AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV, No. 1 Spring 2002

 

A Wider Audience for History of Science
by Stephen G. Brush, University of Maryland, College Park, from his response to the award of the Hazen Prize by the History of Science Society

Shortly after this award was announced, an education columnist in the Washington Post wrote that students should be given an idea of "of how the various disciplines fit together (the history of science, the mathematics of sport ...)." This reminded me once again of the great potential audience for our field. In an age when education seems to be dominated by relentless specialization and the testing of factual knowledge, many teachers, parents and other citizens are fascinated by the Big Questions: What is the origin and structure of the universe? Did humans evolve from simpler organisms? Why did European civilization come to dominate the world after the 15th century? Do science and society influence each other?

If historians of science don't give intelligible answers to these questions, someone else will. In fact, others already have done so. In the general science section of any comprehensive bookstore you will find many books that seem to use the history of science to tell fascinating stories about how we arrived at our present understanding of the world and the lively controversies along the way. Plays about physicists and mathematicians (Copenhagen, QED, Proof) have been popular. The authors of these works are often very good writers and some of them even read our publications. But few of them are historians of science in the modern sense. They repeat old myths and stereotypes about the history of science without making the effort to study original sources and do serious research in archives.

Historians of science write accounts often more accurate and interesting than the traditional stories, but their language should appeal to students and the public. For many years, historians of science were reluctant to write textbooks and popularizations, perhaps because they realized how much research needed to be done to get past the myths, or because they feared that addressing issues of current interest would legitimize the much-maligned "whig" interpretation of history. But recently there has been a revival of good expository writing for a wide audience: both comprehensive textbooks and short monographs, readable and reliable, are now available.

In science education, the historical approach can no longer be considered just a distraction that takes time away from learning "real science." On the contrary, research done on the Project Physics course for high schools showed that this historically-oriented text,1 in combination with simulations of the experiments done by Galileo and other great scientists, enhanced students' understanding of the nature of science, while preparing them to do as well on standardized tests of subject-matter as students taking a traditional course.

Nor is there any necessary conflict, for a historian of science, between research and educational activities. At least in my own case, the effort to present an intelligible and accurate view of science to students inspired me to undertake new research projects, and the results of those projects were directly incorporated into my teaching.

  1 Harvard Project Physics (Gerald Holton, F. James Rutherford, and Fletcher G. Watson), Project Physics (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975). See also Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Physics, the human adventure : from Copernicus to Einstein and beyond (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 3rd ed., 2001).


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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
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Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: aipinfo@aip.org Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843