How history made science | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

How history made science

Jonathan Wood

If you’re anything like us, you’ve been enjoying the BBC’s The Story of Scienceseries with Michael Mosley, which charts the progress of science through the centuries.

Professor Pietro Corsi of Oxford University's Faculty of History was one of three leading historians of science that acted as consultants to the series. So what’s been his view of the final result?

‘I think it’s been a success. As a viewer I enjoyed it enormously, though as a historian I sometimes wished we’d been able to say more!’ says Pietro. It’s clear from the way he talks that he very much enjoyed the process of working with the TV producers and is proud of the outcome.

Covering the whole history of science in a six-part series is of course a dauntingly impossible task.

‘The difficulty was that we had this immense domain and we had to make choices about what to cover. The outcome represents a gallant, honest effort to do that while going beyond the usual stories of scientific advances and individual geniuses: apples falling in Newton’s lap and Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos,’ says Pietro.

He is clear: ‘These stories become myths. They take science away from reality.’

For Pietro, science is a more socio-political affair that can’t be divorced from the complexities of real life. Scientists are not independent from their social, political, religious and cultural surroundings. They are real personalities whose work happens alongside the plots, dynastic powers and troubled waters of the time.

‘The message of the series is that history makes science,’ Pietro states. He illustrates this with one of the stories from the first episode of The Story of Science.

Galileo was in Venice when he heard that a French traveller was on his way to showcase a new Dutch discovery – the telescope – in the city. Since Venice had its renowned glass making industries to hand, Galileo was able to manufacture excellent glass lenses and construct his own telescope. This he successfully offered to the Venetian Republic to aid its military defences, and the Republic granted him a substantial reward. Galileo immediately started to use the telescope for his astronomical work. In March 1610 he announced the momentous discovery of Jupiter’s satellites, of the phases of Venus, and later on of the existence of mountains on the Moon.

‘Galileo immediately exploited the potential of the telescope for commercial benefit,’ explains Pietro. ‘He negotiated through his discovery an important job in Florence. Here he went on to do the work that made him a hero of astronomy, but he had got there by looking after his own career first.’

Pietro feels that it is important for modern scientists to realise that science isn’t independent from the society in which it is conducted: ‘In many areas, it is important to understand how the power of science has been acquired and how it can be lost. People assume science will continue forever. History tells us that science empires have risen and fallen as fast as political emperors, and science’s standing should not be taken for granted.’

He points out that 1500 years ago, Kabul in Afghanistan was one of the major astronomical centres of the Muslim world. Scientific golden ages have also risen and fallen in India and China (and of course are now on the rise again).

‘In contemporary society, science is often seen as independent from the society in which it operates. But science has always needed patrons, even if today those patrons are the state, a company or the military. Society might have a wish to decide more and more about which subjects shall receive that patronage or funding.’

Pietro thinks it is extraordinary that in science – such a major enterprise in today’s world – knowing the history of a field’s development is considered not necessary or is not understood by most. In other words, that in spite of the key role science plays in our individual and collective life, so little attention is paid to acquiring a better understanding of its historical and recent development.

I get the feeling that Pietro thinks that appreciating this extra aspect of how science develops is empowering. He points out that the number of people doing science today would have been unthinkable in the past. The contemporary scale of science has never been seen before.

‘The reality of mass science today is that people can end up being more like technicians,’ he says. If we are to get more people taking up scientific careers, a sense of the history of the subject can give a sense of purpose. ‘That way it’s not reduced to solving small problems here and there,’ Pietro concludes.

Food for thought as we wait for the next instalment of The Story of Science at 9pm tonight.