Books and history of science: my interview on Riffle History

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview with me up at Riffle History, from the Riffle Books site, in which I say a bit about my current and former book projects, and have also recommended five books for people interested in getting into history of science. Anyone who wants more recommendations should check out my earlier posts, and the comments, on Good, popular history of science and Good, popular history of science II.

It’s always a topic I’m interested in, so let me know what good, popular history of science you’ve read since those posts went up way back in 2010.

Why whiggish won’t do

Cross-posted from The H Word.

The March of Progress image of human evolution 1965
The March of Progress, first published by Rudolph Zallinger in 1965. Its over-simplified presentation of evolution is just as misleading as “whiggish” histories of science.

Two anathemas of academic historians of science have been attracting a certain amount of interest in the history of science blogo-twittersphere lately. One is whiggishness and the other heroes, the two of which often come together in history writing and broadcasting aimed at a broad audience.

Two things kicked this off. One was a piece, Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History, by William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association. The other was the advertising of a lecture on Heroes of Science by Roger Highfield, which took place last week at the Royal Society.

To be clear what we’re talking about, read Cronon’s piece. He offers a great introduction to the concept, and its originator, Herbert Butterfield. He concisely explains that Whig histories tend to “praise revolutions [for history of science, we could read novelties, ideas or individuals] provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present”.

Such history tends to be triumphalist, presentist and linear, although also uncomplicated, narrative and with an in-built claim to relevancy. Because it picks winners and weaves its narrative from the threads of winning ideas – as judged from a modern standpoint – it tends to include heroes (forward-thinking folks who, in C P Snow’s wrong-headed phrase, “have the future in their bones”) and their adversaries (obstructive villains, stuck in the past).

Science does not, and did not, happen this way. This is generally agreed, yet a defence of the approach has been offered in several of the recent posts, comments and talks. The view is that heroes and linear, progressive narratives are required if we want a wider public to read our work or to be inspired by history, science or, indeed, history of science.

I find it hard to accept that it is only by distorting the facts that we can be relevant or inspirational. Is it only by feeding children tales of great men and a triumphant march to the present that they will ever take the bait and bother to read more? Can the general public only stomach fairy tales about heroes and villains?

Firstly, particularly for those who see history of science as a vehicle for science engagement, I want to offer an analogy. It is the “March of Progress” illustration of human evolution: linear, progressive, uncomplicated and misleading. It is an iconography that, as Brian Switek put it on Twitter, “needs to be dumped”. Last year, Frank Swain placed it among his list of Five iconic science images, and why they’re wrong, and a few days ago, Glendon Mellow explained that an alternative icon of evolution by natural selection “should totally be a jumble of primates jockeying for position and way more crowded”.

That sounds very familiar to me. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is emphatically the case that science’s history should be similarly crowded and full of tangents, dead ends and competing approaches. The question is how to capture such complexity in an elegant way, not whether or not we should give up on the task.

Secondly, for those writing or talking about history, I want to question the purpose and motivation of reaching wider audiences. The fact that for most lay readers history is entertainment is used as the excuse that only already-acceptable, rip-roaring yarns will do the job. But if it is history, it is being presented as fact (or our current best knowledge and interpretation of fact) and readers are unfairly being led astray.

I disagree that history necessarily has to commit the sins of presentism by judging events or people by today’s standards, to seem relevant. Rather, I think that one of the most useful things that history can do for us is to demonstrate that today’s (or our national, class or any other kind of) standards are not the only ones by which things can be judged. Just as meeting new people and travelling to distant parts of the world can provide essential perspective on our lifestyles and values, so can travelling to the past. We should be prepared for the fact that things that seem obviously right to us today will not seem so in the future.

Finally, whiggish narratives, strewn with heroes, only hinder understanding of how the world works. As Athene Donald has written, heroes and geniuses are unrealistic and unhelpful for those who might enter scientific careers in the future. They are equally so for those who are not and have no interest in becoming a scientist, but nevertheless live in a world in which understanding the real rather than ideal relationship between science, technology, people, power and politics is hugely important.

