Tag Archives: history of science

Revisiting the scientific past for new breakthroughs

A March 2, 2017 article on phys.org features a thought-provoking (and, for some of us, confirming) take on scientific progress  (Note: Links have been removed),

The idea that science isn’t a process of constant progress might make some modern scientists feel a bit twitchy. Surely we know more now than we did 100 years ago? We’ve sequenced the genome, explored space and considerably lengthened the average human lifespan. We’ve invented aircraft, computers and nuclear energy. We’ve developed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to explain how the universe works.

However, treating the history of science as a linear story of progression doesn’t reflect wholly how ideas emerge and are adapted, forgotten, rediscovered or ignored. While we are happy with the notion that the arts can return to old ideas, for example in neoclassicism, this idea is not commonly recognised in science. Is this constraint really present in principle? Or is it more a comment on received practice or, worse, on the general ignorance of the scientific community of its own intellectual history?

For one thing, not all lines of scientific enquiry are pursued to conclusion. For example, a few years ago, historian of science Hasok Chang undertook a careful examination of notebooks from scientists working in the 19th century. He unearthed notes from experiments in electrochemistry whose results received no explanation at the time. After repeating the experiments himself, Chang showed the results still don’t have a full explanation today. These research programmes had not been completed, simply put to one side and forgotten.

A March 1, 2017 essay by Giles Gasper (Durham University), Hannah Smithson (University of Oxford) and Tom Mcleish (Durham University) for The Conversation, which originated the article, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

… looping back into forgotten scientific history might also provide an alternative, regenerative way of thinking that doesn’t rely on what has come immediately before it.

Collaborating with an international team of colleagues, we have taken this hypothesis further by bringing scientists into close contact with scientific treatises from the early 13th century. The treatises were composed by the English polymath Robert Grosseteste – who later became Bishop of Lincoln – between 1195 and 1230. They cover a wide range of topics we would recognise as key to modern physics, including sound, light, colour, comets, the planets, the origin of the cosmos and more.

We have worked with paleographers (handwriting experts) and Latinists to decipher Grosseteste’s manuscripts, and with philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to provide intellectual interpretation and context to his work. As a result, we’ve discovered that scientific and mathematical minds today still resonate with Grosseteste’s deeply physical and structured thinking.

Our first intuition and hope was that the scientists might bring a new analytic perspective to these very technical texts. And so it proved: the deep mathematical structure of a small treatise on colour, the De colore, was shown to describe what we would now call a three-dimensional abstract co-ordinate space for colour.

But more was true. During the examination of each treatise, at some point one of the group would say: “Did anyone ever try doing …?” or “What would happen if we followed through with this calculation, supposing he meant …”. Responding to this thinker from eight centuries ago has, to our delight and surprise, inspired new scientific work of a rather fresh cut. It isn’t connected in a linear way to current research programmes, but sheds light on them from new directions.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety.

What’s a science historian doing in the field of synthetic biology?

Dominic Berry’s essay on why he, a science historian, is involved in a synthetic biology project takes some interesting twists and turns, from a Sept. 2, 2016 news item on phys.org,

What are synthetic biologists doing to plants, and what are plants doing to synthetic biology? This question frames a series of laboratory observations that I am pursuing across the UK as part of the Engineering Life project, which is dedicated to exploring what it might mean to engineer biology. I contribute to the project through a focus on plant scientists and my training in the history and philosophy of science. For plant scientists the engineering of biology can take many forms not all of which are captured by the category ‘synthetic biology’. Scientists that aim to create modified organisms are more inclined to refer to themselves as the latter, while other plant scientists will emphasise an integration of biological work with methods or techniques from engineering without adopting the identity of synthetic biologist. Accordingly, different legacies in the biosciences (from molecular biology to biomimetics) can be drawn upon depending on the features of the project at hand. These category and naming problems are all part of a larger set of questions that social and natural scientists continue to explore together. For the purposes of this post the distinctions between synthetic biology and the broader engineering of biology do not matter greatly, so I will simply refer to synthetic biology throughout.

Berry’s piece was originally posted Sept. 1, 2016 by Stephen Burgess on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Synbio (Synthetic Biology blog). In this next bit Berry notes briefly why science historians and scientists might find interaction and collaboration fruitful (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem strange that a historian is focused so closely on the present. However, I am not alone, and one recent author has picked out projects that suggest it is becoming a trend. This is only of interest for readers of the PLOS Synbio blog because it flags up that there are historians of science available for collaboration (hello!), and plenty of historical scholarship to draw upon to see your work in a new light, or rediscover forgotten research programs, or reconsider current practices, precisely as a recent Nature editorial emphasised for all sciences.

The May 17, 2016 Nature editorial ‘Second Thoughts’, mentioned in Berry’s piece, opens provocatively and continues in that vein (Note: A link has been removed),

The thought experiment has a noble place in research, but some thoughts are deemed more noble than others. Darwin and Einstein could let their minds wander and imagine the consequences of certain actions or natural laws. But scientists and historians who try to estimate what might have happened if, say, Darwin had fallen off the Beagle and drowned, are often accused of playing parlour games.

