World's Fair

Historians and some scientists argue that it is a relevant and important pursuit to understand more about the history of science. I agree; in part this is what my day job is. But why exactly does it matter? To whom is it important? In what way? What will they get from it? How do historians know those reading the history of science get what they (the historians) think they should get? These are generations-old questions, to be sure. (I suppose one would have to know the history, though, to know that they are generations-old questions.) It could be relevant for students in the sciences and humanities; for practicing scientists; for historians of other sub-fields; for general public readers; for non-historical scholars. It might not. But it might be.

Most recently, these questions were the basis for a Focus section of discussion in the premier journal of the history of science, Isis. Isis is an insiders journal. It publishes methodologically rigorous research articles by top shelf scholars. This is good scholarship. On most pages, the footnotes cover half the page. In tiny font. A friend was once shocked to hear that Isis articles were actually meant to be read – he was certain they were merely published pages intended for later citation. Once you knew the topic and the author, he thought, you were supposed to file away the reference for one of those mongo footnotes when you tried to run the Isis reviewer gauntlet yourself. In recent years there has been somewhat of a reprieve. With a new editor came a new section of the journal, the Focus section, where a given topic is discussed in short think pieces (almost always using research as the basis for the commentary, so it isn’t like these are from nothing). Here is a section of Isis that people read. In the June issue, five essays broached the question, What difference does the history of science make? (They are available for free from the journal’s homepage.)

John Lynch, of Stranger Fruit, was co-author of one of these. He’s at Arizona State, where one of his colleagues, Jane Maienschein, is the current President of the History of Science Society. (She co-edited the Focus section.) His contribution was a well-put brief on the history of science and science education. (He noted this a few weeks ago, but I was away; he’s also helpfully restarted the conversation today.) The other essays touched on science in the everyday world, science in the policy-making room, and the role history has (and could) play for some actual practicing scientists in their working lives. The essays were necessarily brief and provocative. The intent, as with almost all of these Focus sections, was to encourage conversation and debate beyond just those pages, to start, “a continuing and lively conversation.”

But where? Nobody ever says.

Blogs would seem to be a likely candidate. A few have indeed taken up the charge and starting to carry on the conversation. Michael Robinson, a historian of science at the University of Hartford, has done this. He offers a precis on one of the essays, the one about science and the everyday world by historians Katherine Pandora and Karen Rader. (This link will lead you to his summary. Basically they argue that historians of science could be good bridges between the scientists and the general public.) He actually references this blog, The World’s Fair, as an example of going beyond the cultural confines Rader and Pandora want to bridge. (Thanks, by the way.) He also links to a blog, Ether Wave Propaganda, that “specializes in historiographical issues.” The three contributors at Ether Wave – Will Thomas. Jenny Ferng, and Christopher Donohue–are doing a great service to those who can’t slog through Isis articles by providing reviews and summaries. They also quibble with Pandora and Rader’s essay. It seems one of their main problems is that the authors don’t discuss professional science communicators enough (or at all).

One thing I found odd about the essays was less their claims and points of direction and more their own lack of cross-talk — I don’t mean from one essay to the other, but also from one Focus section to another. I may have read too quickly, but I didn’t catch any reference to at least two other focus sections that were dealing with similar territory. One was on The Generalist’s Vision, from back in 2005, about why historians of science are so specialized and what can we do about this; the other was on history of science and historical novels, from just last December, about (loosely interpreted) how to write more engaging histories of science. The first was about who historians speak to; the second was about how they/we do so; and this third seems to be about why. I’d think of them as part of one broader conversation on the place of the historian of science in society.

In any case, my purpose for this post was not to review the articles. Instead I wonder where these conversations can happen, why so few are actually carried forward, and what we’d get out of further discussion.

I do wonder if The World’s Fair offers a unique opportunity to engage these issues. It has history of science readers; it sits here among a bunch of science bloggers, scientists, and self-proclaimed science enthusiasts; and one of us is even a real deal scientist. If historians of science want a continuing and lively conversation, where will they have it? If scientists want to chime in on what they think, what would they say?

I have one final question then, to cull from the host of others above: what does a scientist actually think the history of science offers?

Rather than asking historians if history is worthwhile (let’s go ahead and guess they/I would say yes), what do scientists get from it? And why?

Update: see Dave’s follow-up here for one scientists answer.


  1. #1 John Lynch
    August 4, 2008


    As it happens there was discussion at the may 2006 MBL meeting from which the focus section came as to where the conversation could be continued. It was hoped that historians of science would react (negatively and positively) to what we wrote and that a discussion would ensue. There was thoughts about creating online fora and suchlike. The idea of having a session at HSS was broached (but it was then realized that we wouldn’t make the deadline for this years meeting).

    So I guess it is down to blogs :)

  2. #2 brc
    August 4, 2008

    aha, i might’ve figured. thanks, john.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    August 4, 2008

    I blogged about your last question (amongst similar things) last week, during the two cultures discussion. Bora has also chimed in.

  4. #4 Martin
    August 4, 2008

    “But where? Nobody ever says.”

    I’m hosting the Giants’ Shoulders carnival on historical research at The Lay Scientist in August. You should get on board – sign up to host an edition perhaps.

  5. #5 Martin
    August 4, 2008

    Oops, link is here:

  6. #6 World
    August 5, 2008

    This blog has been created to share useful information. Thanks and greetings!

  7. #7 William
    August 6, 2008

    First thing I would say to that discussion is this. Anyone involved in research and publication is making at least some use of the history of their subject: after all, to publish a paper of any worth, you have to know that either your question has not been previously asked, or that it has not yet been answered to the satisfaction of the community. Since you can’t track down every random speculation that has been put to paper in a journal somewhere, a sense of the kinds of questions that have been asked in various times and subject areas plays an important role in assisting you in determining the first point. Knowing what constitutes a satisfactory answer, a concept which has developed considerably over the history of most subjects, and one with intricate ties to the social context of the subject, is important for the second.