Category: Literature & Scholarship

Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses

Historiann recently reflected on the preponderance of best-selling history books written by men and about men: last year 21 of the 23 best-selling history books were written by men. As she pointed out, audiences never seem to tire of biographies recounting the heroic man who has somehow contributed to our modern world. While she focused her attention on biographies of the “Founding Fathers,” much of what she said applies equally to history of science, e.g.,

…These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, commuity, or the times in which he lived.

…Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.… Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.

History of science often defaults to stories about the heroic individual who bends nature to his will, the man of singular genius, whose achievements weren’t made possible by his family, his community, or the times in which he lived, but often despite that family, that community, or those times. Such stories commemorate certain kinds of power and knowledge while ignoring or explaining away others.

Two recent but very different examples—one popular one scholarly—illustrate these points. “These 5 Men Were Scientific Geniuses. They Also Thought Magic Was Real” marvels at the genius of Galileo (and Kepler) despite their lingering belief in astrology, at Newton’s (and Boyle’s) despite their dabbling in alchemy, at Paracelsus’s despite his reliance on natural magic.[1] These “geniuses” contributed to modern science despite their community and the times in which they lived. Internet audiences cannot get enough of these posts—this one has been shared nearly 10,000 times in four days.

Newton and the ascent of water in plants” offers a more scholarly example. Here a modern scientist celebrates Newton’s work as a “perceptive” or “prescient” version of what he knows/does today:

It should come as little surprise that Newton’s genius was capable of presciently imagining the germ of an idea explaining the ascent of sap in plants some two centuries before botanists came up with it for themselves.

The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.
The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.

The author has extracted from Newton’s notebooks a single paragraph, which he then interprets as a forerunner of his own research. Here the lure of commemoration prevents the author from considering this paragraph as part of a larger notebook that includes all sorts of other, less laudable (at least from our perspective) forms of knowledge—e.g., just a few pages earlier Newton cites the Bible in his reflections on the earth:

Its conflagration testified 2 Peter 3d, vers 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. The wiked (probably) to be punished thereby 2 Pet: 3 chap: vers 7.

The succession of worlds, probable from Pet 3c. 13v. in which text an emphasis upon the word wee is not countenanced by the Originall. Rev 21c. 1v. Isa: 65c, 17v. 66c, 22v. Days & nights after the judgment Rev 20c, 10 v.

Instead, the modern researcher sanitizes Newton’s thought, trimming from as if irrelevant those bits that don’t contribute to his modern science. Moreover, the ideal of the lone genius requires that Newton’s knowledge sprang from his head alone:

Reclusive and secretive, it’s doubtful he [Newton] gained botanical inspiration from conversations with others at Cambridge University interested in plants. Although his contemporaries were certainly thinking about plant anatomy and function around the same time.

The desire to celebrate the heroic genius struggling alone to discover truths about the world stems, at least in part, from the role that discovery plays in science and histories of science. Although discovery is often considered a forward-looking process, it is rather a retrospective judgement by scientists that seeks to assert a set of values and commend current research and researchers by linking them to exemplary practices.[2] It is no accident that “Newton and the ascent of water in plants” begins by praising Newton as “one of the greatest ‘natural philosophers’ that ever lived” and concludes by associating him with “another founding father of plant physiology.”

What would it look like to tell non-heroic histories of science? Can we make such histories compelling so that people would listen?

  1. The post radically misrepresents the historical practice of astrology and its place in early modern thought. The entries are Linnaeus and Brahe are too confused to merit comment.  ↩

  2. For more on discovery, see “Discovery in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure ↩

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science

And now, for a little late summer levity.[1]

In an effort to make reviewing manuscripts easier and faster, I put together this little template for the 20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science.[2] Now, instead of having to read through the entire manuscript, trying to identify and evaluate the argument and sources, you just have to toss a die a few times (see instructions on template).

20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.
20-Sided Reviewer’s Die for History of Science, with instructions.

A pdf version is available as a download if you want to make your own.

