History for scientists

The other week I was in a meeting with a number of scientists, all of whom have an interest in preserving their collections of old apparatus, and it got me thinking. All our scientists were retired, and they all shared roughly the same view of history of science.  One even spelled it out.  They all saw history of science as something irrelevant to their work & their teaching.  Instead they saw it as light entertainment and really only something you’d be likely to be interested in in later life.

So, as historians of science, is this something we’re OK with? And if not, what do we do about it? I can’t of course be sure this group was representative of all scientists, although Leeds is a pretty big university and these scientists came from a range of disciplines and in each case they were there because, of their department, they were the member of staff most interested in preserving their subject’s historical artefacts.  This suggests that it probably is true.  Though perhaps there are other universities where links between the history of science and the science departments are stronger.  It would be interesting to know.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. We can’t all be interested in every subject after all. But it seems to me history of science will suffer as a discipline if it doesn’t attract roughly as many scientists as historians to its ranks. We need that range of perspective and expertise and I’m not sure its currently getting it.  Anedcotally at least it seems the balance is very much on the history side at the moment.  Part of the reason for this, it seems to me, is that science students do not get a huge amount of encouragement to take up history of science courses as part of their degree, because the scientists teaching them do not see the courses as enhancing their understanding of their discipline.  They might (if we’re lucky) see them as entertaining, and maybe even interesting, but I don’t think many believe them to be actually useful to students in helping them to master their subject.  That, it seems to me, is a problem.  Not least because isn’t part of the justification for history of science as a subject, that it enhances our understanding of science and how science works?

Since the meeting that began this whole train of thought was about the university museum, a natural beginning would be to start making history of science seem relevant to scientists through something object based. One idea would be to try to design an undergrad physics lesson using objects to show the basic principles behind electricity, black boxed in their modern counterparts. Something like that. As a project this could be quite time consuming, not least in convincing all parties of its merits, but I like to think that if we can get somekind of collaboration of this type going – demonstrating to scientists that we can be useful (not just entertaining) to them – then it could really enhance both disciplines and get easier as ideas flow back and forth. This is just a very simple, obvious starting point.  It would be great to come up with more ideas on how science and its history can work together more.  I’m sure attempts at this have already begun, it would be wonderful to hear how they’ve been working out.  As ever, any suggestions, recommendations and advice would be gratefully received.

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