History of Science - A Guide for Undergraduates - History of Science - Background - Discipline - The Place of History of Science in the Curriculum - Courses - Why Study the History of Science? - Teaching Resources - Robert A. Hatch

A Guide for Undergraduates
Michael J. Crowe

The History of Science
The Nature of the History of Science and Its Place in the Curriculum

Eighty percent of the scientists who have ever lived are alive today.  More surprisingly, the same statement could have been made one, two, or even three centuries ago.  Not only has science been expanding rapidly since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, it has emerged as a dominant force in our culture.  This suggests why many educators have realized that an understanding of the evolution of science and of its influence on our society is a vital part of education.  Study of the history of science provides just such understanding.

Fifty years ago, only a few North American colleges offered introductory history of science courses, typically taught by professors who, although filled with enthusiasm for the subject, lacked any advanced training in history of science.  Today the situation has dramatically improved:  hundreds of well trained professors teach the subject to thousands of students.  And a rich and varied array of publications—nearly four thousand new items per year—is now available to support these courses.

What is the history of science and why has it attracted such high levels of interest?  Treating topics that range from Babylonian astronomy to the latest space explorations, from Hippocratic medicine to the cultural significance of anorexia nervosa, courses in history of science exhibit such diversity that precise definition of the field is difficult.  For example, some history of science courses include materials on the history of technology, of medicine, or of mathematics; others may not.  Some give extensive attention to social factors—how science affects society and how society influences science.  Some probe such psychological issues as the nature of human creativity, whereas others delve into questions concerning the methodology of science.

Despite such differences in emphasis, historians of science see their discipline as a branch of history.  Like history of art, of literature, or of philosophy, history of science focuses on the development of a single area, the sciences, which have deeply influenced modern life and culture.  Historians of science are, however, interested in far more than science; they are concerned with science as a changing entity and with scientists themselves.  They seek to understand how personal and societal factors have shaped the creators of those scientific advances that have acted, for better or worse, so powerfully and pervasively in the modern world.

One striking transformation typically experienced by students encountering the history of science for the first time is that they realize that the development of science has involved not only scientific creations, but also scientific creators, not only settled conclusions, but also intense controversies.  This transformation helps students to see science as an intensely human enterprise that has been shaped by a myriad of human intentions, choices, commitments, and compulsions.  Knowing how science develops in its social context not only gives us a valuable perspective on our culture, it may also provide the insight to change the way we organize and employ science.  Historical awareness suggests creative ways of solving problems that may currently beset us.

Encountering the history of science frees students from many persistent myths about the past of science.  It is widely believed, for example, that all ancient Greeks believed that the earth is the center of the universe, that Columbus and his crew showed great bravery in overcoming the fear that they might fall off the flat earth, that Galileo’s most important experiment consisted in dropping weights from the leaning tower of Pisa, and that Newton, while sitting under an apple tree around 1666, discovered universal gravitation.
Even introductory history of science courses reveal that all these claims are incorrect.  You will learn that as early as the third century B.C., the Greek astronomer Aristarchus proposed that the earth orbits the sun, that the sphericity of the earth was not only well known by about 300 B.C., but that good measurements of the earth’s circumference had already been made by that time, that no solid evidence supports the claim that Galileo dropped weights from the leaning tower of Pisa, and that although Newton, while sitting under an apple tree, may have attained a notion that gravity extends to the moon, he would for more than a decade after that event have rejected the idea that gravitational force extends throughout the universe.  Students in history of science courses also learn that a number of broader claims about the development of science, for example, that medieval science was extremely backward and that new observational evidence led Copernicus to create the heliocentric theory, are also incorrect.

One of the safest speculations that we could make ... is ... that very soon the history of science is going to acquire an importance ... incommensurate with anything that it has hitherto possessed.  It ... is no longer merely an account of one of many human activities like the history of music or ... of cricket....  Because it deals with one of the main constituents of the modern world and the modern mind, we cannot construct a respectable history of Europe or a tolerable survey of western civilization without it.  It is going to be as important for us for the understanding of ourselves as Graeco-Roman antiquity was for Europe during a period of over a thousand years.
Sir Herbert Butterfield, “The History of Science and the Study of History,” Harvard Library Bulletin, 13 (1959), 330–1.