  1. I should emphasize: this is a joke. One that arose during a recent conversation with a colleague about how much time and effort it takes to review a manuscript.  ↩

  2. This die was inspired by the 20-sided die at Pocket Art Director™. The template was clearly adapted (nearly copied—so if you are Pocket Art Director™ and are you upset, let me know so I can remove it) from Pocket Art Director™’s Print My Own template. The “Like” and “Dislike” icons I used were designed by Eugen Belyakoff from the Noun Project: Like and Dislike  ↩

History of Science Pamphlets

Some time back I stumbled across Brain Washing From Phone Towers and was immediately intrigued by anybody producing pamphlets today,[1] especially pamphlets that deal with any aspect of the history of science.

Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.
Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.

Out of the blue, I sent an email to the woman, Sarah Nicholls (a printer in Brooklyn), behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers. She responded quickly and sent two of her pamphlets, one on Isaac Newton and one on the Escape Wheel.

The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I immediately read and enjoyed both. They do a wonderful job of combining history, science, and the present in an entertaining and informative way—they are pamphlets, after all.

Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I particularly like the designs and cuts blocks for the illustrations that adorn each pamphlet (see this post for her work designing the image of wave propagation in the “Action at a Distance” pamphlet). Isaac Newton, Isaac Barrow, Edmund Halley, and Gottfried Leibniz all come up, as do the Royal Society, mathematics, alchemy, scriptures, and the plague.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.

“Escape Wheel” is about keeping time. Sundials, water clocks, pendulum clocks, and other mechanical clocks. Christiaan Huygens, William Clement, John Harrison, and the problem of longitude come up.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.

As with any good pamphlet, the “Escape Wheel” gestures to politics. In a closing note:

Despite the many advantages of new technologies, there are holes in the technological narrative as well.**
**The depletion of scarce resources, the minuscule lifespan of digital devices, profits from the mining of raw materials for electronics funding civil war, coal-powered factories in China producing new devices, growing piles of e-waste, the death of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, and the burning of more coal to power data centers and wireless networks, so that all our citizens can enjoy instantaneous access to funny pictures of our pets, instagrams of our lunch, and oceans of amateur porn.

Here we get an idea of how she put together the illustrations for “Escape Wheel.” Peruse Sarah Nicholls’s blog to find glimpses of how she designs and prints her pamphlets.

  1. Given the number of posts on pamphlets here, my interest in contemporary pamphleteering should be no surprise.  ↩

Mythology of Doctrines

The mythology takes several forms. First there is the danger of converting some scattered or incidental remarks by a classic theorist into their ‘doctrine’ on one of the expected themes. This in turn has the effect of generating two particular kinds of historical absurdity. One is more characteristic of intellectual biographies and synoptic histories of thought, in which the focus is on the individual thinkers (or the procession of them). The other is more characteristic of ‘histories of ideas’ in which the focus is on the development of some ‘unit idea’ itself.

Such exercises may seem merely quaint, but they could always have a more sinister undertone, as these examples may perhaps suggest: a means to fix one’s own prejudices onto the most charismatic names under the guise of innocuous historical speculation.

Quentin Skinner on various forms of the “Mythology of Doctrines” in his “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969): 3–53.

Beckwith: Modernism has Killed Science

Today, in European cultures, and in other cultures that have borrowed it, science per se is strictly peripheral at best. It is not only inseparable from technology; it is all but completely divorced from philosophy. This is a far cry from the Middle Ages. The centrality of science in all spheres of Western European culture was ensured when the crucial elements — all of them — were borrowed during the Crusades, more or less simultaneously, from Classical Arabic civilization. There, science had never become integrated into Islamic culture, but was considered “foreign” to Islam, and so fell to the onslaught of anti-intellectualism that swept the Islamic world at its peak in the Middle Ages. By contrast, Western Europeans were enthralled by science from the 13th century down to the 20th, when Humanism — now redefined specifically as a collection of ‘non-scientific fields’ — replaced science as the default mode of higher education. Science has come under attack not only by fundamentalists, but even by philosophers and other scholars, who seem not to understand science. What happened?

To learn what happened, go read How Western Europe Developed the Scientific Method,” where Christopher Beckwith surveys his new thesis, which promises to attract controversy.