work and beyond, I guess that I will continue my call for putting the science into history and the history into science.

[1] I don’t quite go along with everything in this post. The under-representation of scientists is not, I think, part of the same battle as dealing with under-representation of women. The BBC is also hardly the worst offender, and I think that one’s sense of the under-representation or trivialization of a particular field is greatly affected by one’s own interest and expertise in said field. At least scientists sometimes get to present science programmes. History of science coverage is, more often than not, presented by a scientist. OK, I know that history of science is a small discipline, and perhaps not many of us are well-known or telegenic, but could we, perhaps, try something radical, like having an historian doing history of science?

35 thoughts on “The place of science in history and history in science

  1. I’m sure that it varies from school to school, and from country to country, but I often got the impression at the ones I attended in the U.S. that, at least in the upper grades, science and mathematics were “hard” subjects which were assumed naturally unfathomable to the teachers and students who were more humanities/etc.-inclined. I’m pretty sure that we never learned anything vaguely in line with the history of science in any of the courses, beyond learning the years in which specific technologies thought vital to the ‘Industrial Revolution’ were invented. The old “Two Cultures” thing, I suppose. I agree with your footnote about Robbins’ column; I thought that his argument would have been much stronger without linking the issue to that of the representation of women on TV, which is a different kettle of fish. I don’t know about actual scientists, since I read my news rather than watching current events shows and such, but I’ve certainly seen tons of historians and curators of science and technology whom I know on the tele – not something that would happen in the U.S.!

    • I think you’re right that science is too often seen as a whole separate kind of discourse, hence my agreement with Martin’s basic point and the need to make at least some aspects of science an area that more people feel they are allowed to comment on. You’re right that there are historians of science on TV, but most appear briefly as talking heads and – apart from Simon Schaffer’s Light Fantastic – are never allowed to be the presenter or leading voice. By and large it is the likes of Marcus du Sautoy or Jim Al-Kalili who are put on the voyage of discovery, starting with their knowledge of the science and looking for its past. I’d really like to see a programme led by a well-known historian – an Amanda Vickery or Tristram Hunt – who starts from their knowledge of a particular period and then goes to look for the science!

      • Can I point out in somewhat curmudgeonly fashion that Marcus du Sautoy is a mathematician and Jim Al-Kalili is a physicist who gets to stand in for chemists? I have a perception that the style for these programs is that although Du Sautoy and Al-Kalili provide the narrative thread, there is frequent recourse to historians of science in interviews.

      • I know their backgrounds, but I’m commenting on the usual story arc – also, while du Sautoy does get to talk about history of mathematics and Al-Kalili does do history of physics as well as chemistry and astronomy, neither of them are historians. Ditto the botanist who recently did some history of botany on BBC4. As per my comment above, it would be good if the story could sometimes be either ‘expert in history of science talks about what they know’ or ‘historian with understanding of the past considers the role of science’. Programmes run around the idea that a scientist is finding out about the past of their discipline (“Physics excites me, so I went on a journey to find out where it came from”) is an inherently presentist approach. What about all the science that happened in the past that did not lead directly and straightforwardly to the science we know today?

  2. This is something I’ve wondered about in the past, as you say history in science classes is currently used decoratively. I’ve been taking more of an interest in the history of science recently. I think the benefit I’ve gained are two-fold:
    1. For a scientist, history of science is a good way of motivating a better understanding of more general history, and historiography;
    2. Understanding the context under which science was done in the past gives you a better appreciation of the context under which science is done now: that means your career as a scientist!
    I’m far from convinced that history of science has a place in science lessons, my understanding of Newton’s Laws in no way benefited from learning the anecdote about the apple falling from the tree. Doing justice to the history of science is a big job which doesn’t fit with busy syllabuses. Perhaps it is the desperate support for a teacher trying to teach those students uninterested in science?

    • I’d agree that history is probably not enormously helpful, at an elementary level, in teaching the content of science. Especially when anecdotes like the apple one probably have little relation to the work that was actually done in the past. But is the content of science all that science lessons at school should tackle? I think your point that history helps you understand the scientific career is important, both for those who might become scientists and those who won’t. And, given that only a small percentage in the class are likely to go on to study science at university, would it not be a good idea for science lessons to say something more about the wider role of science in our society? History, sociology, policy, ethics etc are all valid, possibily essential, areas for future citizens to explore.