The enthusiasm for the history of science that educators have expressed derives from their pedagogical priorities and personal commitments.  Such historians as Sir Herbert Butterfield came to see that in the modern world, the history of civilization cannot be discussed in isolation from the sciences, which have influenced nearly all its aspects.  Historians, always attracted to a good story, have recognized that the development of science is filled with episodes of high drama involving men and women of extraordinary creativity and insight.  They have seen that scientific advances have influenced the course of war, contributed to prosperity, disrupted philosophical and religious systems, and altered humanity’s image of itself.

 ...the history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of Pyrrhonnian skepticism.
Pierre Duhem, Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, trans Philip P. Wiener (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1954), p. 270.

Motivated by curiosity about how science has developed and seeking a broader wisdom about science than specialized training in science typically provides, some leading scientists of the past, for example, the physicist Pierre Duhem and the geologist Sir Archibald Geikie, made careful studies of the histories of their disciplines.  Duhem and Geikie are far from being the only scientists who have written on aspects of the history of science.  As early as ancient times, Aristotle, realizing the insights that derive from a historical perspective, prefaced his scientific treatises with historical discussions.  This practice was also followed by Sir Charles Lyell in his epoch-making Principles of Geology, and by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species.  The astronomer Laplace, the physicists Maxwell and Einstein, the chemist Priestley, as well as the biologists Cuvier and de Candolle are other prominent scientists who were not only deeply interested in the history of science, but also contributed to the literature in that field.

In science, as in all other departments of inquiry, no thorough grasp of a subject can be gained unless the history of its development is clearly appreciated.
Sir Archibald Geikie, The Founders of Geology (New York:  Dover, 1962 reprint of 1905 2nd ed.), p. 1

Philosophy of science is one area on which newer studies in the history of science have had a profound influence.  Over the last three decades, most philosophers of science as well as many persons broadly curious about the nature of scientific methodology have recognized that in formulating views on the proper methodology of science, it is illuminating to study those strategies that have proved productive in the past, those methods that have been employed with remarkable success by the most brilliant scientists.  Consequently, they have turned to the writings of historians of science for information on these issues.  The change that such authors as Thomas Kuhn predicted would result from such broadened contact has in fact taken place.  Most recent books on the philosophy of science draw heavily on historical materials.

History [of science] ... could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.  That image has previously been drawn ... mainly from the study of finished scientific achievements as these are recorded in the classics and, more recently, in the textbooks from which each new scientific generation learns to practice its trade.  Inevitably, however, the aim of such books is persuasive and pedagogic; a concept of science drawn from them is no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure or a language text.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
2nd ed. (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 1.

Another area to which historical studies of science have made a noteworthy contribution is scientific education.  Accurate and interesting historical discussions ever more frequently appear in books designed for students who, although not planning careers in science, realize the need for scientific literacy.  Many institutions accept history of science courses as fulfilling science requirements.  In presentations of science, historical materials can serve many functions:  they clarify the problems that scientific theories are designed to solve, reveal the interactions of science with other areas of civilization and culture, enhance interest in scientific ideas by exhibiting their human dimensions, and, as Marie Boas Hall has pointed out, allow students to draw more fully on their backgrounds in humanistic disciplines.  Moreover, introductory courses in the history of science have provided a valuable bridge between the sciences and the humanities at a time when Western civilization remains dominated by the “two cultures” syndrome.

For the ... student whose chief interest does lie in science, for whom history as a course of study so often seems to deal solely with subjects remote from his intellectual turn of mind, the history of science provides a valid and useful point of contact with history, through which he may learn to develop wider humanistic interests.  For the nonscientist, bored and baffled by the technical problems of science, the history of science may provide some insight into the scientific point of view and prevent the feeling of isolation which too often makes the scientist and the humanist appear to move in separate worlds.

Marie Boas Hall, History of Science, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C., 1964), p. 1.

The value of historical materials for expositions of science has been widely recognized not only by educators but also by authors such as Isaac Asimov whose writing are aimed at increasing knowledge of science among the public.  Media experts sharing this concern also frequently draw on historical studies or consult historians of science, thereby providing historians of science with audio-visual materials to enhance their courses.

