Good, popular history of science….

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…..

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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26 Responses to Good, popular history of science….

  1. Oliver Hill-Andrews says:

    In addition to the ones already suggested, I can also recommend two others:

    The first one focuses on biology, but takes quite an unusual approach to the topic. The second is perhaps more ambitious, but I do remember that Patricia Fara also mentions the problems with ‘great man’ history.

    Both of them are obviously written to be understood by everyone, so in that sense they are popular. They also sold well. But I think that both would please academic historians, too.

  2. Tom Levenson says:

    It would be self-promoting to mention my own work, but, channelling Hillel, if not me, then who. Two of my books are still readily available–Einstein in Berlin and Newton and the Counterfeiter — and both seem to have passed muster with professional audiences. (At least, the American History of Science Society asked me to come talk about telling the public about the history of science at the last annual meeting, so I guess there is some neutral party evidence for that claim.) Also, my film, Einstein Revealed (NOVA, 1995) had some impact.

    Modesty does extend so far as to check me from posting Amazon links. But they exist….

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  4. John S. Wilkins says:

    Rebekah, can I suggest that when you have a bunch of good popular histories of science, you start a page with them, as it will show up in the menu?

  5. Can I add a couple of personal favourites that I didn’t spot on your list?

    First, perhaps it’s a bit niche but Horace Judson’s fabulous “Eighth Day of Creation” gives a wonderful insight into the birth of molecular and structural biology in the 20th Century. Judson interviewed all the main protagonists who were still living in the early 1970s and has spun from this resource a truly engaging piece of history.

    Second I am a big fan of Richard Rhodes “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. Though focused on the Manhattan project, it gives a detailed account of the developments in atomic and nuclear physics that led to its creation—and of all the characters involved.

  6. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Thanks for the additional suggestions. I’m glad to see someone suggesting Fara’s book too as a think that it is the long-view narratives that are the most tricky to get right. Biographies or more focused studies are easier to shape, while still bringing in the necessary detail and complexity. I’ll offer some more comments and ideas myself in the next post.

  7. darwinsbulldog says:

    I was there when Tom L. spoke at HSS about writing history. No one threw anything at him, so I guess he’s right when “both [books] seem to have passed muster with professional audiences.” 😉

  8. Thony C. says:

    Can I recommend Patricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment, Pimlico, London, 2008.

  9. First of all, thanks for starting blogging! I’ve often thougth, reading your interesting tweets, that I would like you to have more space than 140 characters. I look forward to following your writing here.

    There are books that are written by trained historians which are “good history” (not only winners; contextual; processes, not events etc) but written in a manner that they might go down well with a general audience. They might contain footnotes and references, but somehow one thinks that a reader with a general historical interest would like to read them.

    Maybe Harold J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age can be an example of scholarly books readable by (parts of) the general public despite being scholarly arguments aimed at an audience of other professional historians. Perhaps it stretches the definition of popular to call it such. But even though it is in full scholarly dress – footnotes and all, and contains arguments about interpretation – it is written in such a way I think it would be good reading even if you don’t have a previous special knowledge about themes in the history of science. A reader with a more general history interest would learn about interpretations of the scientific revolution; the importance of collections of specimens and exchange networks for natural history and so on. To get through the 562 pages, though, you would need a solid interest in early modern history …

    Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity would be suitable for someone wanting a popular but non-Whig history of medicine.

    Then there is John Waller, Fabulous science: fact and fiction in the history of scientific discovery. Written by a trained historian, it explicitly aims at bringing good history of science to a general audience.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thank you for the encouragement to start/keep blogging! I absolutely agree with this point – popular doesn’t have to me short or simplistic. Many books in the bestseller charts are very long and can be complex. One of my favourite history of science books is Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things, which comes in at 480 pages but is fabulously readable.

      • Thony C. says:

        I’m interested in the history of geodetics and the attempts to measure the meridian because the whole thing was set in motion by the Renaissance mathematicians I study. I read both the academic and the popular liturature on the subject. I only recently discovered Adler’s book and decide to buy a copy. I usually buy such books second hand through Amazon Market Place and having found a suitable copy at the cheapest price I ordered it from a supplier I know to be reliable. Unfortunately the book got lost in the post and now having had my money refunded I have ordered another copy by another supplier. I hope this one will arrive. If you are interested in the general field another good populer book on the subject is John Keay, The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named.

      • Thony C. says:

        That should of course read Alder! Dyslexia lures k.o.

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  12. zackoz says:

    What about John Gribbin?

    I’m relatively new to this field, and I found his history of science very readable and informative.

  13. I recently re-watched Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ on DVD. Still wonderful television 37 years after its first airing. The book is good too – though more of a coffee table book than a text book.

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  18. Gillian says:

    THE AGE OF WONDER: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

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