It is not good enough to say that we can entice people with simple stories in the hope that, if they enjoyed it, they will read more and understand better. Most will simply be stuck with the first version – hence the continued existence of science textbook-style history. Rather, our job is to find engaging ways to tell the fuller and more meaningful story.

On this day: the role of anniversaries

Newspapers, magazines, blogs and Twitter are awash with anniversaries. Today’s Birthdays, On this Day in History, #OTD and so on greet me every morning. I know a handful of famous people or events that share my birthday, and I am usually aware of forthcoming anniversaries for the people or institutions that I study. It cannot have escaped your attention that this year sees a Dickens anniversary and a royal jubilee. But why should it be in any way meaningful?

There is, of course, a meaningful history attached to the celebration of anniversaries, and one that has been studied by a number of historians. Looking at which, why and how famous individuals have been remembered for centenaries, bicentenaries and tercentenaries can tell us a great deal about how people view their own time, and how they make sense of their heritage, their nation, their discipline or their institutions. It is a product of that age of invented traditions, the 19th century. One of the scene-setters was the Shakespearian tercentenary in 1864, for which an ambitious programme of events was organised. By the early 20th-century such celebrations abounded: Shakespeare again in 1916, James Watt in 1919, Newton in 1927, Faraday in 1931, and many, many more. Many of the themes are touched on in this fascinating article on the Watt and Faraday celebrations, by Christine Macleod and Jennifer Tann (£).

Because of my sense of the fact that such celebrations tend to say more about us than they help develop a real understanding of the past, I’ve been pretty sceptical about anniversaries. This tendency was probably not helped by the fact that for three or four years it was my job to create a list of forthcoming anniversaries for the newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science (back issues here: there’s plenty more interesting stuff in there than these lists!). I was told by my elders and betters that it was a tradition and much appreciated by our members. In an era before Wikipedia, it probably was, but in my innocence I did not understand why.

Since entering the ‘real world’ of grant applications, large organisations and media relations, my eyes have been opened. While I still can’t quite understand why dates separated by a year, a decade, a century or whatever should be so readily accepted as having significance, I now understand why historians go along with it readily enough.

An anniversary seems to be the only way that history can be accepted as news, barring a really dramatic archival or archaeological discovery. Journalists, editors and readers are, it seems, more prepared to accept a story on an event/book/exhibition if it is connected to an anniversary – and, therefore, somehow carrying its own logic and relevance. Thus, publishers, directors and funders are more likely to be convinced that your idea is worth a punt. It also, of course, carries a natural deadline that helps to focus efforts, gain momentum and generate collective endeavour. A general sense that something must be done to celebrate this or draw attention to that can coalesce much more easily around a forthcoming anniversary.

It would seem that I have now become the anniversary’s greatest fan. Today I was delighted to see the marking of the 250th anniversary of Tobias Mayer’s death with a great post over at The Renaissance Mathematicus. I pointed readers of the Longitude Project blog toward it, especially since the bicentenary Nevil Maskelyne’s death last year was an excuse for a number of posts creating a more rounded portrait of the erstwhile ‘longitude villain’. The anniversary made it sensible to have a symposium devoted to the man, and also got him into New Scientist.

Of course, the whole Longitude Project, and the NMM’s forthcoming exhibition on longitude are also knowingly linked to the 2014 tercentenary of the first Longitude Act. I am now beginning to think that it would be worthwhile to start planning for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Observatory (OK, it’s not until 2025, but in the scheme of things, in a busy life, that’s not really so far off, if we’re to pull of a significant redisplay as well as suitable events). These institutional beginnings do, at least, carry a little more weight than birth and death anniversaries, that mark the two events in a life that the hero has least control over, but why should “founded 300 years ago” mean any more than “founded 298 years ago”?

Are we letting the cart lead the horse, in research terms? Should we be working harder to sell what we really think is significant instead of going for the easy option? Are anniversaries a harmless means of raising awareness, or can they obscure the importance of history: accounts, stories and interpretations which are for everyday, or perhaps for some unplanned particular day, and not just once every century. Did the huge Darwin bicentenary of 2010 achieve much, beyond sating everyone’s thirst for talks and TV programmes about the man? Have we, in short, made ourselves slaves to the anniversary?