A number of years ago, when I was a freshly-appointed instructor, I met, for the first time, a certain eminent historian of science.  At the time I could only regard him with tolerant condescension.  I was sorry for a man who, it seemed to me, was forced to hover about the edges of science.  ... In a lifetime of being wrong at many a point, I was never more wrong.  It was I, not he, who was wandering in the periphery.  It was he, not I, who lived in the blaze. I had fallen victim to the fallacy of the “growing edge”; the belief that only the very frontier of scientific advance counted; that everything that had been left behind by that advance was faded and dead.

Isaac Asimov, Adding a Dimension (Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday, 1964), p. ix.

 Some Questions Undergraduates Ask

How much knowledge of science need I have to take a course in the history of science?

Most introductory courses in history of science require no greater knowledge of science than is required for admission to the college where the course is taught.  When a particular background is required, this will usually be specified in the college catalogue of courses.  In most cases, however, no special background in science is required for history of science courses.  Scientific ideas presented in the course will be explained at a level comprehensible to the typical student.  Moreover, the practice among historians of science of tracing the evolution of scientific theories from their elementary origins to their later more complex formulations provides valuable assistance in comprehending the theories.

Prior knowledge of science can be of assistance in a history of science course.  The same is true of prior background in many other areas.  For example, knowledge of history, philosophy, the social sciences, or literature, will frequently help the student comprehend the course materials.  Generally speaking, students majoring in science or engineering have an excellent background for understanding the scientific ideas presented in a history of science course, but may need to develop and refine their humanistic skills, for example, their facility in writing and critical abilities.  Similarly, students who have already acquired a sensitivity to historical study and have experience in exercising historical imagination will find these skills of assistance to them.  Because of the large number of countries in which science has developed, knowledge of various foreign languages can also assist the student.

What educational benefits will I derive from history of science courses?
Leaving aside for the next question the issue of career benefits, it can be suggested that the educational benefits derived from a history of science course will vary to some extent from student to student, depending on the person’s interests and background.  Students majoring in science or engineering frequently find that such courses increase their understanding of how modern science has developed and also enhance their knowledge of the men and women who are their predecessors in scientific investigation.  Such courses, moreover, provide them with a deeper knowledge of humanistic learning, a clearer sense of scientific methodology and its limitations, an enrichment of their skills in articulating scientific ideas, and a sensitivity to the professional standards associated with their career choice.  They also come to see science as a changing and developing discipline that has at times involved intense controversies.

What we want in the teaching of the young, is, not so much the mere results, as the methods and, above all, the history of science ... that is what we ought to teach, if we desire to see education, well-conducted to the great ends in view.

Duke of Argyll, “Presidential Address,” British Association for the Advancement of Science Report (1856), p. lxxxiii

Students who are nonscientists regularly find that their lives are enriched by attaining a greater knowledge of the major ideas of science and how those ideas have interacted with the areas of knowledge they have already studied.  They come to an understanding of why scientists proceed as they do and an appreciation of the fact that science can be deeply fascinating to its practitioners.  All students should find themselves more capable of comprehending the role and significance of science in society, of assessing moral dilemmas that develop in science, and of analyzing issues in a critical and perceptive manner.

 What career possibilities are open to persons who have studied history of science?

Knowledge of the history of science should be of assistance to anyone whose career will involve science to a significant extent.  In contemporary society, the number of such persons is extremely large; in fact, probably the majority of careers involve scientific ideas to some extent, and responsible citizenship certainly necessitates some understanding of the sciences.  More specifically, knowledge of the history of science can be of help to persons planning to teach science, history, or any historically oriented area, for example, literature.  Detailed study of the history of science can contribute importantly to persons planning careers in museum work, scientific journalism, government service, or areas of law or administration that involve science.  History of science and technology is useful for those who will manage industrial corporations, or for those who foresee creating a company.  Persons planning careers in library work should find history of science of value and relevance.  Premedical students have shown strong interest in history of science courses, finding that such courses satisfy the broad range of their interests.

