The British Journal for the History of Science turns 50

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The British Journal for the History of Science
The British Journal for the History of Science has been published since 1962. Photograph: Melanie Keene

This seems to be a good year for anniversaries in the history of science, particularly 50th anniversaries. Science studies clearly turned a corner in 1962. I have already mentioned the anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and there has been much attentionon Rachel Carson’s now-classic Silent Spring. This year also sees one of the discipline’s leading international journals, the British Journal for the History of Science, turn 50.

The British Society for the History of Science, which supports the BJHS, has been reflecting on the journal’s history and celebrating the anniversary by making a selection of past articles free to access.

This moment – when academic publishing is being scrutinised with questions of open access, impact ratings, and the role of print in a digital world – is an interesting one in which to reflect on the past and future of a journal. Will it continue to build up on my bookshelves, in physical form? What was the journal’s role in defining and cementing the discipline? Which articles have been most influential? How have our interests changed over the last half century?

Some of these issues are considered in the October issue of Viewpoint[PDF], the magazine of the BSHS. I particularly enjoyed a feature that got five current scholars to look over the articles published in the very first issue BJHS, from June 1962. They provoke some interesting reflections, although as Frank James writes:

An inattentive reader comparing the first with more recent issues of the BJHS might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the history of science over the last fifty years. The subject matter looks remarkably similar – papers on the history of institutions, communication technology and genetics all continue to be written about in the Journal and elsewhere. But a detailed reading … reveals an entirely different approach….

One of the things that James notes is that four out of the five contributors to Issue 1 were scientists. In 1962 there were only a few tiny enclaves of professional historians of science. Today, although the discipline is still not large, the vast majority of articles in the BJHS are by academics working in history, history of science and science studies departments. The journal was a sign of this nascent professionalisation.

The change in the content of the BJHS thus chiefly reflected the way in which professional historians of science sought to differentiate their approach from what came before. In particular there was a rising interest in the social, cultural and economic contexts in which science and technology were developed and used. As a result, there was a reduced focus on the specialist technical content of scientific publications.

There are other changes. For example, Andrew Gregory, examining “Greek astronomy and its debt to the Babylonians”, notes that the last century saw a gradual shift away from a “great cultures” understanding of the development of science, to one that takes interest in a wider range of cultures. Historians now take note of the many routes through which knowledge has been transmitted, and have developed an interest in these cultures for their own sake, rather than purely for that of developing a story of progress from great civilisation to great civilisation.

As with so much academic research, the BJHS is not free to access. University libaries usually subscribe and members of the BSHS receive a print subscription and digital access to the whole 50-year back catalogue. Profits are shared between the publisher, Cambridge University Press, and the Society. It is a reasonable model compared to some, since it benefits the discipline as well as CUP, and there will, increasingly, be Research Council-funded research that will need to be made publicly accessible.

It seems a good omen that the Society and CUP should have decided to mark the anniversary by making a selection of articles open access. The list has been put together by two eminent former editors of the journal,Simon Schaffer and Janet Browne, and there are some corkers.

Ranging from the 1970s to 1990s, they show where history of science has headed since 1962. To pick a few, there is Hugh Torrens’presidential address on Mary Anning, Anne Secord on artisans and gentlemen corresponding on natural history in the 19th century, J.R.R. Christie considering big picture historiography of science, Steven Shapin looking at Robert Boyle’s self-fashioning and Deborah Warner asking “What is a scientific instrument?

There is much in these physical and digital pages that is worth revisiting. It continues to provide food for thought, despite changes in fashion and developments in scholarship. Here’s to BJHS’s next 50 years!

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6 thoughts on “The British Journal for the History of Science turns 50

  1. Rebekah – I think the last sentence in your 6th paragraph is slightly unfortunately phrased, which presumably arises from the way Frank James chose to put the point he was making about the change in the journal in the last 50 years. When he said “of the five contributors all but the medievalist Charles Talbot were scientists”, presumably the salient point, if your interpretation of his meaning is correct, was not that four out of the five contributors were scientists, but that they did not have a qualification in the history of science (though I’m not sure Talbot did either, did he? I can’t find him on google – too common a name, and I give up after the first page). Now, there are two very different explanations for the change – either the scientists went away and got trained up in HoS or HPS, or they just went away full stop. There’s no easy way of finding out which of these actually occurred, but you will surely agree with me that if it was the second option, that hardly justifies your use of the word “professionalisation” for this shift?

