Know the history of your field, be it science or pottery

By Grant Jacobs 11/08/2010

Knowing the history of your thing – whatever it is – helps you understand why things are the way they are, by showing you how things once were and what made them change.

Frequent readers will know I am a fan of science history – at least the fun bits!

Archimedes (c.287—212 BC), by Domenico Fetti (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Archimedes (c.287—212 BC), by Domenico Fetti (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Not too long ago I wrote that I wanted to explain one reason why I thought more people learn the history of science.

In the first of a series of posts* bringing you a video series showing a (very) brief history of science I wrote:

I’d also like to offer some thoughts on why scientists and science writers should bother learn the history of science, but they’re for another day.

Alison suggested (in the comments):

Top of the list of why learning the history of science is a Good Thing: it gives you an (enhanced) understanding of how science actually works 🙂

I replied:

Absolutely, that’s one reason. I’m thinking of another for my later post 😉

Alison is right that this is a key reason to learn the history of science.

This is that later post, so let me share with you my other reason.

I came to thinking that learning the history of your niche is important as a student through noting that one thing some older scientists brought to their discussions of current topics was an understanding of the order of events, an history of the subject at hand.

They tended not to so much say ’here’s how it is’ as to say ’well… X did this, then later Y realised this didn’t explain Z, and after some work we now believe it’s like this’. Essentially, they conveyed how the present situation came to be.

The School of Athens by Raphael (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

You’ll have heard of the scientific method, but why did it arise? Not just by who but how things were previously reasoned, and what necessitated the change.

A better-known example might be the modern synthesis of the theory of evolution. It’s not especially hard to see why we have this, but it’s best appreciated if you understand what the earlier theory of evolution stood for and was built upon.

You can apply this to any area of science. It applies to small things, too. I’ve written previously about bioinformatics using an element of this thinking. It applies even to very niche areas. An example in my case is hydration of (association of water molecules with) protein or DNA molecules and protein-DNA complexes.**

It doesn’t have to be ancient science, like in the illustrations in this article. It applies just as much to developments over our own lifetime, too.


A lot of my research interests are with gene regulation, how genes are controlled, used when needed, active in some organs but not others.

Quite a lot has been added to this story since the late 1980s.

Knowing that history gives me a much richer appreciation of the status quo. I imagine it’d be harder for a newcomer looking only at the present understanding to appreciate of some of the findings: their significance is most easily seen through having lived through*** the back-and-forth of the developments that lead to the current understanding.

That’s a general thing I think is often lacking in an explanation or discussion. An expression, or appreciation, of how the current understanding came to be.

I remember thinking that it was a key element missing from my undergraduate training. I guess I wished that (some of) it had been taught as a narrative, so you might see how it had played out and developed.

This same issue occurs in any area of specialisation that has developed over time.

As another example, I have sometimes remarked on new ways of presenting elements of documents on-line. My approach to this was to, in an amateur way, look back at the history document design, hoping that understanding the previous progression might suggest how to carry it forwards. (It’s one reason I’m against the expanded in-line paragraph idea. While it’s clever coding, and it has it’s place, I don’t think it belongs in body text. Then again, I’ m perhaps biased, having coded my own alternative solution to this issue!)

Great Moon Hoax lithograph of "ruby amphitheater" for New York Sun, August 28, 1835 (4th article of 6) (Source: Wikimedia Commons. HT: Bioemphemera.)
Great Moon Hoax lithograph of "ruby amphitheater" for New York Sun, August 28, 1835 (4th article of 6) (Source: Wikimedia Commons. HT: Bioemphemera.)

Likewise looking at the history of science communication sheds interesting light on the current-day issues. I love Biomphemera’s (Jessica Palmer’s) take on it: Bloggers are just 19th-century newspaper editors with laptops, LOLcats, and the occasional man-bat. (There is, of course, a more serious literature of the history of science communication.)

A mug made on a potter wheel in the Late Neolithic Period (ca. 2500—2000 BCE) in Zhengzhou, China. These guys could do better than me thousands of years ago. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
A mug made on a potter wheel in the Late Neolithic Period (ca. 2500—2000 BCE) in Zhengzhou, China. These guys could do better than me thousands of years ago! (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

There’s no need to limit this to science, science communication or document design.

I don’t know much about pottery. In fact I know almost nothing about pottery. I have a vague memory of making something resembling a mug in the early years of my high school. It had a handle, but that fell off after a while. (I still used it without the handle, as I was attached to it, even if the handle wasn’t.) Nevertheless, I know pottery has a long history that I am sure informs potters of current practice, why what is done is done as it is.

Understanding why things are as they are today is best understood through understanding the way they were and why things moved on.

Read the history of ‘your thing’. You won’t regret it.


* Parts one, two and three are available as I write. More is to come.

** I can’t imagine this interests many of my non-specialist readers, but if it does let me know and I might conjure up an article about it.

*** For some areas, reading the literature in order as it appears will convey some of this. It’s harder to appreciate the viewpoints of the time in hindsight, however.

Other articles on Code for life:

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

150 years since the publication of On the origin of species today

Explore ancient science books on-line

Monday potpourri: maps, malaria in the USA, cholera in Dunedin and vaccines

The roots of bioinformatics

0 Responses to “Know the history of your field, be it science or pottery”

  • That said, knowing the history of science is useful no matter what field you’re in. The number of times I’ve found science knowledge improving my studies in literature now, I’ve lost count. Just knowing off the top of my head that germ theory was still controversial early in Chekov’s career, for example, is handy. Likewise, knowing the environment Mansfield was dealing with when she fell into the hands of quacks in her last months of TB-induced death proved usual to one of my recent essays. I could probably write whole posts about how useful it is to be scientifically literate when studying the arts.

    It’s amazing how pseudoscientific attitudes can flourish in literary criticism though. Appeals to Freud and Jung are everywhere, and I really don’t feel at all comfortable with them. The way the term ‘human nature’ is tossed around as if it always had explanitory power in every situation – that’s a real pet peeve. The arts need more science.

  • Interesting perspective. History gives you context, as you say.

    I never thought to look at the Arts as a source of pseudo-science, but it’s interesting to consider. Maybe some of the more modern takes that include, or are built around, a more recently understanding of psychology will help address this in time?

  • You’re familiar with the Sokal affair, right? I recommend Bricmont and Sokal’s ‘Intellectual Impostures’, it is excellent, and it only hints at the reality for a skeptic navigating through the published literature in lit crit. They include only the very worst examples of science misappropriated.

    A large minority of NZ lecturers and students are very serious about Freudian psychoanalysis and the deconstructionist philosophers (Lacan, etc). Writing about Katherine Mansfield last year I found published work by well-known critic Julia Kristeva. She argued from some incoherent distortion of quantum physics that time passed more “gently” among groups of women than groups of men. It is embarrassing enough that this got published, I went on to find it cited in an NZ thesis I read later.

    I suspect it will be decades before that minority of lit crit academics learn not to write their arguments using “a Jungian framework” when discussing authors not immediately affected by the era when Jung and co. were considered science. Real psychology is a lot harder to navigate than folk psychology, so folk psychology has become a staple. Ultimately, too many academics in lit crit place less value on working theories of knowledge than they do on extreme relativism and the alleged superiority of intuition.

    Really, I think there needs to be more stress on the basic history/theory of science at a high school level, for everyone. I’m glad Alison’s blog is contributing there.