HSci 1815 || Course Design & Philosophy
History of science from 1700 to the present: no one can cover it all in one semester. Two main principles guide the selective course design here:
A primary aim, therefore, is not to teach content, but a perspective, a way of thinking, or skills in historical interpretation and understanding. There is no effort to be comprehensive, only to respect a few major landmarks. Among the many features one might include, I highlight the role of contingency and how many factors shape the development of science (itself having several features: ideas, methods, motivations and institutions). Accordingly, the course is organized in case studies (Rudwick, 1985). Each episode is complete enough to profile its multiple dimensions and how they interact, reflecting how historians view the significance of concrete specifics. Here, the details are set in context and in relation to one another, rather than serving (as students typically expect) as a list of facts to memorize for their own sake. Each case study is also introduced with a background of multiple roots and concluded with an epilog of multiple consequences. These "before" and "after" threads become important in linking the cases in a final retrospective.
The case studies are framed in the semester by an introduction and retrospective. An introduction on "Heroes" contrasts popular with more informed histories, as an invitation to consider how perspective may shape the very writing of history itself. Students complete a short research project contrasting a science textbook's heroic account of Mendel, say, with a more fully informed (professional) historical source. This also introduces the role of evidence in presenting and analyzing historical conclusions. A second introduction is a sample case study to exhibit the multple dimensions of science. Our case on Christiaan Eijkman and beriberi, for example (a personal favorite), allows discussion of controlled experiments, chance, biography, theoretical biases, error, experimental design, research ethics, scientific communication, the new ideas of vitamins and germ theory, Nobel prizes and colonialism.
The retrospective is an occasion to underscore the theme of contingency. The case studies -- which have been addressed individually -- are reconsidered using the standard concept of timelines as a foil. Whig history is explained explicitly and an alternative concept of "timewebs" is introduced to link all the case studies together. Several cases appear in a video from James Burke's Connections series, before discussing the ideological overtones of timelines as a common icon of "History" [see class presentation as an alternative course summary]. Another closing class poses the reflexive question, "Whose History? Whose Science?", echoing the opening historiographic theme, here underscoring the specific dimensions of gender, class, professional stratification and error.
The focus on historical perspective also motivates use of original materialin the readings. Students read one historical paper for every case. We discuss them in class, learning how to pose questions and notice telltale signals. Interpretive activities take the foreground.
Another strategy is historical simulation. Students give presentations as historical individuals, situated in their historical perspective. One simulation focuses on the Committee on Uranium, showing the multiple considerations and viewpoints regarding research on an atomic bomb when the prospect itself was still uncertain. Another considers the response to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in a public policy setting.
Selection of Episodes: The Roots of Modern Science
A second principle helped guide which episodes were selected. Especially given an audience of primarily science-oriented and marginally motivated students, the aim is to begin with the familiar and immediately relevant. The theme is thus exploring the historical roots of contemporary practice. (It is in probing the history that the unfamiliar is introduced.) Using the opening case study, this is further sorted into its ideas, methods and institutions.
For ideas, we sample foundational concepts in the major disciplines: in biology, evolution (Darwin); in chemistry, elements, gases and combustion (Lavoisier); in physics, special relativity (Einstein); in geology, continental drift (Wegener). For balance and representativeness, there is also a case of substantive error (here, Morton's craniology and the historical thread of biological determinism). The concepts in the other cases reflect a variety of disciplines, including social science, meteorology, medicine and environmental studies.
For methods, we focus on the emergence of controlled experiments (John Snow's studies of cholera, following Mill's method of difference) and statistical significance tests (Edgeworth's analysis of the "law of error" and the difference of means). We also include the material element of instruments, using the case of the cloud chamber and its role in two different fields of inquiry (but also portrayed with the origins of the test tube, the Petri dish and the Bunsen-Desdega burner).
For institutions, we address funding, scientific communication and public policy. The roots of public funding in World War II are dramatized using the case of nuclear fission in the historical simulation noted earlier. Scientific communication is highlighted in the case of continental drift, where findings from several disciplines were involved in a synthesis. Public policy is represented in the case of pesticides, also in the simulation noted earlier.
Each case was also selected (from among a handful of possibilities) to contain an element of surprise, and to help illustrate the variety of influences on science, from a hobby in photography (C.T. Wilson) or medieval accounting practices (control) to the tax system in France (Lavoisier) and the shapes of noses (Darwin). Thus, from an ostensively Whiggish motive of looking for the roots of current science, we hope to ultimately develop an appreciation of contingency, perhaps the real core of this course.
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