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. 
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.
 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?