Considering the Historical Context

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?

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11 Responses to Considering the Historical Context

  1. Lisa says:

    I think we all need to know more about the history of the work we do. This question of enjoyment vs value frustrates me (as a mature age student). Does a story have to be flashy to be considered worthwhile? I want my professors presenting what they think is valuable. Generating excitement is great but should become the expected norm? I don’t think so.

  2. Mark Field says:

    In my undergraduate days at Cambridge I took a short course in microelectronics taught by Haroon Ahmed (who later became master of Corpus Christi). The course was memorable for his habit of deliberately having a 5 minute break in the middle of each lecture when he would talk about the history and development of the subject rather than the main topic of the lectures which was the physics and materials science behind semiconductor devices. These commercial breaks were advertised at the beginning of the lecture and it was intended that this was a short break for the students as well. At the appropriate point we would all dutifully put our pens down to listen to the story – usually delivered in a humorous style – and we got a great introduction to how science and technology are really done and some of the characters behind the papers.
    The result was a clear distinction of what was revision worthy material, and we got the stories behind the science. The fact that I can remember many of the stories 25 years later suggest this technique worked very well.

  3. Bob Newport says:

    This all rings true, and notably the presence of the phrase “I have to try to open their eyes to more than the syllabus”. The reactions I get are comparable to the ones you describe; I suspect I would react in a similar way if the positions were to be reversed: I am teaching in a profoundly different HE context to that which I enjoyed (so many years ago …). For instance, my excited description of attending, under the banner of my work for the STFC, a centenary celebration of Rutherford’s theory of the nuclear atom and my follow-on description of the effects of war on his team’s work (noting that Henry Moseley died in the Battle of Gallipoli) generated tolerant silence. Likewise, pointing out as one example of so many such oddities, that ‘Snell’s Law’ wasn’t first derived by Snell – it seems to have emerged at least 600 years earlier, in Arabic documents – cut no ice.

    Thankfully, watching me make a mess of demonstration experiments at the front of the lecture theatre still evokes the sort of engagement with the trials and joys of physics that I love to see.

    In terms of the ‘grand demonstration’ idea, some now-retired colleagues of mine successfully staged a delightful re-enactment of Blaise Pascal’s 1646 ‘barometer’ experiment which enabled him, in essence, to measure the weight of the atmosphere. Seldom has the front of our library building had so much attention. I included a photo’ of this in one of my early (trial) blog posts:

  4. Phillip says:

    I have mixed opinions here. In some ways, linking back to historical context is valuable in demonstrating how experiment and observation lead into theoretical development. I try in my undergraduate teaching to link whatever we’re doing to real-world chemistry – either current or historical, whenever it will add some value.

    However, sometimes the way an idea was arrived at historically is not necessarily the easiest way for a modern student to understand it. By its nature, science makes twists and turns; hits dead ends and makes detours; backtracks and zigzags before reaching clarity. Presenting this journey might give the student an impression of the challenges historical scientists faced, but it won’t necessarily help them understand the idea. If one is to use history as a teaching aid, it must add and not detract from the learning experience.

    Like previous commentors, I too had lecturers who would break a lecture in the middle for an ‘And now for something completely different’ moment. Some presented amusing historical anecdotes or demonstrations; one took us through his collection of wine bottle labels. There is value in these breaks as much as concentration aids as information for those receptive to it.

    From my own point of view, my interest in historical chemistry developed much later, primarily through my relationship with Andrea Sella at UCL as I edited his Classic kit column for Chemistry World. In the right hands, history becomes an extremely powerful tool for learning and making connections between insights that seem separated in modern context.

  5. Thony C says:

    Various participants on the History of Astronomy Mailing List who are active astronomy college or university teachers require their students to actively investigate significant discoveries in the history of astronomy using the methods and technological equipment of the original discoverers. For example calculate the orbits of the Galilean moons of Jupiter using a simple Galilean telescope for the observations and Euclidian geometry (and no calculus) for the calculations. All of them report very positive reactions from their students.

    I think this approach could be used more widely in teaching the sciences to give students a better understanding of many aspects of their discipline.

  6. simple girl says:

    I am not anymore a student and work at a boring 9-6 job .. But I was once, a student of electronics.. I would have loved to have a teacher so eloquently bringing in the history of the topics.. like how the first transistor was developed..I did not have any. I used to read the first part of the first chapter which had a bit of history in it with lot of interest. It helped me to better relate to the topics at present. It helped me imagine the flow chart of development from the first to the present .. The evolving felt like a neatly put jigsaw puzzle or may be a stack of books lined in order of their volumes.. It felt like connecting the dots from the source to the present and then may be gradually proceeding towards finding the next dot to connect ..
    I clearly feel your students are blessed..
    Loved reading your post..

  7. Laurence Cox says:

    I always use the example of the discovery of the thermo-elastic effect in rubber by John Gough in 1805 when talking to schoolchildren in my role as STEM Ambassador. All you need is a rubber band (the smaller the cross-section the better) which you hold lightly against your forehead and stretch it sharply. The rise in temperature is easily sensed and anyone can do it. I then go on to tell how Lord Kelvin explained the theory of it in 1855, but it took until the mid-1970’s before the technology existed to turn it into a commercially-viable measuring instrument (which is where I came in). The teachers tell me I am known as the “rubber band man” to the kids, but I am quite sure that they remember the basic idea that stretching an object changes its temperature.

  8. Emily says:

    I am currently a student of physics, and I have always loved learning about the history of the subject. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic physics teacher at school who liked to tell all sorts of stories about the way things were discovered – and about the scientists who made the discoveries. Some of my favourite lessons were those in which he showed us a series of demonstrations of, for example, different types of electromagnetic radiation, and told us a bit about the history of each.

    Personally, I think it’s very important for giving a sense of how science works. Often we learn things in a similar order to that on which they were discovered (eg. Newtonian mechanics, then relativity; or electrons, protons and neutrons before other subatomic particles). So it makes sense to learn about what people were thinking at the time things were first known of.

    It also gives a sense of being part of something that has been done for hundreds of years. There is a real sense of the progress that has been made. It’s quite amazing to think that there are things I learnt at A Level that were simply not known 100 years ago.

  9. Tony Ryan says:

    Reminds me of the “lime light” discussion we had the night before your Sheffield lecture!
    Glad it went well – discovery night was great.

  10. Chris says:

    I did 1A Physics at Cambridge before you started teaching the Waves & Optics course. I would go to the first lecture of each course, pick up the example questions (this was before we could download the notes from the internet), attempt all the questions over the next few days, and only go to any further lectures if there was a question I couldn’t do. Why get up for a 9am lecture, especially if it’s my only lecture that day?
    I remember there were two or three “non-examinable” lectures, which I did attend, since I figured the material would be aimed at those who care about science rather than exams. If you had been there giving lectures like you describe here I might have attended more often.

  11. Ciarán Mc Mahon says:

    History is an essential aspect of understanding the development of any body of knowledge, including science. However, in scientific circles it has the misfortune of regularly being carried out in a triumphalist and positivist fashion – the science of long ago was primitive, what we have today is wonderful and an inevitable progression: all of which is incorrect.

    I haven’t seen it, but I gather from online commentary that this is precisely what is happening in the new Cosmos by Neil Degrasse Tyson

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