      • This does get us into the whole “what is education for” argument. Personally, I think I would have paid more attention to history at school if it had some science in it! To find an answer to this conundrum I need a better understanding of the syllabuses for history and science – and who teaches them.

      • You’re right, and I’m conscious that I’m not an expert in formal education. It would be good to have some views from some who are. I’m also interested in views from those educated in different countries, hence a tweet last night asking anyone who was familiar with the International Baccalaureate. My hunch (as some who did both Scottish Highers and A Levels) is that retaining some bredth through school is generally beneficial. I’m also particularly interested in the study of ‘theory if knowledge’, which I think is a compulsory part of the Intl Bacc.

    • These days I fancy myself a historian of science, but as an undergraduate I was studying to become an engineer. I’d always been good at science, but when I started learning relativity, differential equations, and other slightly more complicated topics, I started getting behind.

      Luckily, I had also been taking history of science courses out of general interest. It turned out that I began to understand the complicated scientific topics much more thoroughly when I learned them in the context of their history and discovery: why were these invented? What did they do? How did scientists come up with them?

      I may be an exception to the rule, and I had history of science professors with a *very* firm grasp of the math and technical details, but for me, history of science helped immensely in understanding science… so much so, that I decided to purse history of science over engineering.

      • Thanks for this interesting account of your experience. You make a good point about levels of technical knowledge among historians (of science), which can be an issue just as much as the level of historiographical sophistication of science teachers – although I still think that there is a role, even potentially in science lessons, for discussing the role of science in society with less ‘internalist’ focus.

  3. I’d be much more pro-history in the science classroom than Ian. For sure forget about the silly anecdotes about a falling apple. Rather I would try to resurrect the real debates that were had as concepts that we now take for granted (heat, light, the atom) were thrashed out. To me this really helps to bring home the messy nature of the scientific process and to neutralise the pat textbook presentation of linear, inevitable progress that is such a killer to exploration.

    Your story about the Leonardo exhibition was a great example of the power of history to enliven science.

    • Thanks, Stephen – this is absolutely what I’m trying to suggest. It has got to be good news that better histories of science can benefit both our wider understanding of past cultures and the curiosity and explorative approach that makes good science.

  4. I was a history of science major in college, and now I am a psychology professor at a liberal arts college in the US. My undergrad program emphasized the sweep of history of science (yearlong tutorials for 3 years) but also required us to pick a science and go beyond the intro level in that science (mine was psychology).
    I am very in favor of including history of science in science curricula, at all levels. Here are my reasons:
    First, studying the history of science (when done well) can show how science is gradual, and answers questions bit by bit, rather than simply proving one thing, then discovering the next. For example, I think one of the best arguments for evolution is not to simply present all of the evidence all at once, but to make students aware of all of the questions that were left unanswered by Darwin, and the steady march, decade by decade, in answering those questions. This need not be a strict history course, but taking a historical perspective can illuminate the many interlocking pieces of a scientific argument, or scientific consensus.
    Second, history provides an entree in the logic and philosophy of science in other ways. Understanding how scientific arguments have been made historically, how scientific knowledge has been disseminated, and understanding that some of the main themes of science have very long pasts can be useful in the present.
    Finally, history can remind us scientists to be humble. These scientists in the past were not idiots, but yet from our present perspective they made some amazing errors. Benjamin Rush, perhaps the US most preeminent doctor of his time and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a strong proponent of bloodletting.

    Anyways, interesting post, thanks.

    • Thanks for this, Cedar – a very useful perspective. Understanding how arguments and consensus have developed is hugely important. Regarding your final point, it’s of course not just about being (personally) humble but very clearly showing that science does not end. Almost everything we think we know today will look wrong to people in the future. I think calling the beliefs or practices of the past that we now consider wrong “errors” possibly obscures just how “right” they were within their own context.

  5. Thanks for a fascinating piece.
    I would be a big fan of increasing the level of history taught alongside science. (Not so long ago I did an arts course that included a chapter which presented Michael Faraday within historical context and was fascinated by what I learned).
    Science is so often presented simply as current theory, end product to be assimilated and repeated, when there is often so much more to the story. I have often found that appreciating the context of scientific development: the struggles undertaken, the mistaken ideas that were only later corrected, the historical and social contexts of the work done, has greatly helped my understanding.
    As with nature and nurture (or probably more correctly, genetics and environment), where one really cannot exist in isolation from the other, can we realistically separate science and history, and expect to treat either properly?
    Thanks again!

