I few days ago, I sent a question out on Twitter: ”Could you send me e.g.s of GOOD popular history of science, any format? Ones that wd please academic historians & general readers #histsci” and went on to explain that the ”Reason for request is I’m realising how easy it is to criticise bad #histsci but how hard to point to good stuff aimed at wide audience”. This is something I’ve noted for a long time, at least since I started my PhD and found my enjoyment of a good story being destroyed by my new-found knowledge and training. I wanted – I still want – historians, scientists and general readers of all persuasions to enjoy reading about the kind of history of science that academic historians of science think matters. I want readers to have more than Great Man history or whiggish and linear narratives, and to understand how science was and still is created, used, discussed and moulded by people living in and influenced by the societies in which they live. Likewise, to quote a phrase that arose in a comment on a different blog in a different context, that “Science is a process not an event”.
My original undergraduate training was in history and I’m sure that the origin of my dislike of “bad” history of science – the kind written with an eye on what we know today, that looks back in history for the winners and creates clear pathways where none existed at the time - is simply my sense that it’s not “what really happened”. However, good history of science - which brings in the losers, the small guys and the processes as well as the events - does what all good history does, which is to help us understand how things have come to be the way they are, how they might have been different and how we might understand the perspectives of others, living and dead. However, I also sincerely believe that it can do things for current science that other kinds of science communication or attempts to improve scientific literacy can’t. While it does away with the idolisation of great men or discoveries and triumphalist narratives, it helps to show people that science is part of society and is, therefore, something with which they can and should be involved. Plus, personally, if I were considering a career in science I would find it a bit off-putting to think that scientist=genius and that no other contributions are of any real relevance. How much more inviting to know that all kinds of people have made all kinds of crucial contributions to the process.
This is all well and good, but there is a problem – this kind of approach to historical writing makes it pretty easy to criticise “bad” history but is much less good at producing compelling narratives. It is especially bad, I find, and producing a good hook to pull in the punters, meaning that many books have titles and descriptions that sound distinctly “bad” history even if what’s inside is genuinely good. This issue is becoming critical for me, personally, since I work in a museum that needs to pull in punters and which offers them both history and science (and, therefore, both history of science and what I’d call “science history”). Too often I see outlines of exhibitions, lectures or courses that make me cringe. I can explain what I object to, but find it harder to offer something to replace it that sounds equally compelling: it’s our disciplinary problem with narrative and the ‘big picture’.
However, if I am going to go on criticising bad history outside academe, I have to find something that works. I thought I would begin by asking people on Twitter what they thought. I got some great suggestions, some which I don’t know and can’t yet comment on and a few that I would not agree with. I was struck initially by two things: 1) how few of the authors were trained historians or historians of science and 2) how many of the books have long-winded subtitles (Sobel’s Longitude evidently retains its influence with publishers). I will discuss some of the selections further in future posts but, in the mean time, you can have a look yourself. I have posted the tweets that responded to my question here and have listed all the suggestions, with links to Amazon, here. I’m not sure I’ve solved my problem yet, but there’s lots of food for thought. I should perhaps also, someday, discuss what Whewell might have thought of some of these approaches…..