What if Darwin had toppled overboard before he joined the evolutionary dots? That discussion seems useful, because it raises interesting questions about the state of knowledge, then and now, and how it is communicated and portrayed. In his 2013 book Darwin Deleted — in which the young Charles is, indeed, lost in a storm — the historian Peter Bowler argued that the theory of evolution would have emerged just so, but with the pieces perhaps placed in a different order, and therefore less antagonistic to religious society.

In this week’s World View, another historian offers an alternative pathway for science: what if the ideas of Gregor Mendel on the inheritance of traits had been challenged more robustly and more successfully by a rival interpretation by the scientist W. F. R. Weldon? Gregory Radick argues that a twentieth-century genetics driven more by Weldon’s emphasis on environmental context would have weakened the dominance of the current misleading impression that nature always trumps nurture.

Here is Berry on the importance of questions,

The historian can ask: What traditions and legacies are these practitioners either building on or reacting against? How do these ideas cohere (or remain incoherent) for individuals and laboratories? Is a new way of understanding and investigating biology being created, and if so, where can we find evidence of it? Have biologists become increasingly concerned with controlling biological phenomena rather than understanding them? How does the desire to integrate engineering with biology sit within the long history of the establishment of biological science over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Berry is an academic and his piece reflects an academic writing style with its complicated sentence structures and muted conclusions. If you have the patience, it is a good read on a topic that isn’t discussed all that often.

Science, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes

GrrlScientist (Guardian science blogs) has written a review of a Sherlock Holmes book published last year in her Jan. 22, 2014 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

Breathless with anticipation, I breezed through a fun little treatise by James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics [Oxford University Press, 2013; …]. This book is an absorbing and scholarly exploration of the history of the science and forensics described in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were written more than 100 years ago by Scottish physician and writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Written by an avid “Sherlockian” and emeritus chemistry professor from Missouri State University, this book shows that the fictional Sherlock Holmes characters, their stories and their crime-solving methods are all based in reality. …


I particularly enjoyed the history of using fingerprints to identify individuals, how fingerprint analysis became a science and how this new science inspired and informed the development of searchable databases containing millions of individual fingerprints. According to the author, this database provided investigators with the evidence — sometimes within seconds — necessary to resolve cases that had lingered for many years. Professor O’Brien also places fingerprint technology into its historical context, mentioning that fingerprints were recognised as unique identifiers as early as 3000 BC by the ancient Chinese and by the Babylonians in 2000 BC. …

The chapter on chemistry — Holmes’ first love — was, of course, quite good. Amongst the topics covered, the author examines the reference materials that were available during Holmes’s lifetime to specifically address the accusation by chemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that Holmes was “a blundering chemist”. The author concludes that Holmes was neither as bad as Asimov argued, nor as good as originally claimed by Dr Watson, his crime-solving colleague …

While GrrlScientist enjoyed the book she does note this,

Overall, I thought this book was more heavily focused upon exploring the history of science and forensics than clarifying the details of Holmes’s scientific methodologies.

Matthew Hutson had this to say in his Jan. 11, 2013 book review for the Wall Street Journal,

Arthur Conan Doyle draws readers into the process of detection with what his biographer John Dickson Carr called “enigmatic clues.” Holmes signposts a piece of evidence as significant but doesn’t immediately reveal its use, leaving it as an exercise for the reader. “The creator of Sherlock Holmes invented it,” Carr wrote in 1949, “and nobody . . . has ever done it half so well.” In one of the most celebrated examples, Sherlock Holmes quizzes a client about the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” the man says. “That was the curious incident,” remarks Holmes.

Holmes’s supreme rationality is of a piece with his interest in science. “The Scientific Sherlock Holmes,” by James O’Brien, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, explores the forensic methods and scientific content in the Holmes canon as well as his creator’s own scientific background. Born in 1859, Conan Doyle took to books at the encouragement of his mother. Frustrated by the rigidity of his Catholic schooling, he moved toward science. At 17, he began medical school in Edinburgh. There his mentor was Dr. Joseph Bell, a man with sharpened diagnostic abilities who would serve as a model for Holmes. In one instance, Bell gleaned that a woman who had come in with her child was from the town of Burntisland (her accent), had traveled via Iverleith Row (red clay on shoes), had another child (a too-large jacket on the one present) and worked at a linoleum factory (dermatitis on fingers).

Hutson knows a lot about Conan Doyle and, thankfully he’s not shy about sharing;. Although he does mention O’Brien’s book, he seems not all that interested in it,

Mr. O’Brien spends most of his slim book, a volume most suitable for those already fond of Sherlock and not afraid of section titles with catchy names like “Section 4.2,” exploring the various fields that Holmes draws on—principally chemistry, with a little biology and physics. We learn about the use of coal-tar derivatives and handwriting identification in both Holmes’s world and ours. Some techniques, such as fingerprinting, appeared in the stories even before they were widely adopted by real police.