  6. Great post, Rebekah. Thanks very much for putting these ideas to words. I agree with your thoughts on how history of science can enrich science teaching and education. I also agree very much about the rewards of integrating the history of science into traditional historical narratives. I undertook my PhD on a 19th century Paris acoustical instrument maker (Rudolph Koenig) partly because, having studied much about Paris and art during this period (1850-1900), I was thrilled to discover an entire co-existent world of science and the precision trade on the Left Bank. To take a favorite example, I was amazed to discover during my research that Koenig was Gustave Courbet’s neighbour for over 10 years. This is not mentioned in the copious Courbet literature. I came across it by accident while re-visiting Gerstle Mack’s biography of Courbet and recognizing the address. There is something in that story that speaks to your points above, and how somewhere in subsequent histories these two major figures of art and science in 19th century Paris became separated.

    • It does speak to the points I tried to make – a lovely story, and one that will help me to see Paris differently from now on! Many thanks for sharing it here.

  7. On ne connaît pas complêtement une science tant qu’on n’en sait pas l’histoire. (Auguste Comte)
    [You don’t fully know a science unless you understand its history]
    Celui qui ne connaît pas la science écrit son histoire. (Marcel Mauss)
    [Those who don’t know the science write its history]

    • Ha! I am, of course, with Auguste on this – although there’s truth in both. In fact, there’s some benefit in not knowing the (modern) science before you look at past science. But there’s a snobbish sort of “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” kind of attitude from Mauss there.

    • As Clifford Truesdale said to be a historian of science you have to be a scientist and a historian and a lot more besides. The worst history of science is not written by those that don’t know science but by scientists who don’t know history.

  8. I have spent a large amount of time working to incorporate much more robust history of science discussions into my middle and high school classes. It is an approach that does fit well with my school. I also have the benefit of the history teachers actually spending a couple of weeks on the Scientific revolution, and a few other relevant topics. There are many reasons it is a good idea, but the biggest in my mind are helping students understand philosophy of science better (which as the research shows takes many years to adequately teach, and it is not well taught in the standard approach), and in select situations it can dramatically help students understand the actual concept. Personally I learned at least as much of how to be a scientist in 5 years of teaching and reading about the history of various disciplines as I did in undergrad research experiences, and 3 years of grad school. Here are some reference from the literature on teaching history of science in science classes.

    Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N.G. (2000). The influence of history of science course on students’ views of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37, 1057-1095.

    Carroll, F. A., & Seeman, J. I. (2001). Placing science into its human context: using scientific autobiography to teach chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 78, 1618-1622

    Galili, I., & Hazan, A. (2000). The influence of an historically oriented course on students content knowledge in optics evaluated by means of facets-schemes analysis. Physics Education Research: A supplement to the American Journal of Physics, 68, S3-S15.

    Matthews, M. R. (1994). Science teaching: The role of history and philosophy of science. New York: Routledge.

    • Very many thanks for sharing your experiences and for pointing me to the relevant literature. Some more for the ever-expanding reading list!

      Do you have any views on the other role of history of science in teaching, that is, less about the content and philosophy and more about the social role of science (both how science careers work and how science works in society)?

  9. Personally, I have found history very helpful for developing a better understanding of how science careers work. I have not emphasized that as much with my students, mostly because I think they are two young to think very deeply about that question. My hope is that by having more diverse examples, than I had in my formal preparation they will be better prepared to seek out that information when they are in college and would get more out of thinking about careers in depth.
    The incorporation of a large amount of history of science does make it much easier to have substantial discussions of the roles of science and society. I find that I’m still working hard to figure out how to help them navigate all of the background to really get them to synthesize such complex questions. So I definitely find it helpful, but teaching history is different then teaching science and the resulting challenge is very interesting.

    Hope that helps

    • It does – many thanks. I’m no science student, or teacher, but I hope to come back to this topic after doing some more reading. I’d love to hear how your thinking progresses as you try to work out how to fit everything in!

