Month: April 2012

Should Science Writers Read Historical Material?

A recent article in the Guardian asked once again: “Should science journalists read the papers on which their stories are based?” This article grew out of debate at the Royal Institution “Scientists and journalists need different things from science” (see the storify version of that debate).

A recent debate about whether or not science writers should read scientific papers.

Apparently there was considerable disagreement about whether or not journalists writing about science should read (be able to read?) the scientific papers, the sources as one commenter put it, on which they were reporting. Reading the abstracts and the press releases was generally thought not to be sufficient. Many of the scientists and a number of the journalists insisted that people writing about science should read and work to understand the scientific papers on which their stories were based.

An analogous question that doesn’t get asked is: Should science writers, journalists, and scientists read (be able to read) and understand the historical sources on which their stories are based?

To admit that both those questions are meaningful is to recognize that history has a distinct expertise and that reading recent translations or excerpts of historical sources is not sufficient.

[Reposted from PACHS.]

Fighting the Flat Earth Myth

YouTube that briefly looks at and explains five historical misconceptions: horned Viking helmets, Lady Godiva, the tiny Napoleon, the infamous vomitorium, and Columbus and the flat earth. See 5 Historical Misconceptions, which was linked to at Smithsonian.com. The Columbus bit is the last section and begins around 2:50 into the video. The video is a bit quirky but amusing and accessible. According to the stats, the video C.P.G. Grey posted a week ago has already attracted more than 454,000 views and 10,000 likes. It seems Grey has developed an effective means of reaching a broad audience.

Columbus (not) convincing the masses that the earth is round.

On C.G.P. Grey’s YouTube channel there are a few other videos that treat science and history of science topics, along with some explanations of political processes, coffee, and santa. While I would like to think there is some connection between my ranting about Columbus and the flat earth myth, that’s probably attributing to me too much credit. I am content to see that somebody else has joined the struggle.

Thoughts on Life, Sex, Death (and Food)

Last night’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food)” was great fun. Having gone through this once before, the people from the Philly Improv Theater and the returning academics had a better idea about how to prepare and set up the show. While it was still a bit hectic and last minute—something tells me such preparation is always hectic—we arrived early enough to have one quick run through and to test the equipment. Speaking just for myself, I will confess that I was a bit nervous until it was too late to worry any longer.

Paul and Patrick setting up.

More than 100 people showed up (I was told the event sold out) to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The audience seemed to be a nice mix of science-festival goers most interested in science, people looking for some laughs, and at least a handful of historians and historians of science. Judging from the laughs, the applause, and the number of people who stayed around after the show to talk with the historians of science as well as the comedians, the show seems to have been a success.

A recent ad for banana flavored milk.

Karen Reeds and Chip Chantry opened the evening with a funny bit on the banana as the perfect food. Karen explained how Linnaeus was able to grow the first banana in Europe. He enjoyed it so much that he thought it most likely to have been the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, he named it the Musa paradisiaca. Chip then recounted all the ways the banana was the perfect comedic fruit.

The “Hear Ye” reporter in the village.

I paired with Secret Pants, a sketch comedy group. I talked about how a small village in 16th-century England tried to understand how a woman could give birth to a dead, hairless cat and how they could prevent it from happening again. Secret Pants had put together a brilliant parody of the breaking news programs, sort of a 16th-century version of CNN: Hear Ye.

Michael Yudell and Asteroid! Covered Sex.

Michael Yudell teamed up with Asteroid!, an improv group. Michael spoke about sex—hysteria, sex toys, and Alfred Kinsey’s sex research. Between each topic Asteroid! stepped in to offer a humorous interoperation.

Elly Truitt and Emily & Micah McGraw on Death.

Finally, Elly Truitt paired up with Emily and Micah McGraw to talk about death. Earlier ideas about death make our binary understanding of life and death seem incredibly simple-minded. Elly explained how ideas about death and when somebody was actually dead varied across Europe. Moreover, richer people and saints seemed better able to avoid the inevitable, or at least to prolong a strange period of limbo between life and death.

Such a format is a bit odd for historians of science who are more comfortable in a classroom and with a captive audience of students. It also can feel a little strange giving up control of your material to comedians whose job it is to make fun of things. In the end, however, it provided a forum to reach beyond the walls of the academy and to engage a general audience.

The Mythical Copernican Moment

In a new article at the BBC James Stevenson propagates another classic myth in the history of science. Contrary the headline, there was no “Copernican Moment.” Further, Nicholas Copernicus did not “establish that the earth moves around the sun” (see “Humanisation of computing: A Copernican moment for tech”).

The BBC covers the mythical Copernican Moment

Historians of science have show how much time and effort it took to establish the Copernican system. Most recently, Robert Westman’s book, The Copernican Question, has detailed both how long it took Copernicus himself to formulate his ideas about the heliocentric system and how long it took other scholars to accept his system.

Stevenson’s point seems to be that technology is changing rapidly and having a profound influence on our lives. Okay. Few people would argue with him about that. Adding some mythical episode from the history of science doesn’t contribute anything meaningful. It does, however, both reflect an impoverished understanding of history and repeats an erroneous (and I would say deeply problematic) notion of how scientific developments occur.