At a talk I gave in Sheffield last week the local MP Meg Munn remarked on the fact that, being a non-scientist, she had learned a lot about how science is done from reading my blog (in particular this one, in which I refer to my habitual use of post-it notes). As a scientist it is easy to take this for granted because of course one knows one’s own way of working; to the non-scientist it may appear mysterious. In any case, there are bound to be differences between the disciplines as well as individual styles in turning experiments into analysis and finally papers. Being very familiar with one’s own methods doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be learned from someone else’s.
In my undergraduate lectures I also like to say a bit about how science worked, and I deliberately put that verb in the past text. I like to include facts about how the science I’m teaching came about, not least to point out just how different our lives are now in the lab, what challenges scientists from Newton and Hooke on for the next couple of hundred years had to face lacking the things we now take for granted such as computers, cameras and speedy communication methods. Teaching first year waves and optics I always include the diagram Newton’s incorporated in a letter to the Royal Society explaining how he had used a prism to split light into component colours and then reassembled the rays with a second prism. I regret to say I feel a collective yawn from my audience when I do this. I am always struck by the challenges Newton faced, not only because the only experimental tools that he could lay his hands on were so simple, but also because of the difficulties of reproducing the set-up of the apparatus for others to appreciate simply with pen and ink. I’m not convinced students find it as striking.
Limitations of early experimental kit must have been even more challenging for Hooke as he stared down his early microscope and tried to sketch what he saw: a flea, a louse or the structure of cork (based on which he coined the word ‘cell’). The skills involved in drawing, turning his eye from the eyepiece to paper and back again, ultimately produced delicate drawings of a beauty that most of us aren’t able to achieve even if simply copying his own work. For those of us who have always had a camera of some sort attached to a microscope it is an amazing feat to produce such wonderful works of art-science.
Another historical episode I like to cover in this particular course is the development of astronomical telescopes in William Herschel‘s hands. I want to impress upon the students that making large, perfect lenses was a major challenge when these had to be polished meticulously by hand. It also gives me a good opportunity to introduce a female researcher into the course, in the form of sister Caroline, and to point out (that as far as I know) she was the first (UK) woman to receive a government grant for her work. This anecdote too feels as if it falls on stony ground.
I fear the students I teach do not care for this kind of discussion. I want to impress upon them a sense of wonder, of progress and how technical advances drive scientific ones forward. They want to learn enough to pass exams and, presumably, no more. I can’t say I blame them, but I do feel I have to try to open their eyes to more than the syllabus, at least in passing. However, I well remember my own bafflement when a keen lecturer tried similarly to enthuse me with a bit of experimental history during my own undergraduate years. In this case what I recall was a description of the Henry Cavendish experiment on electrostatics. What was the point of this historical diversion, I thought at the time. Nevertheless, it must have made some sort of impression on me in so far as I still recall the episode all these years later, but what I took away from it other than considering it irrelevant to my future revision I really am not sure.
So what is the correct answer? Should lecturers persist in trying to put their material in some sort of historical context? Or is that more for their personal satisfaction than for good didactic reasons? I don’t know if it is simply that, with increasing years, that the desire to make sense of how science develops becomes stronger, how my curiosity now is driven as much by how progress occurs as to what the progress is. I would like to think that perhaps, amongst those 400+ students who dutifully turn up to listen to my lectures there are a handful who will appreciate the messages I’m trying to give by my few historical interludes. But I am curious to know how others tackle this question and whether they feel there is a correct answer.
To return, as I began, with my Sheffield talk. It was billed as the start of their Science week. Another event that was mentioned during the day was a re-enactment of Von Guericke‘s experiment to demonstrate the nature of a vacuum. Maybe this is the better, more concrete way of revealing how experimental science used to be rather than a mere reproduction of a drawing on a powerpoint slide. Certainly the idea of teams of horses straining to pull apart an evacuated vessels –which was what Von Guericke experiment consisted of – is more likely to stick in the mind of an impressionable youngster than just another bit of Microsoft software (albeit it turns out university students were going to be used in lieu of horses: cheaper I suppose!). But, interestingly, this experiment was actually devised by Von Guericke because of the lack of excitement his work generated using more modest demonstrations. He was aiming for, and got, a bit of media exposure to interest the public in the science. Plus ça change?