      • I have a special interest in this topic as an educator for the Charles Darwin Trust, but I feel I myself still have a lot to learn about this issue too. The Trust uses Darwin’s life and work as an inspiration to teach fundamental ideas in science. We focus in particular on his ways of working with his emphasis on direct observation and asking questions, but his context is really important too. Students are surprised that our way of thinking about the world has changed so much in 150 years. For instance, they take for granted the idea that variation in nature exists and I think it is helpful to them to realise that this has not always been thought an important idea. The Victorian view was a cabbage is a cabbage, a pigeon a pigeon etc, they are all the same and always have been. Now of course we no longer see the world in this way. Variety, so necessary for selection, is everywhere. I suspect (although I would like to look into this more) that understanding this historical development of an idea could help students understand the concept and its implications.
        A really interesting post, it’s got me thinking…..

      • Many thanks for this, Emma. I think you have a particularly interesting opportunity and challenge to deal with. I was wondering – do you ever find that using Darwin’s life and work as an inspiration actually gets in the way of teaching what you/others at the Trust/other teachers you encounter consider fundamental ideas in science? Not everything that Darwin did, wrote or thought was ‘textbook’ in the judgement of either his or our own times. Or, alternatively, do you ever feel that Darwin becomes a cipher rather than a real historical figure? It is a problem, if so?

        Fascinating – lots to think about!

  10. I started looking at natural history and philosophy as means of understanding peasant society more fully and to explore it’s relationship with different social groups.

    I suspect that in the medieval period particularly the further back you go, beliefs were more uniform between peasant and elite groups (i.e in the 6th century Lord, servant and slave shared the same one room hut, society is much smaller in scale and more intimate). I think dislocation kicks in big time with regard to how the physical world is viewed in the Victorian period and increasingly this relatively modern break down in social exchange comes to be seen as a divide that has always historically existed as a cultural marker.

    Without understanding the history of science, natural history and philosophy I don’t think you can understand wider cultural history fully or identify a broad range of interesting questions you can fire at the subject.

    • Many thanks for adding this perspective from the history side – it is a great illustration of how understanding natural history, philosophy and scientific ideas is necessary to getting to grips with the world view of past societies.

      Tracing the separation in views between expert/elite cultures and lay people is, to me, a fascinating part of the history of science. I agree that there was a huge shift in the 19th century (I have argued, for example, that in the second half of the century men of science were in the process of developing appreciative but essentially passive lay audiences as a foil to their expertise), although we can probably also point to other shifts, for example with the creation of specialist societies and institutions in the 17th century, or the arrival of scientific lecture/demonstrators in the 18th. Interesting project…

  11. Thanks for another interesting discussion; I would be in favour of more history of science in science lessons, but make of it the broader point that I consider it important for everyone in any discipline to know the history of their discipline in order to enrich their understanding by appreciating dead ends, false starts and misunderstandings as well as simple progression.

    I am also very interested in the potential for a meeting point between history and science in terms of aims and methods, which I have written about on my own blog ( I wonder if,this might provide an interesting bridge between the two, or a window from one onto the other? Might it lead a science student to better appreciate the significance of history, or vice versa?

    • Thanks for the link to your interesting post. Analogies between the methodology of science and religion really interest me, partly because of the various 19th-century approaches I have studied in the past. Most claims for a ‘scientific’ method in history were, of course, trying to appropriate the authority and objectivity accorded to science.

      Rather than linking an historical methodology to science (which for me often sounds like it might lead to antiquarianism than history), I’d maybe like to see a focus on the interpretive and investigative elements of both history and science.

      Hmm – lots to think about there!

  12. Thank you for responding Rebekah. I agree I feel the Charles Darwin Trust are trying to do a very interesting but challenging thing. I am not sure how well I can answer your questions, but I do suspect the man can sometimes get in the way of what we are trying to do. However, the fact that Darwin’s work was not all “textbook” can be a source of inspiration for students. I hope we can use his approach and ways of working to encourage children to question and be creative. I am starting a Doctoral research project about this subject as I want to unpick “Darwin Inspired” learning and hopefully suggest a way the historical development of scientific ideas and methodologies can contribute to student’s understanding. The Trust’s approach could provide a model, but we really need to understand how students experience it. What ever the outcome I hope the research will cast some light on this subject.

  13. […] This is just one example. There are others, but I include it here to illustrate that the scepticism Al-Khalili exercises professionally as a scientist does not seem to have been well transferred as here dabbles in history. Perhaps this work is an example of why scientists aren’t always the best at writing histories of science, a point I know is echoed by Rebekah Higgitt. […]

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