Posted by Chris M Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Learning about the history of science

A couple months back I was searching through the various cabinets in my office. As an office for grad students, it is been filled with old maps, journals, textbooks, and teaching aids that various professors have no room for. One interesting book I found was Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World by Mott Greene. Although I haven't had a chance to read it, the review from Science (behind evil pay barrier) sounds interesting enough.
This perspective enables Greene to escape unthinking acceptance of widely held ideas about the history of geology. Many of these have already been abandoned by the small community of historians of geology, but the scope of Greene's alternative analysis should bring their weaknesses to the attention of a wider audience. For example, Lyell and other British geologists, normally revered for their influence on Darwin, turn out to be minor figures in this story, whereas European geologists such as Beaumont, Suess, and the Nappe theorists in the Alps, as well as Americans like James Hall, the Rogers brothers, and J. D. Dana, loom large. The usual identification of uniformitarians and catastrophists as the main camps in 19th-century geology is shown to fail to capture the divisions between different theorists in geotectonics. And the Taylor-Wegener hypothesis of continental drift no longer appears as a brilliant but inexplicable premonition of plate tectonic theory but simply as one of a number of equally plausible (if equally inadequate) responses to the collapse of the Suessian synthesis, others being advanced by Bailey Willis, John Joly, and Chamberlin. In short, Greene treats 19th-century geology as an exciting theoretical discipline in its own right, rather than as merely the activity that set the stage for the Darwinian revolution by extending the time scale and outlining the history of life on earth.

William Morris Davis However, that did get me thinking about learning the history of science in science classes. Why isn't the history or particular scientific disciplines taught more often as either a tool used to help learning or for its own sake? Sure, most classes will hit the big points. Every intro geology class will mention a few words about Wegener when talking about plate tectonics. However, many advanced textbooks give scant view to the history of the science. I was lucky enough to have an instructor talk for some time about the history of geomorphology from catastrophism to Davis's erosion cycle to now, more Gilbert influenced process based ideas. However, my experience is that this is the exception rather than the norm. Do scientists shy away from talking about the past because they think students won't care, they don't have enough time, or because it emphasizes more accurately the fallibility of science? I wonder if teaching the history of science is a way to interest people in science, to connect them another way to it. Rather than someone talking about the ability for a glacier to move larger rocks far away from their sources and depositing them, why not try tell them of earlier geologists trying to understand the movement of erratics in the Alps, putting the student in the boots on some cold mountain top?