Cumulative History January 22, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
Tags: History 174, Iwan Rhys-Morus, Peter Bowler, Peter Dear, R. F. Foster
It’s now a week until my course at the University of Maryland, so increasingly this blog will be turning toward that. I’ll let my students know about it, and they can come here to look at some of the background ideas and sources behind lectures, if they like. It also makes it seem like a good time to talk about cumulative history. As I was saying earlier, the history of science does not tend to reflect historical methodology. Hence there are few textbooks. For our course, I’ll be using Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences (which Ken Alder used when I took my first history of science course as an undergraduate at Northwestern), and Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science (which my AIP predecessor, Babak Ashrafi, used when he taught the same course). These are pretty good books–probably the best available for these purposes.
I’m really looking forward to teaching a “Plato to NATO” course, actually, because it gives me a chance to go back and try and assemble a coherent narrative about science. I think we need to write more long histories. When I was writing my dissertation, I was reading R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, which I thought was a fantastic example of what such histories should look like, and was stylistically inspiring. Foster clearly incorporated historiographical insights into what his book included and how it included them.
If I were to make a sort of coarse observation about the history of science profession, it’s that there’s sort of a nervous hesitancy to paint broad pictures. One of my colleagues has noticed that we focus on the micro-level apparatus and observation, rather than on the level of the department, the university, the discipline/profession, or the nation. I can’t really say why this narrow focus exists, but I get a feeling it has to do with a reluctance to get criticized for oversimplifying historical developments–there are always more wrinkles that just have to be included, otherwise we might as well not undertake the venture of cutting a broad swathe through science; or maybe it’s that we feel we can’t say anything coherent about broad trends at all. But I’m of the opinion it’s better to write and rewrite histories rather than wait for a day when we’re confident enough to make broad statements. Following science, we should have more textbooks, certainly, but we should also have more review articles.
Anyway, busy day ahead, so I’ll cut this off fairly abruptly here.