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What is the history of science for, and who should write it?

By Frank James

I have been pondering these questions recently in the course of researching and writing the biographical memoir for the British Academy of the distinguished and influential historians of science Rupert Hall (1920-2009) and his wife Marie Boas Hall (1919-2009). Before the 1939-1945 war history of science was practiced almost exclusively by scientists of one form or another such as Charles Singer (1876-1960) in England and George Sarton (1884–1956) in the United States. They, and others, tended to tell a triumphalist story of the rise of cumulative positive scientific knowledge, including, in some narratives, its vanquishing of religious beliefs. Such writers paid little, if any, attention to the social and cultural contexts of science and they insisted that only someone trained in science could write its history.

Such a position rapidly became unsustainable in the post-1945 world following the unleashing of the power of the atom. Some saw this as yet another triumph for science, especially in its peaceful applications; others became profoundly concerned that scientists had provided the means by which the world might be destroyed. Either way it became essential to understand how scientific knowledge related to society, politics and culture. The key question was how had the study of natural phenomena, previously undertaken by a relatively few individuals, at an even smaller number of locations, come to deliver such power.

Ever since the sixteenth century, scientific practitioners, following Francis Bacon (1561–1626), had been offering the prospect of control over the world by the increase of natural knowledge. On a Marxist reading, for instance by scientists such as Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) and Joseph Needham (1900–1995), this was precisely what had happened, but historians, such as Herbert Butterfield (1900 –1979) and Rupert Hall, saw very little contribution made by science to technology until fairly recent times. Hall thus concentrated on science in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in his PhD thesis on seventeenth-century ballistics (1949) and his classic book The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (1954) argued that scientific knowledge had its own history of internal development illustrating for that period, at least, science was largely untainted by technological associations. Furthermore, Hall, in his subtitle, provided an answer to question where was the origin of modern science and thus its power.

This answer goes a long way to explain why in the post-1945 period historians of science concentrated such enormous efforts on understanding the development of science in the period roughly from the birth of Nicholas Copernicus (1473) to the death of Isaac Newton (1727). Although it could be read (and was) as an heroic story of a very small number of individuals creating modern science, nevertheless the deeper a subject is studied (as it has to be when so much effort is concentrated on one topic and period) the more its contexts, however unintentionally, will be uncovered. Eventually this called into question the entire notion that there ever was such a thing called ‘The Scientific Revolution’. But, more importantly, it was realised that the historical methods which had been developed to understand science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, could be applied to much later periods and by the 1980s and 1990s nineteenth and twentieth century studies of science had come well to the fore.

These, of course, addressed issues that were directly relevant to the modern concerns and some of the work made uncomfortable reading for modern scientists. A study of Newton’s alchemy could never have been seen as threat to modern science; a study suggesting that gravity waves was a complex social construct which threw into doubt, for example, notions of objectivity or that there existed an external world, struck at what scientists saw were key parts of their practice. The rows that ensued was especially fierce in the United States (where it was dubbed the ‘science wars’), but they had a more moderate impact in Europe, though there were moments of drama, such as at the 1994 Annual Meeting of the British Association at Loughborough (chaired by Hall), the fallout from which provided the Times Higher Education Supplement with copy for weeks thereafter.

To complicate matters further, the discipline of history of science was caught up in the cultural rows from the 1950s onwards on how the humanities and the sciences related. The issues were most trenchantly expressed in the 1959 Rede lectures, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution by C.P. Snow (1905–1980), who incidentally had been a significant figure in Hall’s early life. The lecture was a symptom of the problem rather than any sort of causal factor since many of the history of science departments and programmes that came into existence in the 1960s in British and American universities had their origins in the 1950s. Nevertheless, history of science rapidly came to be seen as a ‘bridge’ between the cultures, since on one reading they combined both.

If one intention of expanding the history of science had been to reduce criticism of science, by the 1980s it had clearly failed – the Halls’ department at Imperial College was closed in 1980 on the grounds that it was not financially viable. The subject was made to pay the price of expectations that had been foisted on it from outside and which had very little to do with the initial concerns of its practitioners. The Public Understanding of Science movement, which began in the mid-1980s, was entirely dominated by scientists, and with much the same policy aims which had been forced on the history of science. It too equally failed to deliver and spectacularly crashed in the late 1990s amidst the arguments surrounding BSE, GMOs and MMR.

In conclusion, history of science can provide insights and inform current concerns, but that should never be its main goal. It should aim to understand how scientific knowledge relates to the society and culture in which it is produced. In turn that suggests that its primary practitioners should be those who have trained in history. The notion that only scientists should write the history of science, as the pre-1939 generation wanted, is a bit like suggesting that only politicians should write political history.

Frank James is Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution and regarded as one of the leading Faraday scholars in the world. He studied history of science at Imperial College where he received his PhD on the development of spectroscopy in the nineteenth century. His main research is editing the Correspondence of Michael Faraday, of which five volumes (out of six) have so far been published. His most recent book is a new edition of Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle.

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