Very few history of science courses, and typically only the more advanced, are designed to prepare students for careers as historians of science.  Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that many gifted students who possess such strong interests both in science and in the humanities or social sciences that they wish to keep both alive in their careers have taken advantage of the fact that numerous universities now offer programs leading to the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees with a specialty in the history of science.  Your teacher will be able to provide information on such programs, which is systematically compiled in the Guide to the History of Science, published periodically by the History of Science Society.  Graduates of such programs most frequently take positions teaching history of science or science courses for liberal arts students.

An increasingly large number of persons with advanced training in history of science pursue careers in “public history of science,” for example, as museum curators, writers, television directors, administrators, archivists, or as consultants to industry, the government, or the media.  A curator at a major museum who creates an engaging historical exhibit may thereby reach an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands, whereas those who write or direct television shows dealing with science gain access to an even larger number of viewers.

What areas are covered by the history of science?
The best way to approach this broad question is to begin with some distinctions.  On the historical level, the history of science is frequently divided into ancient, medieval, early modern (1450–1700), modern (1700–1900), and twentieth-century science.  Some history of science courses have a national focus; for example, courses in American, British, Canadian, Chinese, or Russian science are increasingly available.  Many courses concentrate on a specific area of science, for example, the history of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or medicine.

We shall recognize also that not only a knowledge of the ideas that have been accepted and cultivated by subsequent teachers is necessary for the historical understanding of a science, but also that the rejected and transient thoughts of the inquirers, nay even apparently erroneous notions, may be very important and very instructive.  The historical investigation of the development of a science is most needful, lest the principles treasured up in it become a system of half-understood prescripts, or worse, a system of prejudices.  Historical investigation ... brings new possibilities before us, by showing that which exists to be in great measure conventional and accidental.  From the higher point of view at which different paths of thought converge we may look about us with freer vision and discover routes before unknown.

Ernst Mach, Science of Mechanics, 6th ed. (Lasalle, Illinois, 1960), p. 316.

A distinction of continuing importance (and controversy) is that between internalist and externalist history of science.  Internalist history of science focuses on the development of scientific ideas in relation to each other, for example, how Copernican astronomy contributed to Newtonian physics.  Externalist history of science looks at scientific developments within the context of the socioeconomic structure of society.  Such questions as the impact of science on government policy, the role of women in science, the development of a particular scientific organization, or the interactions between science and religion are classified as externalist issues.  Nonetheless, most agree that no sharp line can be drawn between internalist and externalist concerns, as is evident from consideration of such a topic as the development of evolutionary theories.

Introductory history of science courses in most cases give students some understanding of all these areas.  They see science developing through a number of periods in a variety of nations and in an array of specialties and social contexts.  Individual courses, depending on the needs of the students and the special areas of expertise of the teacher, will give greater or less emphasis to particular developments.

What areas are closely allied to the history of science?
Many areas are strongly related to the history of science.  For example, history of technology, a specialty that has also grown remarkably over the last few decades, is of great interest to many historians of science, who frequently include some aspects of the history of technology in their introductory courses.  Because of the influence of medical science on advances in biology and chemistry and the numerous contributions to all areas of science that have been made by physicians, history of medicine is another area closely tied to history of science.  As noted before, philosophers of science have in recent years taken greater interest in the history of science, and historians of science have traditionally shown strong concerns for philosophy of science.  In fact, a number of doctoral programs combine the history and philosophy of science.   Many historians of science have in recent years developed an interest in the sociology of science, especially when sociological issues of a historical nature are treated.  Some sociologists of science have raised the controversial question whether science is “socially constructed.”  Increasingly, historians of science are taking an interest in the history of social science.  A wide range of areas take the form of “science and another discipline.”  For example, many historians of science are deeply interested in “science and religion,” “science and government,” or “science and literature,” and sometimes offer courses in these areas.

We may best hope to understand the nature and conditions of real knowledge, by studying the nature and conditions of the most certain and stable portions of knowledge which we already possess:  and we are most likely to learn the best methods of discovering truth, by examining how truths, now universally recognized, have really been discovered.  Now there do exist among us doctrines of solid and acknowledged certainty, and truths of which the discovery has been received with universal applause.  These constitute what we commonly term Sciences; and of these bodies of exact and enduring knowledge, we have within our reach so large and varied a collection, that we may examine them, and the history of their formation, with good prospect of deriving from the study such instruction as we seek.

