Science Ideas Have a History: The Case for Interdisciplinary Thinking

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Figure 1.  How was this tool used to "discover" the background radiation made by the Big Bang?  Figure 1. How was this tool used to “discover” the background radiation made by the Big Bang?

In a piece published on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alejandra Dubcovsky, professor of history at Yale University, says  “to understand science, study history.

Indeed, science teachers have used some stories surrounding the history of science to help students understand the context of science, science research, and the relationship between science and society.

Science taught without a context becomes rote learning.  Helping students highlight connections between themselves, science, history and society provides a context for learning.  In the end, it’s a more powerful way to learn [science].

In Professor Dubcovsky’s view, there should be a dialogue between the humanities and STEM majors.  I agree with this position, and would, however, extend this to middle and high school students curriculum studies.

Dubcovsky gives us a powerful rationale for working toward interconnections between history and science.  She says:

Second, beyond the often-missed practical gains, I was developing a historical sensitivity. I realized, quite simply, that things had a past. The things we think of as inherent are, in fact, social and historical constructions, often with complicated and unpleasant roots. That sensitivity to the past and to the structures that shape our present is essential to all students and professionals.

She goes on to say that she wants future biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and physicists to be aware that their disciplines have a history.  And I would add, this connection is as important at the middle and high school level because it underscores the value of interdisciplinary teaching, sorely needed in times when “disciplinary” thinking rules the day, e.g. content or discipline based core standards in language arts, math, and science.

Ideas Have a History

Don’t you like that notion.  Ideas have a history, and more than that, ideas are not pulled from a vacuum, but are connected.  One book I would point us to is Stephen Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (public library).  And in the context of this post, good ideas (bad ones, too) have a history, and that connection makes for interdisciplinary thinking.


Figure 2. Cover of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Since every idea has a history, there is a plethora of “case studies” with literature, films, plays, music that can be brought to bear on the idea, thus humanizing the study of science.  In my writing, I’ve used the history and people behind great ideas to help students understand the values, beliefs, prejudices, and all the rest that can be brought to bear to understand the history of ideas–indeed our own history.

Here are some questions I’ve used to probe the connection between history, cultural beliefs, and science.

  • Why didn’t Rosalind Franklin receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA?
  • Albert Einstein, the pure scientist and thinker, sent the “Uranium” letter to President Roosevelt in 1939.  What was this letter about, and why did Einstein sign the letter?
  • Who was Benjamin Banneker, and what observations did he use to publish his almanac during Colonial America?
  • How did Charles Darwin’s religious views affect his work as a naturalist and the co-discoverer of the basis for evolution of life?
  • In what ways did Rachel Carson’s research and later publication of Silent Spring (library copy) show courage?  What forces were brought to bear to try to dispose of Carson’s ideas?
  • Francis Kelsey is known to me and others as the doctor who said no.  Her work as a government pharmacologist prevented the marketing of the drug, Kevadon (known as thalidomide).  What were the implications of her saying no, and what political and corporate forces did she push back?
  • Why did Galileo come under house arrest for supporting Copernicus’ sun-centered universe?  Who would bring Galileo to trial for writing a book entitled Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (library copy).

When I arrived at undergraduate school many years ago, I was accepted into the history department.  However,  before classes began, I decided to take a math and science examination.  I passed the test, and decided then to become a science/math major.  However, the study of history has always been a part of my interest.  In fact, one of the most important courses I took in high school was a course in modern political science.  It was taught as a research-based course full of dialog and collaboration.  Each of us had to write a series of research papers which were read not only by our teacher, but by a Boston College history professor.  You can imagine how thrilled we were when we got positive feedback on our writing from a college professor.

On this blog, I’ve written a number of posts on subjects that relate to how ideas have a history, and why it is important to help students explore ideas in this way.  Here are some ideas related to the intersection of the invention of air and Early American history.

The Invention of Air and Early American History

Seems like a strange connection between how air was analyzed , and early American history.  In earlier posts I’ve written about a humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only among fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.

Several years ago I purchased one of Steven Johnson’s books The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.

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Figure 3. Cover of The Invention of Air by Johnson

After reading Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, I realized that perhaps he (Johnson) was writing a story about someone who attempted to cross disciplines in the spirit of the humanistic paradigm.  The book describes  events that involve science, faith, revolution in 18th Century England, and into the early part 19th Century America.  At the center of these events, was Joseph Priestley, a minister and a scientist (natural philosophy).

Priestley had published more than 500 books and pamphlets, had won prestigious prizes in science (he isolated oxygen, and was the first to discover that plants expire oxygen), wrote important books in science, religion and politics.  Yet, in 1794, he was “the most hated man in all of Britain” according to Johnson.  He escaped to America that year, and settled in rural Pennsylvania, where he became the most celebrated scientist in the country, and became a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson.   While in England he joined with Benjamin Franklin and other intellectuals at The London Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and laid the plans to write one of the most important books in science: The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (1769).  The book was the result of collaboration with other experimenters of the day, among them Benjamin Franklin.  You can read the original book at the previous link, and I think you will find it interesting to the visit the site, and look the book over.

Priestley was also an educator (he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum of the University of Virginia), and published an important book on English grammar.  As a minister, he led a dissenting congregation in England, which led to the formation of the Unitarian church in England.  He wrote two major books on the history of Christianity, and indeed influenced Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion (see The Jefferson Bible).

During the period of Priestley life, paradigm shifts were happening in several fields, each of which involved Joseph Priestley.  For example, in science, Johnson suggests that Priestley helped bring about the organizing principle of the ecosystem through his experiments with plants, animals and air.  Today the ecosystem paradigm has been subsumed by Earth System Science, and provides a framework for work done today in various fields of science.  The American and French revolutions were underway during his lifetime, and Johnson depicts Priestley as important to America’s “founding fathers” especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.   He written years before he came to America An Essay on the (). the realm of religion he led a movement in England that led to the formation of the Unitarian church there, and influenced the thinking of the “founding fathers” in this realm as well.

Priestley was a progressive of the Enlightenment Period, and like many progressives suffered the wrath of those who didn’t agree with his philosophies.  In 1791, his church and house was burned to the ground destroying all of his property, and laboratories.  He later fled to America with his family.

There is such a richness in the human side of science and I hope that this post encourages you to consider the application and value of thinking across disciplines, and helping students see how they can relate to ideas that others struggled to develop.

What are some examples of “ideas have history” that you use with your students? 

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University