History of science is interesting, makes us think and helps make sense of the products and processes of science that we see all around us. However, I have never been completely sure why it should matter to the world around us, what purpose it serves.
I think this concern comes from two things. It comes from spending a considerable amount of time studying practitioners of science and their attempts to argue for the societal importance of their subject. It also comes from watching historians of science complain about discussions they’re left out of or gripe about scientists’ muscling in on their/our territory by attempting to write their own history. Put the two together and it seems to me that as historians of science we have something very important to learn from the subjects of our research – they had to spell out their usefulness to others and so do we.
In 1830 John Herschel argued at length in his Preliminary Discourse on the study of natural philosophy that science made our individual lives more comfortable, and saved society as a whole from costly mistakes by informing our decisions. It could inspire us, he argued, to attempt things we never thought possible and, he concluded, was ultimately what made us ‘civilized’. In 1959 C. P. Snow asserted that science and engineering won the allies the second world war, and yet was vastly undervalued compared to Greek and Latin. Brian Cox more recently went further:
These curiosity led voyages of discovery across all scientific disciplines have delivered increased life expectancy, intercontinental air travel, modern telecommunications, freedom from drudgery of subsistence farming and a sweeping, inspiring and humbling vision of our place within an infinite sea of stars. But these are all in a sense spin offs. We explore because we are curious, not because we wish to develop grand views of reality or better widgets.
What is our equivalent?
From a purely personal point of view, I have found history of science has (1) given extra meaning to all the science I learned at school and in my undergraduate degree. In has in a sense helped me learn science. (2) It has given personalities and motives to the great names of science, and introduces a plethora of additional, previously unknown characters to the story. In doing this, it has made the idea of being a scientist or knowing someone who is a real life scientist appear much more attainable. Put another way, history of science creates/ introduces realistic and attainable role models. (3) The final argument I have in favour of history of science is I think the best. History of science bridges C. P. Snow’s two cultures, it is both on the side of the sciences and the humanities. This allows it to see both sides, translate between the two and help break down that divide.
These are my reasons, they’re all very personal to me, to my life experience and my research interests. Others I suspect have very different reasons. I’d love to hear them, I just haven’t yet found a tackful way to ask. Asking a historian of science what is the point of history of science sounds like the kind of question that could easily offend. I know it didn’t go down well when I suggested to a group of academics that I liked museum work and journalism because it had the potential to reach a wider audience than the 5 people expected to read the average scholarly work.
As I write this, I feel fairly sure that this discussion must have gone on many times before, and among people far more qualified than me to formulate clever opinion. If that is the case, and you’re reading this, and you know, let me know. And let others know too. I can’t help feeling the only reason historians of science are sometimes left out of debate is that often, people in the media and elsewhere don’t know what to do with us. They don’t know where we fit in, what we might contribute. Its up to us to make our usefulness clear.