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History of Science


In a brief entry such as this, it is necessary to emphasize a few popular themes at the expense of the great diversity comprising the field. Alas, much of the history of science since 1970 has revolved around telling and retelling narratives about the great men of physics and biology. It is a process that Mott Greene once called "toting bones from one graveyard to another." In his 1992 work on preclassical antiquity, Greene shows what interesting bones are yet to be discovered. In

Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World (1982), Greene demonstrates how a new way of looking at the world—the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s—could be a reason to rescue obscure geologists from historical oblivion. It is good history and also a good example of self-reflexivity in the post-Kuhnian age, where the historian becomes a self-conscious shaper of the social fabric, and not a mere narrator of historical truth.

Similarly—although it seems to have been a case of toting bones back and forth—the discovery of the importance of magic and mysticism to Newton, Bacon, and other major biographical figures of the scientific revolution helped open the door to another recovery project—this one centered around "wonders" and how scientists, physicians, and other adherents of natural philosophy experienced them. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park researched accounts regarding objects of wonder such as monstrous births, extraordinary mushrooms, and urine stones that glowed in the dark. In addition to giving readers a richer sense of ontology from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries, they also widened historical understanding of how empiricism related to society, morality, and aesthetics. Daston and Park argue that objects of wonder did not fall out of favor because empirical science excluded them as objects of popular fascination, but rather were driven to the pages of X-Men comics and supermarket tabloids by changing social fashions and etiquette.

Considered from a historiographic point of view, Greene, Dalton, and Park might have much to show about the future of the history of science. From Herodotus to Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) to the postmodernist deconstructionists, the methods of researching, writing, and interpreting history have changed greatly. History is always subject to revision and reinterpretation based upon the questions one asks and how one seeks to answer them.

As a history of historiography, Telling the Truth about History by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob is a comprehensive survey from the scientific revolution to the end of the twentieth century. By tracing history from the hagiography that made Newton into a cultural hero to the "crisis of modernity" that sees truth and objectivity as "dissimulations advanced by those who have power," Appleby et al. seek to fashion a reconstruction project. They argue that history is rooted in the human psychological experience of memory and the personal craving for meaning. This is an optimistic project. Although we must give up naïve notions of truth and objectivity, we may embrace a democratic truth that "celebrates a multiplicity of actors" (p. 283) and encourages "open-ended scholarly inquiry that can trample on cherished illusions" (p. 289).


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Krimsky, Sheldon. Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.

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Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

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Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Including a Translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus Physicus De Natura Aerus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

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Pat Munday

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Jean-Paul Sartre Biography to Seminiferous tubulesHistory of Science - General Works, Preclassical Antiquity, Middle Ages, Scientific Revolution, Biological Sciences, Feminist History Of Science