William Whewell, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (London, 1847), pp. 1–2

The relationships between science and industrial development, for example, the rise of the chemical and electrical industries, has been a fruitful area of analysis as has the study of scientific institutions and their influence on the growth of disciplines.  Interactions between science and the military are also actively investigated.  New fields of study are always opening up, an example being the current interest in the history of ecology and environmentalism which aims to set our global environmental problems in perspective.

What books provide a good introduction to the history of science?
Over the last three decades, the book written by a historian of science that has attracted the most widespread attention, including translation into at least nineteen languages, is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962; 2nd ed., 1970).  Kuhn’s provocative thesis concerning patterns of development in science included a distinction between periods of normal and revolutionary science and the claim that scientific theories must be analyzed not simply as disembodied sets of ideas but in terms of the communities of scientists espousing them.  Although some have charged that Kuhn’s book promotes relativism, it is widely recognized that he posed challenging new questions for historians and philosophers of science to address.  A very recent book that provides an excellent survey of the concerns and controversies among historians of science is Helge Kragh’s Introduction to the Historiography of Science, published by Cambridge University Press.  The same press has also published a widely respected series known as the Cambridge history of science series.  Among the titles in this series are Edward Grant’s Physical Science in the Middle Ages, Richard Westfall’s The Construction of Modern Science (on the scientific revolution period), Thomas Hankins’s Science and the Enlightenment, George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology, and John H. Brooke’s Science and Religion:  Some Historical Perspectives.

Among winners of the History of Science Society’s Watson-Davis prize for excellence in popular level books are Daniel Boorstin’s TheDiscoverers, Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls:  The History of Anorexia Nervosa, John Heilbron’s The Dilemma of an Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science, and Robert Smith’s The Space Telescope:  A Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics.

Older works that are approaching the stature of classics include the following:  Herbert Butterfield’s Origins of Modern Science 1300–1800, I. Bernard Cohen’s Birth of the New Physics, Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, Arthur Koestler’s controversial The Watershed (on Kepler), Charles Rosenberg's The Cholera Years, Stephen Toulmin’s and June Goodfield’s The Fabric of the Heavens, The Architecture of Matter, and The Discovery of Time.  A highly regarded history of evolutionary theory is John C. Greene's The Death of Adam.

Some recent publications that have been well received include Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and John C. Burnham’s How Superstition Won and Science Lost:  Popularizing Science and Health in the United States.  Nearly all these books and many more are available in paperback.

Some Questions for Reflection or Discussion

Let us turn now to a set of different and more complex questions.  Many of these questions raise issues that are of such significance that educated persons, both in the past and present, have felt the need to formulate positions regarding them, even if definitive resolutions of them remain elusive.  In searching for personally satisfying answers to these questions, you may find that your history of science course will be of special assistance.  After the presentation of each question, a short discussion and elaboration of it is provided to help sharpen the issues.

What role has science played in the development of civilization?
Essentially all civilizations, both Western and Eastern, have formulated conceptions of the heavenly bodies, number, the nature of matter, and of proper medical practice.  Because such conceptions reveal important features of such civilizations, they are appropriate subjects of historical study.  How crucial has been the role of science in various cultures?  Have scientific advancements had a more profound influence on culture than other areas of thought?  When did these influences commence or grow most intense?  In Western civilization, were the middle ages, as is sometimes assumed, a scientific backwater?  How should one explain the remarkable fact that modern science is largely the creation of Western culture, which has thereby attained its high level of material prosperity?  In general, during which periods and in what civilizations has science flourished?

Since [the scientific revolution] over-turned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world—since it ended not only in the collapse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics—it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.  Since it changed the character of man’s habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the nonmaterial sciences while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisation of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.

Sir Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300–1800 (New York, 1957), pp. vii–viii.

What factors have contributed to or hindered the development of science?

Because it is apparent that our understanding of central features of the universe and also our well-being are very dependent on scientific advances, it is important to ask:  what features of our culture foster scientific growth?  Scientists, like other intellectuals, have needed support, financial and otherwise, from the societies in which they live.  How has it come about that scientists (the word itself was first coined in the 1830s) have attained recognition as professionals whose contributions deserve such support?  Have religious considerations impeded or fostered the advance of science?  How has science interacted with technology and with medicine?  Has science developed in patterns comparable to those characteristic of other areas of learning?

The forty foot focal length reflecting telescope erected by William Herschel in the 1780s.

What methods have contributed most powerfully to the development of science and can these methods be applied to other areas of learning?
It is sometimes asserted that the achievements of science have resulted from the employment of the scientific method.  Is there actually such a method, and if so, what is its nature and when was it first formulated?  Is reliance on empirical observation the fundamental factor in the advancement of science or have theoretical ideas been more crucial?  How do theory and observation interact?  Have the most important scientists of the past been those who made empirical or theoretical contributions?  What roles have speculation, mathematics, instrumentation, and classification played?  Does the “scientific method” refer primarily to verification of theories or does it also assist in their discovery?
How has science influenced humanity’s image of itself?
Frequently in the past, scientists have put forward theories that caused consternation among their contemporaries.  This was certainly true of Copernicus’s claim that the earth, rather than being the center of the universe, is a planet of relatively small size, which, along with the other planets, orbits the sun in a universe of extraordinary magnitude.  Darwin’s claim that we are descended from lower animals was also seen as shocking and as implying that the traditional image of humanity needed revision.  What other theories have challenged traditional views of the nature of humanity?  And how have these been received?  And perhaps most importantly, what does it reveal about our nature that, despite our insignificant location in the universe and our undistinguished ancestry, we have been able to attain such remarkable theories in physical and biological science?
How have advances in particular scientific areas interacted with developments in other areas of learning?
Issues concerning the interactions of science and religion have already been mentioned.  One can also ask how science has interacted with philosophy, with literature or art in general, with sociology, psychology, and the other social sciences.  Have periods of great literary or philosophical activity coincided with periods of scientific advance?  Within the sciences, has chemistry been heavily dependent on physics for its advancement, or biology on chemistry?  Can the historian meaningfully trace the development of a single area of science with only limited reference to other areas, or should the advancement of science be conceptualized as the development of a whole in which the parts cannot be meaningfully isolated?
What roles have the various nations, cultures, races, and religions of the world played in scientific advancement?
Should the birth of science be ascribed to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, or Greeks?  What role did the Roman, Arabic, and Indian cultures play in the perpetuation of the Greek legacy?  How did the rise of Christianity affect science?  In the post-Renaissance period, which nations have produced the largest number of creative scientists?  How have the United States, the U.S.S.R., or Japan come to attain their presently high levels of scientific activity?  Have members of different religious or racial groups responded in comparable ways to science?  And at a time when gender issues are increasingly under discussion, it is important to ask:  what roles have women played in science?
What moral issues have been associated with science?
After the first atomic explosion, one scientist remarked that for the first time scientists had come to know sin.  Is such a view justified?  Did earlier developments raise moral issues, and how were these resolved?  How did controversies about them influence science itself?  Would it be correct to say that, on the whole, science has contributed to making humanity more or less moral?  Have scientists shown a sensitivity to moral issues?  Can “scientific method” be applied to the resolution of moral issues, as some intellectuals have maintained?
What characterizations are appropriately attributed to scientists?
Cartoons and films sometimes portray scientists as bespectacled geniuses lost in abstract worlds, as unscrupulous individuals with Frankensteinian fascinations, as persons of extraordinary narrowness of knowledge or vision, or sometimes as the saviors of society.  Do careful historical studies support any of these characterizations?

Is the “great man” view of the history of science correct?  In other words, has science advanced primarily because of the contributions of a few figures of outstanding talent and insight or more because of the efforts made by numerous persons of less extraordinary ability?

This issue is illustrated by Alexander Pope’s famous couplet about Newton:  “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night./God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light,” with Newton’s own remark that “If I have seen farther [than other scientists,] it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Research in the history of science has shed much light on this question by showing that in the case of many major advances, a number of scientists arrived at the discoveries simultaneously and independently, which suggests that progress did not depend on the insights of a single individual.  For example, although Newton is famous as the creator of the calculus, compelling evidence has been uncovered that points to the conclusion that G. W. Leibniz and possibly Pierre Fermat and Isaac Barrow deserve a significant share of the credit.  In analyzing such issues, it is important to keep in mind that the simple statement of a theory, especially a radical new theory, rarely carries conviction.  If the theory is to win the allegiance of the scientific community, solid evidence must be marshaled in its support.  In this context, it can be asked:  if in a particular development, one scientist creates the new theory but another secures its acceptance, who deserves credit for the theory?

