Science History

The New York Times science section recently profiled the Royal Society, the “world’s oldest continuous scientific society.” I am very interested in the history of science, but I seem to perceive a dichotomous attitude eminating from scientists about their own story. One the one hand, it can be very illuminating to see how, and specifically, the order discoveries were made. Often, this is mirrored, consciously or not, by teachers whose lessons recapitulates this sequence. On the other hand, scientists might rather forget the wrong turns taken before reaching the currently accepted answer. Once you know the solution to the puzzle, why waste any more effort on incorrect guesses? There is, however, another possible reason. The natural sciences try to remove the human element, at least to the extent this is possible. Almost by definition, the laws of nature studied should be unaffected by the presence, or lack thereof, of humans to observe them. And they should certainly be immune to the vicissitudes of then-current events. However, as pointed out by the books The Age of Wonder, and The Clockwork Universe, show the interaction, both ways, of science and history. The Royal Society did more than anyone to promote its motto Nullius in Verbain a world in thrall to received wisdom. Discoveries backed by the Society, like exotic island tribes and new planets, sparked a sense of amazement in the general population. Science, like everything, is subject to the whims of history. Chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s work was cut short by the guillotine. Texas might have celebrated the discovery of the Higgs Boson long ago, but for budget cuts.  When I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum, I was duly awed by the amazing collection of artifacts, but it is hard to doubt the importance of Empire, and associated colonialism, that allowed such a collection to exist.

Author: lnemzer

Associate Professor Nova Southeastern University

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