    We can get some idea of the demographic of the society from the survey reported in the previous Viewpoint, of course, although the figures quoted are a little confusing. It seems that of those who responded, 54% held a PhD in either HoS or HPS; “of the rest”, 25% have a PhD in “other arts, humanities or social science disciplines” while only 11% have a PhD in science or maths. Depending on the meaning of that “of the rest” (I have asked Aileen Fyfe for clarification) that means that, if you assume no overlaps between these classes and assume a 50:50 split in the HoS/HPS community between history and science backgrounds, the membership consists of approximately 52% from arts, humanities or social science as against 38% for science and maths; or it could be 38% and 32%. But of course it’s more likely that the 54% is made up in the same proportion as those outside HoS/HPS, which would mean those figures become more like 61% and 29% – so a 2:1 ratio in favour of arts/humanities etc. Hardly a reason for celebration! Of course the ideal situation would be a high proportion of academics who have studied both history and a science; but leaving that aside, we should surely at least be aiming for a 50:50 split between the two?

    Professor Jack Meadows, the first President of the History of Physics Group, said, in a special 25th anniversary newsletter published in 2010, that he had witnessed a “drifting apart” between physicists and historians of science since the 1960s. He was in a good position to comment on this, because he was head of both the Astronomy and History of Science Departments at Leicester University in the 60s. He ascribed this separation partly to a lack of time on the part of scientists, and partly to the fact that “the new generation of historians of science often had little background in scientific research”. He also blamed what he called the “internalist/externalist debate” – with the scientists tending to be more interested in “internal” (to science) factors while historians concentrated on the influence on science of external influences. After the Group’s meeting on Thursday, I got into conversation with a gentleman who had been a member for many years and was saying essentially the same thing. What strikes me as bizarre about this is that here was a meeting of perhaps 30 people, almost all of whom had a PhD in physics, and all of whom had an interest in the history of the subject; yet the BSHS can apparently only boast some 11% of its members who are similarly qualified. The BSHS was mentioned during that meeting, and it was known about at least (I think the Group has been invited to participate in ICHSTM in Manchester next July) but it seemed few were members. Why? How can we heal this schizm?

    • Many thanks for this comment. You’re right that none of the first five authors were professional historians of science. What I meant in that sentence was that the discipline’s professionalisation was just beginning and that the journal both signalled a new interest in the subject in its own right, and was to act as one of the places in which the profession’s style and boundaries would be defined.

      One of the ways that the discipline has developed is a much greater focus on sophisiticated historical analaysis, of a kind that can only be developed through training or prolonged engagement with scholarshp in history and allied disciplines. The BSHS is a learned society that represents the acadedmic discipline, and therefore it is unsurprising (and no tradegy) that the membership is overwhelmingly not science PhDs. Like other mature disciplines it tends to train the next generation internally, Although, as a member of the BSHS Council I would love to welcome as many members as possible, the end we are there to serve and represent that discipline. The interests of that group are not identical (and occasionally antithetical) to those of scientists with an interest in the history of their discipline.

      This, though, is a different question to the one about the extent to which historians of science do or should have scientific training. Certainly many professional historians of science have at least undergraduate science training, some have more. I am one of those who comes purely from the history side and is chiefly interested in the ‘externalist’ science-in-society-type questions.

      I’m not sure that I see a schism that needs to be healed. I think that different individuals and groups come to historical topics in science for a different reasons, and that not all of those motivations and interests can be made to sit happily together. I do think that we should be up for discussions among anyone who researches or has an interest in such topics, and to learn from each other and appreciate different skils. There is more cross-over in some fields – the Geological and Chemical societies’ history groups are, I think, examples, as is the history of scientific instruments community.

  2. I entirely agree with you about the need for scholarship and for the practtioners of HoS to have command of all the necessary tools of historical research. It’s the subject matter I take issue with. We had some correspondence on the Guardian blog when it first appeared, and you may remember that my concerns were based around the perception – and it is no more than that at the moment – that the HSTM MSc course I am doing was not really addressing the history of science. Imagine that you are looking at a map of destinations offered by a travel agency, there are blue lines criss-crossing all over it except for a big white blob around a particular country (say Belgium for argument’s sake) … wouldn’t you get the impression that they were trying to avoid that country? Well, that’s the impression I get when I look at our course syllabus; the big white blob is “science”. (And I mean that literally – the technology and medicine get somewhat better treatment). For instance, I mentioned to you that the only reference to relativity was Galison’s interesting, but hardly mainstream, ideas about Einstein being influenced by the synchronisation of railway clocks. But there is an even more glaring omission – nothing at all about quantum mechanics, surely THE topic (at least in the 20th C) that historians ought to be getting their teeth into?

    On that blog, I said that I had put this down to the lecturers not having much of a scientific background; you said (and have repeated here) that you think they do tend to have degree level science but I remain convinced that few of them do. I now intend to find out by asking them, and will get back to you. It is of course first degree science that is important here – a PhD in physics teaches you very little really – you end up phenomenally well-informed about a tiny, obscure niche and ignorant of all the rest; if you are lucky ( I wasn’t) you will also pick up research techniques. Mostly it is just 3 or 4 years of cheap labour, although admittedly in an agreeable environment. I was only mentioning PhDs because that is the yardstick by which Aileen Fyfe assessed the BSHS membership. It would be far more interesting to know what people’s first degree was in. (NB Have had a reply from Dr Fyfe – the percentages are all based on the total sample, and there is no information on first degree subject).

    There are also inaccuracies, which tend to bear out my hypothesis that the main players in this field do not know much science. Apart from fairly elementary misunderstandings that come across in some of the lectures, there are also mistakes in the literature. For instance, I’m currently researching various papers and books for an essay about Daston and Galison’s paper on objectivity. The 1992 paper borrows a cloud chamber image taken from an atlas published in 1954. Unfortunately it has printed the picture upside down, whilst using text from the original caption, thus reversing both the direction of motion and the change in energy (so that Daston and Galison’s electron is mysteriously gaining energy from somewhere) and this error is repeated in Galison’s Image and Logic (1997). By the time of publication of the book Objectivity (2007) they have got it the right way up, but something else has crept in – in Galison’s book he has added the ionisation loss to the total energy loss, so that the figures don’t agree, and this has propagated through to Objectivity. This looks like sloppiness to me, and would not have been tolerated had they been writing about works of art!

    If I’m right, then the way it works is this: most of the people who reach the higher echelons of history of science departments, do the research, write the books, and teach the courses tend to be people with a mainly history background who have not done much science; consequently they concentrate on subject areas that are familiar and interesting to them. Occasionally they do venture out into less familiar territory, but make mistakes. Still there are large swathes of the scientific terrain that remain unvisited. (It’s good to see an article on Maxwell in a recent BJHS – March 2012 – but it is mainly about his religious beliefs; the thesis that he “unified electricity and magnetism” is taken largely as given, and while this is a commonly held view, it would be nice to see Oersted and Faraday getting some of the credit; and it would also be interesting to delve into the question of whether even Maxwell achieved true unification, which, if you define it as the expression all of electromagnetism in a single equation, surely had to wait for the covariant form to become available following special relativity, decades after Maxwell’s death).

    The solution to this is surely for academics to collaborate a bit more. I notice that most of the papers in BJHS are single-author. This doesn’t happen in science, where the successful execution of an experimental project requires many different sorts of skill – experimentalists, theorists, applied scientists, engineers, technicians, programmers, draughstmen etc etc. Why not in history of science too, bringing in co-authors of a more scientific bent, even if they don’t possess all the historical tools?

    • Sorry – I hadn’t quite made the connection with our previous discussion!

      I think these are really interesting points, and I do like the idea of more collaborations. However, I stand by my earlier statement about most people in the history of science (certainly the UK) coming from science undergrad before they move across. Firstly, I know a good cross-section of the community and have always been aware that I am in the minority as someone who did history undergrad. Secondly, most of those who even get to hear about the existence of history of science are science undergrads who take courses in places like Cambridge HPS department, Edinburgh STS department, Imperial’s humanities department etc – these all exclusively teach science undergrads.

      Do ask your tutors – most of the lecturers at the London CHSTM when I was there started out in the sciences. So did Peter Galison (who also got a PhD in both physics and history of science) and many, many others.

      As for the subjects chosen, one of the obvious points is that a lot of internalist history of science was done in the past, and a lot of work focused on the key figures and theories. It is simply natural that scholars should have looked for new topics, new people and other ideas with which to engage and make their mark as scholars. It may be that some obvious figures and topics have been somewhat ignored of late – we will probably get around to them again if it is felt that there are new and interesting things to add to previous scholarship.

      There is, of course, also a wider issue about what we think is worth studying, what it says about us and about what we might want to achieve. Many historians of science are today more interested in looking at how science interacts with governments, the public, other types of scholarship and so on – this is good as these things are extremely important for us to understand. I think it is an unhelpfully narrow definition of “science” to feel that these things are skirting around what should be our “real” topic.

      Should we be concerned that our discipline is losing the ability to do internalist history of science? I don’t really think so – inclination rather than ability. Perhaps there will be a swing back toward it in the future, when we’ve all got tired of focusing on society and culture – I may be doomed in that case, but there are still plenty of scholars with the skills and interests to do “real science” history.

      Have you had a chance to discuss these issues with Will Thomas at Imperial (he blogs at Either Wave Propaganda http://etherwave.wordpress.com/about/)?

  3. Fair enough – I’ll get back to you when I have some data on the lecturers. (NB a friend who was quite a big influence in terms of getting me to go along to STS seminars etc a few years ago, which ultimately led to me doing this course, did HPS at Cambridge after starting on history of art! She only did her physics degree AFTER the HPS degree, as she’d got the science bug! Ended up working for the IoP.)

    I would just say one other thing – which is that I am not sure the syllabus for a taught masters should simply reflect the topics the lecturers are interested in. There should be a core syllabus (which of course the lecturers would be free to embellish to some extent) but there doesn’t seem to be for ours – the syllabus seems to change with every change of staff. I’ll try and find out about that too.

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