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Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


R&D, please May 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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A couple of weeks ago, in my Intro to History of Science course, I gave a lecture on the rise of research and development as perhaps the most socially significant arm of the scientific enterprise. It was one of my favorite lectures of the semester. In some ways it extended off the “culture of invention” lecture that I gave with my industrial revolution lecture, but emphasized how tightly intertwined laboratory/workshop work had become with the invention/development culture.

The invention lecture emphasized loose connections, and was given in the same week as the 19th century physics lecture–the non-textbook readings of the week were from Smith and Wise’s Lord Kelvin biography on William Thomson and the telegraph. The R&D lecture started off with the fairly familiar story of BASF and the German chemical industry and the emphasis at places like the KWG on more applied kinds of research. I also brought in Dave Kaiser’s recent work on the growth and “suburbanization” of physics in the postwar period as being specifically oriented around R&D-type activities (which he doesn’t devote much attention to, emphasizing the pedagogical angle instead).

However, I began the lecture by emphasizing the complexity of the relationship between “basic science” and “applied science”–where a “simple narrative” tells you basic leads to applied, the “complex narrative” has more to do with basic science facilitating the leap from technology to improved technology, than with unveiled secrets of nature leading to fabulous new technologies. I emphasized that the complex narrative was well-understood by anyone with real knowledge of R&D activities. David Edgerton’s “The Linear Model Did Not Exist” was the reading for the week (along with a 1928 article in United Empire called “Scientific and Industrial Research” by British science administration luminary, Henry Tizard).

I was especially satisfied with the lecture, because I don’t think it would appear in too many courses or historical overviews, and yet is both simple to understand and extremely important. I pointed out that even though R&D dominated scientific culture, and to a remarkable degree in the postwar era, Bowler and Morus devote pretty much zero attention to it. Their “Science and Technology” chapter ends just when the story is getting interesting! Beyond the scope of the class, I don’t think we’ve come to terms with R&D as a part of scientific culture, which is a part of our continuing historiographical difficulty in really understanding and describing science in the 20th century in general. Edgerton’s article is not a bad place to start thinking about the issue–a draft of it can be found here (see #41 under articles).

Bowler and Morus/Naive Positions March 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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In History 174 we’ve now come to the end of Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences, a textbook which I like a great deal (and the students seemed to like it, too). For the rest of the course, the textbook is Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science, which I generally like, but I have one major criticism that applies both to it, and to history of science writing in general, and that is its insistence on arguing against naive positions.

We’re starting out with their chapter on “The Chemical Revolution”, which they frame around the question of whether the chemical revolution was delayed by a century from the rest of the scientific revolution (and, of course, whether it was a revolution at all). They mount a sustained attack on the notion. This general strategy is employed throughout the book. Various historians, like Kuhn, are constantly making an appearance. I can’t help but think that this is distracting to students. I would be willing to bet they have no a priori notions abut the “chemical revolution”, so why burden the text by structuring it around a refutation of such notions? I believe the point of a textbook is to tell the best, most informative history we can, not to lay bare the neuroses of our profession induced in us by our battles with our forebears [edit; rereading Bowler and Morus this morning, this last clause is too extreme a description for what they clearly have intentionally deployed as an interesting framing device–but I think the statement is valid for why it might seem like a good idea to insert the “history of science profession” so prominently into a “history of science textbook”].

Really, the strategy isn’t surprising, because it is, in general, a habit ingrained in our desire to elevate our own analyses by arguing against the naive positions of certain prior thinkers about science, or against the “science textbook presentation”, or against “pop science”, or against the notion that the progress of science is independent of its context, as if these represented a living and threatening school of historical thought. My historiography guru David Edgerton has publicly and privately criticized technology historians’ habit of taking on straw men like the “linear model” (my students will read his piece against this straw man) and technological determinism. I tend to glorify mainline historians, but they, too, tend to rail against viewing developments as inevitable, and insist on looking at how events are “contingent”. If we’re going to improve our art, we need to avoid intellectual crutches like arguing against long-comatose naive positions.

Cumulative History January 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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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.