History of science: spoiling everybody’s party

As regular readers will know, one of my abiding interests is the relationship between academic history of science and popular history of science or, more specifically, how to make historiographically-informed books into readable texts. It’s an issue that has been around for some time, prompting comments by David Miller on the ‘Sobel Effect’ back in 2002 (when he told “The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World”).Read More »

Dos and don’ts in history of science

This post is an attempt to put down an idea that has been loosely turning around in my mind for some time, partly continuing the thoughts raised in my earlier two posts on ‘Good popular history of science’, slightly inspired by the attempt to write a Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions, and in some sort of response to posts on the role of history of science over at PACHSmörgåsbord.  It’s by no means a definitive statement and, although I am interested to gague views and receive further suggestions, it is in some ways a note-to-self. It could be a personal checklist when speaking to people outside the discipline, whether in exhibitions, lectures aimed at the general public or in a media interview. On the spot, especially when directly questioned by someone with little or no knowledge of the topic under discussion, it can be all too easy to either fall into jargon or – in order to avoid that sin – make use of modern terms or concepts that make a nonsense of the history. This is a list of things that I think are, in such contexts, worth insisting on, even at the expense(?) of taking up a little more time, making people think a little harder and losing the neatness of a nice story.Read More »

Sympathetic vibrations

Over at PACHSmörgåsbord, brought to us by the Philadelphia Area Centre for History of Science, Darin Hayton has been catching the longitude vibe while investigating the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia. He describes an anonymous 1688 pamphlet that, famously for those who have looked into the history of longitude, suggests an intruiging solution to the problem. Visit his post to find out more about the pamphlet and its context.

The story is a good one – and a nice satire – but it has often been taken at face value. I’ve taken a quick overview and suggest some reasons why it has become a favourite in popular accounts. Read more.

Astrology (again) and skepticism

I have another post on the topic of “Astrology is rubbish, but…” thas has just appeared as a guest post on Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist. Very many thanks to Martin for agreeing to host, and offering his readers a different view to the one he put across a few says ago in “Astrologers angered by stars”. Comments are kicking off nicely – with some people evidently actually understanding what I was trying to say. Others not. Oh well – we try.

I had another thought – a pensée d’escalier – last night about the meaning of skepticism (though not, for the philosophers here, in the technical sense). It sometimes becomes confusing in such debates as to where skepticism sits and what it means. Being skeptical of astrology is good, being skeptical about climate change is bad. But let us remind ourselves that the etymology of skepticism implies enquiry and reflection, not dismissiveness. This may help sort out the real skeptics from the rubbishers!

Yes, histories of science are worth reading!

In a previous post, Alice Bell suggested in a comment that I read the article by Mark Erickson in this month’s issue of History of the Human Sciences. The issue also contains responses from Patricia Fara, Steve Fuller and Joseph Rouse but, since Erickson’s reply to these replies doesn’t seem to have taken on board some of the points that they and I consider important, it seems pertinent to continue the discussion. Also, since Erickson considers histories of science aimed at specialist and popular (or esoteric and exoteric) audiences, a blog seems an appropriate place to do this.

Erickson asks “Why should I read histories of science”, not, as you might expect from someone who researches and teaches the sociology of science, to explain why YOU should read books in this important discipline, but to explain why he think histories of science have little to offer anyone who does not want to reinforce society’s “normative understanding of science” [p. 86]. Some of his complaints certainly chime with my own thinking, as discussed in earlier posts, and the sort of thing that I would consider ‘good’ history of science  is what he too believes is missing from existing work. But Erickson goes much further, disapproving of  most specialist (or esoteric) histories as well as popular (or exoteric).Read More »

Martyr of Science

I wrote this introduction to David Brewster’s collected biography of Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Martyrs of Science (1841), some time ago when there was a plan to republish it as part of a collected edition of popular 19th-century works on science and history of science. This never worked out but, given my recent discussions on popular history of science writing, and current anxieties about financial support for science, now seems as good a time as any to give it an airing. Read More »