What is History of Science?*
In history of science we look back into the important events and notable scientists in the past that brought up modern science as we know it. Its uniqueness from general history is that we learn how science shape our lives because science is the only field of knowledge which humans and all the living beings actually benefit. Look at our amazing technologies, such as reading this text. We take it for granted that it is easily available. But it was not so a few years ago. Science as a history is thus a very young discipline and what we call science is truly a couple of centuries old. There are no Stone Age or Bronze Age science.
Although we say that science is only a couple of centuries old, it has its ancient roots during the Ancient Greek civilisation, as most other fields of knowledge. So we keep on talking about Aristotle, Hippocrates, Anaximander, Pythagoras, and others. A funny thing about them is that they came up with so many ideas and formulations which are now useless and even wrong. But then they laid down the first foundations of our scientific information. In many senses, proving them wrong or improving their ideas is what modern science does. In fact, science is the most powerful discipline of knowledge because it keeps on growing not only by adding new information and discoveries but also by correcting the many mistakes in the past. This inherent self-correcting property is what makes science the most influential and important in our lives.
Take the concepts of ether and steady state theories in physical science. At the time these were considered as the absolute truth. Ether was regarded the true explanation for the propagation of light for several centuries. Steady state which states that the universe with its components are pretty much unchanged in terms of energy and particles created and destroyed. When a rival theory Big Bang was introduced it was still a dominant concept until the discovery of cosmic microwave background (the kind of signal that gives dotted flickers on TV when there is no other signal) by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias in 1964. Wilson and Penzias received the Nobel Prize in 1978. With that the steady state theory was debunked. This is how science works – it made initial assumptions, if it pass further observations it is a scientific fact (which can still be hypothesis, theory or law), but if it fails it goes down in history as an obsolete (not valid anymore) idea.
I will take germ theory of diseases as one of the most important examples in the history of biology. Until the very end of the 19th century C.E. no scientist, no physician believed that invisible organisms would cause complex diseases such as malaria, dysentery, anthrax, tuberculosis, and so many other viral, fungal and bacterial infections. The ancient Roman physicians have established a medical doctrine that these infectious diseases were due to miasma, a contaminated atmospheric air.
You will be surprised that miasma was the only theory for such diseases for, not century, a millennium. There were no possible treatments, infection was always a certain death. When microscopes and staining techniques were developed in the late 19th century some scientists began to see invisible pathogens in diseased people. Yet, their contemporaries would still question such discoveries. At the very end of the 19th century, malaria pathogen (Plasmodium), bacteria and viruses were discovered. It was slowly a new doctrine that infectious diseases were due to germs, not miasma. So today, the germ theory is still a valid scientific concept and it is practically valuable – we wash hands and wear masks in this COVID-19 pandemic. We learn these habits not from the recent outbreak but from the past, the history of science, which you will not read in general history. The importance of history of science is such - it means not only our welfare but also our survival.
What is the importance of having History of Science as a subject?
You may wonder why we have History of Science as a subject, and you should. You may or may not know that it is not a popular subject (as separate paper) in Indian universities. Perhaps, we the Mizoram University are the unique university when the subject was introduced almost a decade ago. It is becoming very popular in western universities and separate research departments have been established.
The reason we have this subject is that it is an emerging branch of science. Recent historical studies have revealed that there were many stories behind almost every important milestone of science. Many information on scientists and their discoveries are actually very controversial and sometimes wrong. Textbook information are also wrong. One example is a popular example of giraffes' neck as an example of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin never used the giraffe's neck as an example.
Another instance is an apple falling on the head of Isaac Newton. It is a false anecdote. Of course an apple might have landed on Newton's head at some point in his life, but he obviously did not use it for the invention of the gravitation theory.
Talking about Newton, historical reexaminations indicate that he was (being the first greatest modern scientist) one of the most controversial characters. This is for the simple reason that he was a cunning and devious man, morally a very bad person, behind his genius. He attacked all those scientists who would make important contributions in his field. For example, Robert Hooke also claimed that Newton stole many theoretical calculations from him for the development of Newton's laws. The biggest evil act of Newton could be suppressing Wilhelm Leibniz who independently invented calculus. Newton made sure that Leibniz never receive recognition and he was successful. Leibniz died in poverty and unrecognised – for many centuries.
So with these little glimpses, you may get a grip on the meaning and values of history of science.
Until the next class, happy reading.