Why Study the History of Science, Medicine and Technology? Andrew Mendelsohn Outlines the Attractions of a Fast-Growing and Popular Field of Study. (MA Roundup 2003)

Article excerpt

IMAGINE HOLDING in your hands the manuscripts of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, or the laboratory instruments of Louis Pasteur or Marie Curie, and deciphering science in the making--what peculiar combinations of conceptual, cultural and technical resources allowed them to be able to think thoughts that hadn't been thought before?

Or imagine building a replica of the paddle-wheel apparatus James Joule used to determine the mechanical equivalent of heat, and recreating his experiment in order to reveal the role of particular skills in a great discovery--in this case the exquisite temperature-measuring skills of a 19th-century Manchester brewer.

Or imagine decoding the bizarre symbolism of alchemical treatises, and finding how it describes workable chemical processes, thus illuminating the origins of the science of chemistry.

Or, finally, imagine having been able to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer about what it was like to work on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, and study the increasingly collective and large-scale character of science in the 20th century.

These are just a few of the things historians do when they study the past of science, technology and medicine.

Beyond such detective work is also the intellectual and creative work of figuring out how to select, interpret, and synthesise vast amounts of information--from archives, books, journals, newspapers, artefacts, literary works, government documents, institutional records, correspondence, art objects, economic statistics--into a coherent picture. Historians of science draw on the tools of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, and influence those disciplines in turn, while working at the heart of a relatively new effort, often called social studies of science, or science and technology studies. The history and social study of science, technology and medicine is a vibrant, fast-growing area, with degree programmes set up over the past 10-15 years in the UK, the USA, and Europe.

But what good is it? First, there is the fun, the challenge to your intellect and imagination, and the almost limitless broadening of intellectual horizons that history brings. But it is also massively relevant to understanding today's world. It is a true cliche that the modern world is a pre-eminently scientific and technological one. Billions are spent each year on R&D. Biomedicine stamps our most intimate experiences, even as we ask how we can afford to pay for it and whether it adequately addresses our human needs. Automation and information technologies change the nature of everyday work and its wider economic and social relations even as you read these lines.

Yet how many of us know much about how this all came to be? The lesson of history is always that things have been otherwise in different times and places and thus could now be otherwise as well. In this sense, knowing the past does not distract from the present, but opens up its possibilities. Studying history gives you knowledge and critical perspective and analytical tools, whether you intend to continue studying in the sciences or engineering or medicine, or whether you go into education, the media, business, government, museum work or academic history itself. …