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Who Cares about the History of Science?

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While scientists celebrate certain parts of past science, they disregard other parts as misguided and not worth remembering. The history of science presented in science textbooks tends to be a picture of past heroes who anticipated modern knowledge, such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. But there is also a very different role for history, which is to help us appreciate valuable parts of past science that current scientists do not remember and celebrate. By paying attention to the ‘losers’ in the history of science we can actually learn much that is scientifically valuable. Through historical work we can recover forgotten ideas and phenomena, and a further examination of such recovered items can even lead to new scientific knowledge. Looking at history with full respect for the past scientists, we can recognize that the scientific common sense of today was once the subject of controversy and exciting cutting-edge research. Going back to early periods of science with this kind of historical perspective can awaken a sense of fascination in the familiar aspects of nature, and help us instill a love of science in students and the general public. I will substantiate these claims with illustrations from my work on the history of temperature and thermometry (Inventing Temperature, 2004), the basic atomic composition of matter (Is Water H2O ?, 2012), and early electrical instruments and theories (How Does a Battery Work?, forthcoming).

This talk is part of the SciSoc – Cambridge University Scientific Society series.

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