Celebrating Great British Science
As part of our Celebrating British Science campaign we want you nominate the scientific breakthrough that means the most to you. You may well delve into some of the past scientific successes made here in the UK – it is indeed a rich history. So much so that the history of science is its self a thriving academic pursuit. Here, Professor Frank James from the Royal Institution tells us about the history of Science in Britain – how it was born as a subject and what it means for the country today
As one of the leading countries in science over the past four centuries or so, strong interest in the history of science (including technology and medicine) has developed in Britain particularly since 1945. Originally a subject which dealt only with the content of science, history of science has developed into a broad effort to understand historically the relationship between science, society and other areas of cultures. In turn this helps inform strategies which seek to ensure, not always successfully, that the general public are well informed scientifically so as to be able to contribute to the ever increasing number of political decisions which have a scientific, sometime markedly so, dimension.
Although the origins of the history of science in Britain can be traced to the writings of William Whewell (who coined the word “scientist”) and David Brewster in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that the subject became institutionally embedded in the higher education system with the establishment of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at University College London (now the Department of Science and Technology Studies, thus reflecting the changing nature of the discipline). During the 1930s Marxist scientists at Cambridge University, such as Joseph Needham, began to establish a presence for the subject there. In the same decade the Royal Institution undertook a major research project by publishing the seven volumes of Michael Faraday’s laboratory notebook whilst Henry Wellcome used part of his fortune to establish what has become the Wellcome Trust’s extensive history of medicine programme. Curiously, bearing in mind the enormous importance of the early industrialisation of Britain, history of technology never gained a significant presence in higher education, although its neighbouring field of study, economic history, has done much better. The area is mainly covered by the work of learned societies such as the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology.
Virtually all practitioners of the subject before the 1940s were scientists of one form or another and, whatever their political beliefs, implicitly assumed that theory was the most important part of scientific knowledge, that science was cumulative in nature and wrote about the development of science in terms of current knowledge at the time. The general statement of this latter view was spectacularly demolished by the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield in his The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). During the second half of the war of 1939 to 1945 Needham was part of an allied mission to China and then helped found UNESCO (insisting on the inclusion of the S) and so did not return to Cambridge until 1948. He and Butterfield fought several battles over what history of science should be which resulted in the formation of the department there. Butterfield in his book The Origins of Modern Science (1949) argued that the “scientific revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ‘outshines everything since the rise of Christianity’. The idea of revolution as one of the main themes of the history of science was continued and established with the publication by one of Butterfield’s protégés Rupert Hall of The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (1954). In this Hall argued, in a somewhat whiggish manner, that the scientific revolution allowed the development of modern science.
All this might not have made much of an impact had it not been for the 1959 Cambridge University Rede lecture delivered by the civil servant and novelist, Charles Snow. Entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Snow argued that one of the fundamental problems with Britain, still recovering from the Suez debacle, was that society and culture were dominated by an arts educated elite who did not understand science, giving as an instance the second law of thermodynamics which he thought everyone should know. He technocratically argued that if scientifically educated people were in positions of power, the situation of Britain would improve. It is no coincidence that Snow later served as a junior minister in the Ministry of Technology during the Wilson government in the 1960s.
Had it not been for the vitriolic attack by Frank Leavis, it would seem likely that Snow’s lecture would have disappeared into the well deserved obscurity enjoyed by most Rede Lectures. However, the controversy that was unleashed, became in the following two decades, and to some extent remains, a major feature of cultural life in this country. Snow thought that it was necessary to build bridges between science and the humanities and this metaphor became one of the driving forces behind the growth of history of science in Britain. For example when Imperial College advertised for its first Professor of the History of Science and Technology in 1961, the position was framed explicitly in the dialectic of the Two Cultures: ‘the first holder of the chair will have the opportunity to bridge one of the gaps between the humanities and the sciences’. The post went to Rupert Hall who as an undergraduate had been a protégé of Snow at Cambridge in the late 1930s. It would seem that history of science, combining, it was thought, both science and arts, would be the ideal discipline to address the issues raised by the Two Cultures. Significantly though both Hall and his wife, Marie Hall, worked hard to deliver what had been asked for them, in the end they were seen not to have succeeded. This suggests either that the problems were too great for a small subject to address satisfactorily or that they were illusory.
Although, the development of the subject in other institutions is not as well documented as it is for Imperial College, it is noticeable that during the 1960s and 1970s, as the university system expanded, new history of science groups, with varying ideological orientations, various faculty locations and different degrees of institutional cohesiveness, were formed. In addition to University College London and Cambridge, these included Bath, Oxford, Manchester, Leeds, Kent, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Durham, Lancaster, Leicester, Sussex and Belfast, as well as the Open University and the Royal Institution. As elsewhere in the academic world during this period, major ideological divisions became apparent. In history of science the divide was centred on what was called the “internal” and “external” view of the development of science, particularly in the period of the “scientific revolution”. That is the view that science had its own internal logic which alone generated new knowledge (a view associated with Hall) was contradicted by the argument, stemming from Marxism and American sociology, that scientific knowledge was a function of external social structures (of which Harry Collins when at Bath was a notable exponent). These highly controversial debates raised issues about the cultural relativism of scientific knowledge which remain unresolved, despite the famous discussion between Collins and Lewis Wolpert at the 1994 Loughborough meeting of the British Association, a spat that provided The Times Higher Education Supplement with copy for some weeks afterwards.
All the evidence gathered in pursuit of the studying the history of science, including some large projects editing the papers and correspondence of major scientific figures including Newton, Oldenburg, Lavoisier, Faraday, Darwin and Einstein, led to the realisation, from the 1980s onwards, that the concept of the “scientific revolution” and indeed the big theoretical, philosophically based, pictures that had been proposed for the nature of science were, in various ways, seriously flawed. Thus the Canadian born David Gooding working in England and his associates showed how scientific knowledge could be generated by experimental exploration of the world, which, taking context into account, thus falsified views of science propounded by philosophers such as Karl Popper. By examining the context of figures such as Robert Boyle, the American born Steven Shapin working in Scotland challenged the very idea that there had been any sort of scientific revolution. All this meant that the content of history of science changed towards understanding science in its various historical, cultural and social contexts. Modern science came to be seen not only as as a product of the pre 1800 period, but also of the cultures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed very few historians would now subscribe to the notion of a scientific revolution as envisaged by Butterfield and Hall, any more than they would now believe in an industrial revolution.
With some notable exceptions, by and large those institutions where history of science was pursued in the 1960s and 1970s remain the places where it continues to be studied and taught, mostly at postgraduate level, although there is an undergraduate course at University College London and students can take part of their degrees in the subject at most of the other universities. What they now find is that the changing content of the subject means that they study the relationship between science and other areas of culture such as technology, art, literature and religion. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Two Cultures debate, in the history of science at least, science is seen as an integral part of culture.
Frank James is Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution
Don't forget - we want your ideas:
What do you think is the greatest scientific breakthrough made on British shores? We want your suggestions – and we’d love to know why you chose that particular breakthrough. Perhaps it inspired your career path, or maybe it’s something close to your heart – whatever it is let us know! The best entries will be featured in our Celebrating Great British Science wall chart and in Laboratory News later in the year.