A related issue is that historical research has revealed that discoveries can rarely be dated with the precision assigned in scientific textbooks.  Despite John Keats’s lines comparing his enthusiasm for a new translation of Homer to William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus—”Then felt I like some watcher of the sky/When a new planet swims into his ken”—it is now known that Herschel’s discovery, rather than occurring on March 13, 1781, when he first observed the new object, extended over nearly two years, during which he and his fellow astronomers gradually recognized that the object he had sighted was not, as first thought, a comet, but in fact a new planet.

Moreover, the nature and significance of a discovery are sometimes far from clear.  One aspect of this is evident from Claude Bernard’s perceptive remark that “We usually give the name of discovery to recognition of a new fact:  but I think that the idea connected with the discovered fact is what really constitutes the discovery.”  In this sense, it can be claimed that Herschel’s real discovery was that more planets than the traditional six exist in the solar system, or, to put the point in a more action oriented manner, that astronomers might attain exciting results from searching for as yet undiscovered planets.

Should the development of science be characterized as relatively continuous or as involving periodic revolutions that lead to the near total abandonment of previous systems?
This question, which has become a central concern in contemporary historiography of science, has important relations to such issues as the nature of scientific method and the problem of whether scientific thought can be described as fully rational.  Allied to this is the question whether when major controversies between proponents of competing theories have arisen in science, the so-called “scientific method” has provided a neutral basis for arbitrating the dispute.  Another issue is whether facts are theory-neutral or whether in disputes, advocates of competing views see the facts differently.  Proponents of the claim that revolutions are prevalent in science tend to favor affirmative responses to the last two questions.  A key issue in this context is whether the great scientific revolutionaries, e.g., Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin, fully foresaw the significances deriving from their discoveries.
Are there particular skills that can be developed by studying the history of science?
Each area of learning not only helps us to deepen our understanding and to enrich our stores of information, but also to develop skills that may have application even in very different areas.  For example, study of literature frequently enhances our ability to write elegantly and effectively, philosophy and mathematics our facility to formulate precise distinctions, science our capacity to deal with empirical information and to advance convincing arguments, and history our talent for analyzing human events and affairs.  What special skills come from studying the history of science?

... history of science provides material for a critical self-examination of science:  it increases the appreciation of what we possess now, when we recognize the difficulties it cost to acquire it.  It bridges the gap between science and the humanities....  There will always be scientists who are not satisfied with knowing the contents of theories, but who want to know their genesis....

And ... history of science has a peculiar charm because of its inner tension:  it is the history of disciplines which are progressing ..., whereas, on the other hand, it is the history of sciences constructed by the human mind, which in the course of written history stuck to similar patterns.  So it reveals that in Science, too, we see farther than our ancestors not because we are greater than they, but because we are standing on their shoulders.

R. Hooykaas, “Historiography of Science, Its Aims and Methods,” Organon, 7 (1970), 49.

It would, of course, be overly bold to claim that your history of science course will provide you with definitive answers to all these questions, or to other comparably important questions that your teacher may wish to raise.  Nonetheless, one can confidently predict that your course will allow you to deepen your thought and understanding on a number of these issues.  Moreover, keeping these and related questions in mind may help you personalize your experience and may contribute as well to making the course, for yourself and your classmates, the stimulating experience that your teacher hopes it will be.

    Two Final Questions

If I need to write a term paper or wish to learn more about a particular subject or scientist, with what sources should I begin?

Among  biographical dictionaries that feature articles on scientists of the past, the most important for the history of science is Charles C. Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York:  Charles Scribner, 1970–1980), a sixteen volume work in which the articles are by leading specialists and include excellent bibliographies.  Composed on a more modest scale and focused on ideas rather than individuals is W. E. Bynum, E. J. Brown, and Roy Porter (eds.), Dictionary of the History of Science (Princeton University Press, 1981).

