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The scientist as historian

Why should a trained scientist be seriously interested in science past? After all, science looks to the future. Moreover, as Nobel laureate immunologist Sir Peter Medawar once put it: “A great many highly creative scientists…take it for granted, though they are usually too polite or too ashamed to say so, that an interest in the history of science is a sign of failing or unawakened powers.”

There is, of course, a whole discipline and a profession called “history of science.” People get doctoral degrees in this discipline, they teach it as members of history faculties or, if they are fortunate, as members of history of science departments. Many of them may have begun as apprentice scientists, but early in their post-graduate careers decided to make the switch. Others may have entered this discipline from the social sciences or the humanities. But here I am speaking to the idea of practicing scientists, who have experienced the pleasures and the perils of actual scientific research, who have got their hands dirty in the nuts and bolts of doing science, who earn a living doing science, turning to the history of their science.

Now, I happen to be an admirer and reader of Medawar’s superb essays on science, but here I think he missed—or chose to ignore—some crucial points.

First, a scientist may be lured into the realm of science past when certain kinds of questions are presented to him or her that can only be answered, or at least explored, by doffing the historian’s hat. Put simply, the scientist qua scientist and the scientist qua historian ask different kinds of questions of science itself. The latter pose and address problems and questions about their science rather than within it.

Second, the scientist can bring to the historical table a corpus of knowledge about his or her science and a sensibility that derives from scientific training which the non-scientist historian of science may not be in a position to summon in addressing certain questions or problems.

As an example of these factors at work, consider the Harvard physicist Gerald Holton’s book Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (1973). Here, we find a physicist striving to find patterns of thinking in his discipline by examining the evolution of physical ideas. Toward this end, he undertook historical case studies of such physicists as Kepler, Einstein, Millikan, Michelson, and Fermi, but case studies that were deeply informed by Holton’s background and authority as a professional physicist.

Image credit: Image Credit: ‘Peter Medawar c1969’ by Codebreakers, Makers of Modern Genetics. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As another example from the realm of engineering sciences, we may consider David Billington, professor of civil engineering at Princeton, who published a remarkable book, titled Robert Maillart’s Bridges; The New Art of Engineering (1979) on the work of the 19th century Swiss bridge engineer Robert Maillart. Billington studied the complete corpus of Maillart’s work on bridges and other structures—his designs, constructions and writings—to illustrate the nature of Maillart’s cognitive style in design: a style Billingon summarized by the formula “force follows form”—that is, for Maillart, the form of a bridge, determined by the physical environment in which it would be situated came first in the engineer’s thinking, and then his analysis of the mechanical forces within the structure followed thereafter. This study was authored by an engineering scientist who brought his deep structural engineering knowledge and scientific sensibility to his task.

There is another compelling reason why and when a working scientist might want to delve into science past. If we take the three most fundamental questions of interest to historians: “How did it begin?”; “What happened in the past?”; and “How did we get to the present state?”, then there are scientists who feel compelled to ask and investigate these questions in regard to their respective sciences. I am talking of scientists who possess a synthesizing disposition, who wish to compose a coherent narrative in response to their desire to answer such broader questions. They would probably agree with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s dictum, “Life must be understood backwards. But… it must be lived forwards.” To understand a science, such scientists believe, demands understanding its origins and its evolution, and framing this understanding as a story. They want to be storytellers—as much for fellow scientists as for historians of science.

Numerous examples can be given. One is the Englishman John Riddick Partington, for decades professor of chemistry at Queen Mary College, University of London. His four volume History of Chemistry (1960-1970) is extraordinary for the sheer range of its scholarship, but my particular exemplar is his A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (1960), an account spanning some 600 years, of the evolution of incendiaries. This is an account written by a professional chemist who summoned all his chemical authority to his task. Thus, when he talks about the nature of Greek fire (the name given by the Crusaders to an incendiary first used by the Byzantines) he tells that of the several different explanations offered about its nature, he believed only one particular theory of its composition agreed with the description of its nature and use. Here we are listening to a chemical-historical discourse which only a chemist can speak with authority. Partington’s remarkable book, intended for the scholarly reader interested in this topic, is uncompromising in its attention to the chemistry of explosives.

There are, however, important caveats to the scientist’s successful engagement in historical studies. He or she must master the tools of historical research and the principles of historiography (that is, the writing of history). The scientist-turned-historian must learn to understand, assess, and discriminate between different kinds of archival sources: what counts as historical “data”; be aware of such pitfalls as what is called “presentism”—the tendency to analyze and interpret past events in the light of present day values and situations; and master the nuances of historical interpretation. In other words, in methods of inquiry, the scientist-turned-historian must be indistinguishable from the formally trained historian of science.

Featured image credit: Galileo Donato by Henry-Julien Detouche. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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