As I may have mentioned before, I am currently doing an MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. The other day I attended the first lecture for an option course entitled “Sciences in the Age of Industry, 1750-1920”.

Now, although I have not studied History of Science before doing this course, I have studied science at various levels, and I have read popular science and popular history-of-science books, notably John Gribbin’s Science: A History; I have also done some fairly superficial research for a talk on the history of magnetism. So I know that, during that period, all sorts of exciting developments took place in science, and there follows a very incomplete and impressionistic list.

For a start, defining the period from 1750 allows me to mention my favourite unsung hero, John Michell, who published his inverse-square law for two magnetic poles in that year. Later on we have the corresponding inverse-square law for electrostatics, thanks to Coulomb; the discovery of various gases, a new theory of combustion to replace the phlogiston theory, and a new planet (Uranus) was discovered, the first since ancient times. Then, around the turn of the century, John Dalton postulated his atomic theory, and the voltaic pile made it possible to experiment on current electricity. This bore fruit in 1820 with the discovery by Oersted of the magnetic field due to a current, and hard on the heels of this came Faraday’s discovery of the electric motor, and eventually his discovery of electromagnetic induction. The middle of the 19th century belongs to Darwin, who published Origin of Species in 1859. At around the same time Mendel was inventing genetics, but it got forgotten again; Maxwell put all the equations of electromagnetism together (and added one of his own) and out came light. Bacteria entered the fray; Mendeleev created the Periodic Table; Hertz discovered the electromagnetic radiation that Maxwell predicted. Radioactivity too was discovered, as well as X-rays; and the electron just made it into the 19th century. And in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, there are just a few odds and sods like relativity (special and general), the thermionic valve, the rediscovery of genetics, the nucleus, and the Bohr-Rutherford atom …..

So, how many of those topics will we have a chance to study on this course? Well, the answer might surprise you: None of them. The only bits of overt science that do come up are: Heat and Energy; Geology; Meteorology and Climate. True, Darwin did play a key role in the core module of the MSc, which we finished last week; bacteriology, and Lavoisier and the Scientific Revolution, were also covered; and even Faraday got a mention. But none of these themes will be developed in the option course.

So what will we spend the next 10 weeks studying? Well, we started off with the Industrial Revolution, and the fact that it had nothing to do with science; the second lecture is on, errr … the Industrial Revolution; then there is the Heat & Energy session; then that well-known scientific discipline, errr … forestry management. Sessions follow on geology (linked to the Industrial Revolution, of course) and meteorology; then technology, exhibitions, recycling, more technology, and globalisation. The course might more accurately be entitled “Industry in the Age of Industry”; quite a lot of the first lecture was actually about economics.

If you have not yet experienced the strange world that is the academic discipline known as the History of Science, you may feel that the above is just a tiny bit odd. Perhaps, you muse, the syllabus was put together by someone who was not terribly interested in the history of science, only in economics and technology? Well, that’s possible, but unfortunately it is not the only syllabus to have had most of the science air-brushed out. Certainly I am not having a dig at the current lecturers on the course, all of whom are excellent scholars and most of whom are very inspiring lecturers; and it is unlikely to have been the handiwork of the current lecturer, who only inherited it recently – it was probably drawn up by someone long since departed. Perhaps, then, it is just that the institution I am studying at has a heavy academic bias towards technology and away from science? Well, no; look at any current journal or publication in the history of science, and you will find a similar story. Perhaps, in fact, my memory is faulty and the landmark events I was expecting the course to cover never happened, or else they did happen but are not considered very interesting, or – the usual complaint of the specialist when discussing the popularisation of his/her subject – it is just a whole lot more complicated.

Now, I’m happy to accept that simply listing scientific discoveries – “electron diffraction was discovered by Davisson and Germer in 1924”; “Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood in 1628”; “the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to detect any motion of the earth through the ether” and so on – is not really any improvement on boring old school history, listing dates of battles, accessions to the throne etc. The history of science is much more than this. To take one of my examples, the “HoS” treatment of William Harvey examines, as well as his scientific discoveries, other relevant factors such as his training in Paris and Padua, his Royalist sympathies and role as physician to Charles I, and his generally conservative, Aristotelian approach to philosophy. (Though I am bound to add, in defence of the more popular, broad-brush approach to history, that John Gribbin, writing outside the academic discipline, mentions one very pertinent factor that the “heavies” seem to have missed, namely his examination of Hugh Montgomery, whose beating heart he was able to observe due to a horrendous wound – an observation which enabled him to understand the heart’s precise mechanism for pumping the blood). But the case of Harvey is a rare example of an in-depth study within HoS which actually looks at a reasonable sized wodge of the actual science, as well as the context in which the science was made; such cases are very rare in the History of Science.

I get the feeling that those of us who want to dip a little further into topics in the history of science because of our interest in the science – even if we are quite happy to go beyond the immediate science and look at the context as well – will get short shrift from the HoS community. For instance, one of the topics I find fascinating – and which I had hoped might feature in the “Age of Industry” course – is the question of whether the events of the year 1820 could be described as a “magnetic revolution”, given the fact that news of Oersted’s discovery travelled rapidly across Europe and had very rapid practical consequences in at least three laboratories in at least two countries; and, if we may indeed call it that, why was the revolutionary vision of Ampère – to describe magnets entirely in terms of electric currents – thwarted in the short term, only to succeed in the long run? But this question is entirely about intellectual history: there is no obvious place here for such things as the political situation in France, Puritanism, or any putative links to the textile industry – it is simply the story of the interplay of theory and experiment, and so is not, apparently, of interest to historians of science.

By now one word should be forming itself in your mind – “Demarcation, mate!” Yes, it is reminiscent of the reaction of the philosophers to the building of the Deep Thought computer in The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The philosophers were angry because they saw it as their job to cogitate on such things as the Meaning of Life; then someone goes and builds a computer that gives you the answer ! It’s just not on. And let’s be honest here. Most of us have, at some stage in our working life, felt that someone else, who did not know all the things we did, and has not had the training we had, was trying to muscle in on the act and even maybe take our job away. People feel threatened by this. So we build our own little niche that no-one can penetrate.

So historians, who, since the 1960s, have regarded the history of science as their territory, look disparagingly upon any outsider who does try to gain a foothold; they claim that their way of looking at the history of science is The Only Way, and that it is a no-go area for anybody who has not been trained as a historian. This is despite the fact that they have apparently little interest in the science itself.

So, if this history of science lark is such hard work, I hear you ask, why not chuck it in and go and do something more interesting instead, like cleaning out the sewers? Well, the thing is that when I encounter something I don’t like, my instinct is not to just skulk away into a corner, but to try and change it.

How? Well, I’m working on it. Watch this space!

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