Distilling “History of Science” to 140 characters…

On September 10th, I sent out the following tweet:

In 140 characters or less, what is “history of science”? #histsci

Here are the responses thus far:

@JoshRosenau: History of Science is a solvent, taking away the makeup scientists apply to their teachers’ legacies

@David_Dobbs: History of science is the tracing of science’s struggle to define “empirical.”

@john_s_wilkins: HoS is the discipline of tying narratives about science to evidence, not vice versa.

@lippard: History of science is the rediscovery of a branching tree of hypotheses, methods & results, embedded in social context.

@beckyfh: HoS is the study of how changing society has influenced the way we see & respond to the world, wch in turn effects broader society

@friendsofdarwin: History of Science is History without all the boring bits.

@beckyfh: @friendsofdarwin @darwinsbulldog But all those ‘boring bits’ of history went into creating the world – & science – that we know now

@friendsofdarwin: @beckyfh Yes I know. But the science is the interesting bit!

@SmintonComic: History of science is the history that will shape the future! http://tinyurl.com/26m24oz

@LizzyCampbell: the study of the reasons, methods, philosophies, religions and events that have driven scientific discovery (?!?!?)

@sgtguss: In fate and chaos, some find order & destiny, then laws, wrapped in wonder of discovery, greatest adventure ever (sci hist)

@DeliaElena: tough question! Let me think about this for a little while, and I’ll get back to you.

@ptak: Histy Sci:surveys the objective explanation of the natural world for methods and ideas of interest+lasting value.

@ptak: History of science: the history of how stuff may work and how/why it all makes sense to think about it today.

@ptak: Maybe another gd quest would be why bother w/the histy sci. What makes it relevant? Useful?

@jaivirdi: Good question! Uh…”The systematic investigation and reflection of the production of scientific knowledge through history?”

@aaronswright: A peculiar and fascinating academic discipline? Not sure if you can neatly define the content at any length…

@drskyskull: histsci: The study of the “why?” and “how?” (and a little “who?”) of scientific discovery.

@harpersnotes: History of Science is the struggle to distinguish productive from non-productive experimental hypotheses.

@beckyfh: @harpersnotes Hist def looks for interpretations, just different ones. Hist is usually more specific & phil more general, bt not necessarily

@David_Dobbs: History of science is the tracing of science’s struggle to define “empirical.”

@theselflessmeme: People and ideas: history of science tells us just how much they have shaped and driven each other.

@WSUDiscovery: Chip the marble of illusion to find the underlying reality. What’s left–chips, dust, reality and sweat–is the history of science.

@rpohancenik: ‘History of science’ is shorthand for ‘history of failed or successful attempts at science’

@EduardoRZugasti: “History of science” study the Human development of accurate descriptions of the Natural world, Vs folk & Supernatural assumptions

@beckyfh: Well, beginning see how different some views of what #histsci is are from mine. Plus I built the IKEA sofa on my own. Winning day!

@ericmjohnson: History of Science studies the attempts humans have made to understand the natural world. It is the story of life coming to know itself.

And my own:

@darwinsbulldog: #histsci is not only study of development of scientific ideas but the contextual study of those who created, used, or were affected by them

As @beckyfh remarked, there is big differences between how folks have described what “history of science” is, while there are others who think it is a mute point to try to define it (see the comments below from Wilkins and Thomas). I think one can easily discern the historians from non-historians. Discuss.


@alicebell considered this question in a comment on a blog: “For me, history of science (and sociology of science for that matter) is a study of what tends to be left out of the accounts science tells about itself. It is the part of the payoff of all the advantages of a culture built on specialisation. It cannot fit in 140c. Or a textbook. That’s largely the point.”

20 thoughts on “Distilling “History of Science” to 140 characters…

  1. @drskyskull said: ” histsci: The study of the “why?” and “how?” (and a little “who?”) of scientific discovery.”

    I replied: “Only a little “who?”? Without the “who?” there would be no “why?” nor “how?”

  2. Thanks, Alice, for sharing your response, I’ll add it to the list although it wasn’t through Twitter.

    I came to asking the question because I am constantly asked by people, what is the history of science? I tend to spew some variation of “history of science studies science from a different angle; it is not about facts and dates, but about how social, culture, religion, economics, and politics have affected the development of science and vice versa.” So I wondered how others might answer such a question, as succinctly as possible.

  3. Obviously history of science can be all sorts of things, and our definitions depend on whether we have a particular position to push. If we do, it can be useful to have a succinct statement to hand. This partly responds to Alice’s point that the excercise is “a bit weird”. I am desperate to make people see that history of science is neither a chronological list of discoveries, nor some interesting and colourful annecdotes about past scientists, but that it can reveal the processes by which science is made – and that it is “made” rather than discovered.

  4. I do think the list was interesting, despite my initial skepticism!

    I’d be interested to see if other fields would be happy to 140character-ise themselves, or if people would have similar attitudes to the one I did.

    (for info, I’m being reflexive here, basing both points on my understanding of the complex construction of academic fields and their occasionally strident approaches to public engagement/ “understanding” almost entirely drawn from my study of the history of science…)

    p.s. I’ve always liked Schaffer’s (? might have been someone else…) idea that the social studies of science can provide a model of science as a process of invention rather than discovery.

  5. Like I would have an extra iPad just sitting around… right…

    Is that all we get from you, Will?

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  7. I’m looking forward to getting an iPad as part of the “scientific equipment” I will need in my new position in London, which I think will be good for things like reading articles and archive photos in places inconvenient for a laptop. Wilkins may not have it!

    I’m sweeping up pieces here at AIP in preparation for the move, so not much time for essay-writing, but I liked John’s pithy summary, which I think captures the critical spirit of historiography, without ascribing a particular “mission” to it.

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  9. When I bought the insurance policy for my dog the insurance agent asked me my profession for the form that he was filling out, I replied, “Wissenschaftshistoriker”, which is the German for historian of science. He looked at me quizzically for a couple of seconds and said, “I’ll just write Historiker (historian) if that’s OK!

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  11. Perfect, Thony! Looks like you’ve joined John & Will. This is exactly what I was hoping for – some to say it can’t be along with those who offered a tweet…

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