The best single source for bibliography consists of a compilation and arrangement of the publications listed in the annual bibliography of the history of science, which bibliography appears each year in Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society.  This compilation is:  Magda Whitrow (ed.), The Isis Cumulative Bibliography, 1913–65, 3 vols. (London:  Mansell, 1971–1976).  Supplementary volumes have extended the bibliography to 1985.  Garland Press publishes a series of very useful subject-oriented bibliographies.  Among these are:  Joseph Dauben, The History of Mathematics from Antiquity to the Present:  A Selective Bibliography (1985); David De Vorkin, The History of Modern Astronomy and Astrophysics:  A Selected, Annotated Bibliography (1982); Roderick S. Home, The History of Classical Physics:  A Selected, Annotated Bibliography (1984); Stephen Brush and L. Belloni, The History of Modern Physics:  An International Bibliography (1983); Roy Sydney Porter, The History of the Earth Sciences:  An Annotated Bibliography (1983); Claudia Kren, Medieval Science and Technology:  A Selected, Annotated Bibliography (1985); and Marc Rothenberg, The History of Science and Technology in the United States:  A Selective and Critical Bibliography (1982).  Other sources include:  Pietro Corsi and P. Weindling (eds.), Information Sources in the History of Science and Medicine (London:  Butterworth, 1983) and R. C. Olby, G. N. Cantor, J. R. R. Christie, and M. J. S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London:  Routledge, 1990).

When several taps of the beak break the shell of an egg from which the chick escapes, a child may imagine that this rigid and immobile mass, similar to the white shells he picks up on the edge of a stream, had suddenly taken life and produced the bird who runs away with a chirp; but just where his childish imagination sees a sudden creation, the naturalist recognizes the last stage of a long development; he thinks back to the first fusion of two microscopic nuclei in order to review next the series of divisions, differentiations, and reabsorptions which, cell by cell, have built up the body of the chick.

The ordinary layman judges the birth of [scientific] theories as the child the appearance of the chick.

Pierre Duhem, Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, trans. Philip P. Wiener (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1954), p. 221.

Illustration from a 1749 book by Abbé Nollet
of his experiments on whether electrification
influences growth in plants and animals.

What is the History of Science Society and how does one become a member?
The History of Science Society is an association that welcomes everyone interested in history of science.  Its membership, now over 3,000, doubled over the last decade.  Among the Society’s activities are sponsorship of annual meetings and the publication of its official journal, Isis, which includes an annual bibliography of publications in the history of science.  Subscriptions to Isis are available to students at a reduced rate.  The Society also offers various prizes, sponsors a visiting lecturer series, publishes an annual series called Osiris,  and in general promotes teaching and research.  For more information on the History of Science Society, consult a recent issue of Isis or write to: History of Science Society Executive Office, University of Washington, Box 351330 Seattle, WA 98195-1330 USA; HSS WebSite: http://depts.washington.edu/hssexec/ .  There are also a number of regional history of science societies as well as the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science.


[From the Printed First Edition -1991]

This guide has been sponsored by the committee on Education of the History of Science Society. Very warm thanks are extended to the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation, which provided the funding for the meetings that led to the creation of this booklet, and to the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which supported its production and publication.

The author expresses sincere gratitude to the other current and recent members of the History of Science Society's committee on Education for their encouragement of this project and helpful suggestions; they include: Richard Burkhardt, Robert DeKosky, Robert A. Hatch, Lynn S. Joy, Sharon Kingsland (Chair), Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Kathryn M. Olesko, E. Robert Paul, Henry Steffens, and Martha Verbrugge.

Warm thanks are also extended to the following persons who made valuable comments on various drafts of this booklet: James L. Brummer, Andre Goddu, Phillip R. Sloan, Patrick Wilson, and especially David R. Dyck. Special thanks also to the students both at Notre Dame University and elsewhere who supplied very helpful commentary on the preliminary drafts of this booklet.

Special thanks [...] The cartoon by Sidney Harris, which appeared in American Scientist, is reprinted with the permission of Sidney Harris.

[Michael J. Crowe - Notre Dame University - 1991]


Text written by Michael Crowe
Web-Edition Created by R.A. Hatch
Permission for illustrations derive
from the original HSS printed edition.