ScienceOnline ’09: Web and the History of Science

Before the events of ScienceOnline ’09 are completely lost in the labyrinth of my memory, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the session that I co-moderated with scicurious and Brian, on The Web and the History of Science.  I should note in advance that these are my thoughts on the session, and what stuck in my head afterwards; scicurious and Brian no doubt have different points they would emphasize.

For those who didn’t attend, the session was very loosely organized and was mainly intended to be a broad discussion of why the history of science is important, and how to blog about the history of science.

For those who are interested, the skeleton powerpoint presentation I used can be found in pdf form at this link.

One of the main things which stuck with me during the session:  our different strategies for finding topics to write about, which are actually closely connected to what excites us about science history.  This is discussed on the wiki; to summarize, sci tends to search neuroscience and physiology aggregation sites, while Brian tends to search, via Google, for books containing search terms of interest.  As for me, I often get set on the path by finding references to topics in my pulp fiction readings!  For instance, my current series on Faraday’s writings arose because Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel The Coming Race used direct and intriguing quotes of Faraday’s work (and took some cheap shots at evolution).  A number of times, I’ve had a ‘chain reaction’ effect where one topic leads to another.

Our different techniques for finding sources  are related to our particular interests in science history.  Brian has more of an interest in people, ideas and events, while sci and I tend to do more detailed analyses of classic scientific papers.  These differences reminded me of something else: my co-moderators and I are scientists, not historians, by training.  I like to think this gives us a nice perspective on the historical papers, as researchers in the field, that might be lacking in historians’ accounts.  Of course, we also probably lack a certain ‘big picture’ perspective that training in history would provide.  I guess I would say that our perspective isn’t better or worse than a professional historian, simply different!  The study of history, like science, probably works best when many people with different viewpoints contribute to the discussion.

A major reason I was invited to be a moderator of a ‘history of science’ session is due to my creation of The Giant’s Shoulders, a blog carnival collecting posts related to the history of science.  A general impression I’ve gotten about the carnival, though, and was reinforced during discussions at the meeting, is that people think that submissions to TGS should all be very professional, scholarly, lengthy discussions of historical import.  It is worth mentioning that this isn’t really true!  We’re happy to see shorter, casual and even quirky posts, as long as they’re related to, to use Brian’s words from the wiki, “ideas, people, or particular events” in science of historical significance.  In spite of the name of the carnival, I should also note that not every submission needs to be about the correct ideas that formed modern science.  There’s a lot to be learned in studying old and outdated ideas, and in studying the influence scientific ideas, good and bad, had on popular culture of the time.

The study of these outdated and incorrect ideas is the thing I find most interesting and important in historical blogging.  There is a tendency to streamline and oversimplify science history to the point where it presents a genuinely misleading impression of not only how things happened, but how science is done.  A term used to describe such simplified accounts is “textbook cardboard”, which I first learned from Blake at Science After Sunclipse.  (Retelling these simplified accounts is “chewing on the textbook cardboard”.)  One consequence is that people get the incorrect impression that science is about “absolute truth”,  while the reality is that science is often a collection of educated guesses and partial answers that are gradually pieced together to form a less partial answer.  I consider, as an example of the result of such incorrect impressions, a recent article in New Scientist with the provocative title, “Darwin was wrong.”  Darwin was wrong about many things in his theory of evolution, but it is really misrepresenting the scientific process to pass it off in a way that makes it sound like a character flaw!  In spite of all of his research, Darwin was necessarily working with a very incomplete set of data, and there was no way he could have gotten everything right.  For most scientists, “Darwin was wrong” is the scientific equivalent of a journalist reporting “Dog bites man!”

One question asked by a session attendee is worth discussing: How do we, as bloggers, use the history of science to increase awareness and interest in science overall?  The question is a good one, though a little unfair as well!  Many, many people with much larger audiences have tried, with mixed success, to give science a popularity makeover.  For instance, there are plenty of popular books on various aspects of science and science history, but they certainly don’t get as much attention as other topics.  As bloggers with relatively small readership, the best we can do in the short term is keep writing about what interests us and try and generate attention and build readership.  I have also been trying to increase my colleague’s awareness in the history of science, in an attempt to combat “textbook cardboard.”

Blogs have several potential advantages over popularized books on science and science history, namely their shortness and their low cost!   People who would never consider buying a book on science could ‘stumble’ across an interesting post and get intrigued.  My impression is that blogs serve a complementary role to traditional forms of science outreach.  (As long as I’m mentioning science books, I should put in a plug for Tom Levenson’s upcoming book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.  I met Tom at the meeting, and the book looks like it will be fascinating.)

One last observation/thought about the session: I am a nearly tenured professor, and I was sharing the stage with two graduate students as equals, and I loved it!  One of the great things about science blogging is the very democratic nature of the process.  Moderators of sessions at ScienceOnline ranged in experience from high school students to tenured faculty.  This is really a great example of how science should be done: people are judged not on their degree, but on the quality of their ideas.

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6 Responses to ScienceOnline ’09: Web and the History of Science

  1. Laelaps says:

    Nice summary, gg. I have been meaning to write one of my own. Just a few quick notes;

    1 – I’m actually still an undergrad. I wish I was a grad student, though!

    2 – Blake can correct me if I’m wrong, but to trace the meme all the way through I think he picked up the phrase “textbook cardboard” from me (, and I picked up it from S.J. Gould’s “Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle.” (Whig History is another name for the same thing.) Not that it matters, but it’s good to see one of my favorite phrases making the rounds. 🙂

    3 – Thanks for setting up the presentation and all. I had a lot of fun at the session and I hope that interest in the history of science continues to grow!

    • Laelaps: Thanks for the comment! To respond to your points:

      1. Really? From the thoughtfulness and coherence of your writing, I had you pegged as an especially articulate graduate student! 🙂

      2. I tried to be careful to say that I first heard the term from Blake, though I had known its origins went back farther. It’s nice to have it mapped out explicitly. (Some historian I’m turning out to be — I can’t even trace a phrase back twenty years!)

      3. I had a great time as well! We’ll have to keep pushing the historical side of science, and see where we can take it.

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    Yes, I picked up the term “textbook cardboard” from Brian (hi, Brian!). Though I’d given some thought to the problem before that, it’s nice to have a convenient word or two for it. Feynman’s phrase, “a physicist’s history of physics”, is a tad fatalistic — it almost makes it sound like it’s a problem we’ll never lick! Maybe that’s true, but I’d hate to prejudge the case. (-:

  3. Brian says:

    “Chain reaction effect” is right! About six years ago I started thinking about some of the radical changes in science around the turn of the century (1800s crossing into 1900s). That got me interested in Cambridge and the Cavendish Lab. That sparked my curiosity about Newton, the man and his legacy at Cambridge. Now six years later I’ve finished a novel about Newton and Cambridge. From writing the novel I wanted to explore other areas of science, history and faith. That led to my blog. The blog has led to great discussions and other avenues of science history yet unexplored. I look back at the progression and my head spins a bit. I’m glad I’ve found “Skulls in the Stars” and look forward to following your site. Who knows where it will lead???


    • Brian (via Secret of Newton): Thanks for the comment! By the way, I’ll try and respond to your earlier comments here (and on TGS) in the near future; things have been crazy over the past month and I’ve been very spotty with my commenting!

  4. Brian says:

    No problem about the delay. My greatest complaint is that life gets in the way of writing sometimes. 😉

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