His real passion seems to be about thought processes,

Another look at the cogs under the deerstalker is offered by “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” by Maria Konnikova, a psychology graduate student at Columbia University. Following Holmes’s metaphor of the “brain attic,” she describes how Holmes stocks his attic (observation), explores it (creativity), navigates it (deduction) and maintains it (continuing education and practice). In the process, she lays out the habits of mind—both the techniques Holmes employs and the errors he avoids—that we might usefully emulate.

If you want to get a feel for how James (Jim) O’Brien, the author of ‘Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics’ writes,  you can check out his Jan. 25, 2013 posting about his book on the Huffington Post.

Historians of science get ready for ‘Knowledge at Work’

The theme for this year’s 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine is ‘Knowledge at Work’. According to Rebekah Higgitt’s Nov. 26, 2012 posting on the Guardian science blogs, the congress is on track to be the largest history of science conference ever held in the UK (Note: I have removed links),

This Friday [Nov. 30, 2012] sees the deadline for submissions to what will be the largest ever meeting of historians of science in the UK, and almost certainly the largest for at least a generation to come.

Last Friday already saw the closing date for organised symposiums within the International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and the organisers tweeted:



#ichstm has just received its 1000th symposium paper abstract.

With the individual submissions still to come in, this promises to be huge for the history of science, which usually counts conference delegates in the 10s or 100s.

The 24th international congress will be held in Manchester, UK from Monday, July 22, 2013 – Sunday, July 28, 2013. Here’s more from the congress home page,

Welcome to the website for the 2013 International Congress, whose theme is Knowledge at Work.

The International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine is the largest event in the field, and takes place every four years. Recent meetings have been held in Mexico City (2001), Beijing (2005) and Budapest (2009).

In 2013, the Congress will take place in Manchester, the chief city of Northwest England, and the original “shock city” of the Industrial Revolution. Congress facilities will be provided by The University of Manchester, with tours and displays on local scientific, technological and medical heritage co-ordinated by members of the University’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

Here’s some information about individual submissions from the Call for stand-alone papers webpage,

The theme of the 24th Congress is ‘Knowledge at work’. We construe this theme broadly, and encourage studies of the creation, dissemination and deployment of knowledge and practice across all periods, and from a variety of methodological and historiographical approaches. Possible areas of investigation may include, but are not limited to

  • case studies of knowledge-making and knowledge-use in particular scientific, technological and medical communities
  • the use and adaptation of scientific knowledge in the workplace, the home, and the wider world
  • how facts, and other knowledge-claims, travel between disciplines, countries and communities
  • relationships between those knowledge-making enterprises which are described as ‘science’ and those which are not, and the dynamics of the boundaries between them
  • definitions and meanings of ‘pure’, ‘fundamental’ and ‘applied’ research
  • how scientists, engineers and healthcare professionals (and their historical antecedents) work, and whom they work for
  • the status relations of knowledge and work, including the roles of ‘artists’, ‘artisans’, ‘professionals’, ‘amateurs’, ‘devotees’, ‘operatives’, ‘philosophers’, ‘adepts’, ‘scientists’ and ‘workers’
  • sites and geographies of knowledge-production and knowledge-exchange: laboratory, field, factory, hospital, ocean…
  • communication about science: forms and genres, advocacy and dissent, authorship and audience in print, manuscript, broadcasting, digital media and performance

Stand-alone submissions will normally be assembled thematically into groups of 4 presentations per 90-minute session. You should prepare a presentation of around 15 to 17 minutes’ duration, to be followed by 5 minutes of audience questions. Please plan carefully: the very high volume of activity at the Congress means it will be necessary to run strictly to time.

Most papers at the Congress are presented by sole authors. You may, however, submit a co-authored paper to be co-presented by two or, if necessary, three authors. All registered co-presenters should take an active role in delivering the paper.

If your research involves collaboration with colleagues who will not be attending the Congress, please do not list them as co-presenters (see “Attendance requirement”). Instead, please develop a solo paper based on the collaboration, crediting your colleagues as appropriate in your talk.


Papers may be presented in any of the following languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic.

For review and documentation purposes, we require titles and abstracts for all proposals to be submitted in either English or French. If you will be presenting in another language, please also supply an equivalent title and abstract in that language.

In addition to the standard tours and extras, Higgitt’s post mentions something you may consider to be an incentive to submit,

There will also be a “fringe” that will include films, music, theatre and performance, aimed at the public as well as delegates. Importantly, there will also be an entire pub, the Jabez Clegg, handed over for the conference, selling, I’ve been promised, unique and appropriately-named cask beers. (It helps that the Manchester department includes a postgrad with experience of organising beer festivals and a historian of brewing.)

Good luck with your submission!