World's Fair

Why Blog the History of Science?

I contributed an essay to the History of Science Society (HSS) newsletter called “Why Blog the History of Science?” It is now in print and available on line. Go go, check it out, you can learn about why all blogging should be understood along the Ayers-Onuf axis.

Here I’ll excerpt that part:

About that axis. Two historians began a call-in radio show earlier this year. One of them, let’s call him Ayers, considered it an opportunity to contribute to the public debate about current issues by discoursing on historical context – voting, race relations, the environment, what have you. His ambition was to offer greater nuance to issues of political and cultural import. The other, whom we shall call Onuf, thought that Ayers over-stated it. He’s doing the show because he likes talking about history, he’s interested in the conversation, and he enjoys spending time with his colleagues. If someone learns something, well, that’s almost incidental, but let’s not go overboard. Thus the Ayers-Onuf axis defines the range of motivations for engaging in academic topics beyond the campus confines. It hits at the very core of academic identity in democratic societies. On one side is the idealist, on the other, the realist. They both have fun, but they get there from different routes. Those who write a Web-log (“blog”) find themselves somewhere along that axis, either with the belief that they are generating and/or influencing public conversation or with the motivation to explore a given subject in depth.

Then it goes on.

The essay came about as a result of several interweaving threads: first, we have this blog, and a good deal of it speaks to issue of the history of science or at least social studies of science and technology (which, for me, require a historical perspective); second, I am part of a panel at the forthcoming HSS meeting in November on “electronic scholarship and the history of science”; third, the “Focus” section in HSS’s journal Isis has devoted at least three issues to matters that touch on or speak directly to the problem (or opportunity) of audience, form, and public import for doing and writing the history of science; and then fourth, in response to that last one–does the history of science matter? (Isis, June 2008)–several bloggers posted comments and their own thoughts on the question of relevance. I did too, here in July.

I approach questions about relevance and forms of communication as questions of audience: who are historians speaking to, what do those audiences assume beforehand, what assumptions do the historical accounts challenge, and how can the historian (or humanities or social science scholar) account for the character of the audience in the very framing of their writing? How about backing that up and asking about the very framing of our research questions and methods? Asking these questions might lead one to write and research differently. Asking “Who is our reader (politician, layperson, neighbor, administrator, engineer, lab rat, blog commenter, NSF reviewer), what do they expect, and how do they enter into this tacit agreement between researcher and audience?” could lead scholars to do things differently. (Relatedly, you might refer to guest blogger Jason Delborne’s comments on science and audience earlier this year.)

I say all of this here not because the notion is revolutionary but because of a minor snag in the HSS Newsletter essay: on the first pass, the staff thought it was too colloquial or casual, it used language too uncommon or unexpected, for the readers and members of HSS who (apparently) expected a certain style and, oh, graceful elan, perhaps? I say this not out of great complaint–the minor revisions to my first version were not troublesome and I think the final version comes across fine; the newsletter editor was very kind and helpful, encouraging all the while. I don’t begrudge the changes, that is, and am not put out by them. But it still strikes me as highly ironic that an essay in part suggesting that historians of science might write differently about their work would be resisted because it wrote differently about that work.

This irony was already present in the summer Isis issue. In fact, it struck me more forcefully there. A group of historians of science got together, asked themselves if the history of science mattered, and concluded…wait for it, wait for it…that Yes! History of science does matter! They made their arguments that the history of science matters to other historians of science, in the pages of Isis, the main journal for the history of science. So let me reset this: faced with the question of the relevance of the history of science to those who are not historians of science, a group of well-respected historians of science told a readership comprised of historians of science that yes, their work was important.

Here is where I can make a confession about overcoming an embarrassing hole in my cultural literacy. A few weeks ago I happened to catch Casablanca on TV, a movie I’ve never seen. It’s famous, Casablanca. Bogart is in it. But I’d never seen it. And you know, I only caught the second half, so still I haven’t seen it all. But I did catch the line where the officer–Capt. Renault according to IMDB–who’d just made a killing in the casino, turns to say “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

And so I am shocked, shocked that historians have convinced themselves that their/our work matters. I would hope so! I agree, it does matter.

But for whom? And how? And why?

I want to know how it might matter for people beyond historians and I take it that to answer this will require that we talk to people who are not historians or even social scientists. I take that as a matter of audience. Although the demands of academia have prevented me from keeping The World’s Fair as rigorous in the past six months as it might have been, I still think one of the best virtues of the blog is that it keeps me in touch with the assumptions and expectations of those who do not work in my field of study.

So go read the essay and try to make the Ayers-Onuf axis into an every day phrase. Maybe with Dave’s help we can make it go viral.


  1. #1 Michael Robinson
    October 28, 2008


    It’s a great article. I’m doing my best to spread the word: